This post is part of the Here’s Jack!: The Jack Nicholson 80th Birthday Blogathon, hosted by Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!
“This is the longest music video ever,” commented my niece as we watched Easy Rider for this blogathon.
Well, yes. It’s impossible to escape the dated feeling of the film Easy Rider, with classic rock music commenting on the sound track as the two protagonists Billy (Peter Fonda) and Wyatt (Denise Hopper) ride their motorcycles through breathtaking American vistas. Hippies, people who hate hippies, drugs, communes, talk about being free of the “establishment,” of getting back to the land, of free love, etc., etc., etc.
The music remains to this day glorious. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Easy Rider as a relic belonging to a short moment in time.
Easy Rider was one of the Hollywood films to kick-start the American New Wave of the 1970s. With a minimal plot, “heroes” who weren’t at all heroic, and characters generally seen as heroic made the antagonists (i.e. law enforcement), it seemed very new and different. Taking the motorcycle gang genre and standing it on its head while also referencing Westerns (the names of the main characters, Billy and Wyatt, are obvious references to Western outlaws and lawmen), it caused such a sensation, especially with young viewers, it forced Hollywood to scramble to make more films like it.
The story kicks off with Billy and Wyatt crossing the border to Mexico and making a drug deal that nets them enough money to retire to Florida, if they choose. Instead, they decide to head to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, with many detours and distractions along the way.
Nearly everywhere they go they face prejudice because of their long hair and the way they dress. Turned away from motels and restaurants, they often find themselves camping outside.
While motoring through one town, they are caught up in a parade and arrested for parading without a permit. It’s a nonsense charge made up just to harass them. In jail they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) a lawyer on a toot who is put in a cell to sleep it off.
Billy and Wyatt take a liking to George and invite him to come with them to New Orleans. He agrees, using his school football helmet as a substitute for a motorcycle helmet. George warns Billy and Wyatt that the police and others hate them because they are really and truly free.
By their campfire, Billy and Wyatt urge George to try smoking grass. As he becomes more and more stoned, George gives a speech about how the government is hiding the fact that space aliens are living among us.
After catching the attention of a group of teenage girls and some cops at a road side restaurant, the three men are attacked while they sleep. George is killed.
Feeling George would want them to continue on to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, they visit a whore house he told them about. With two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) they wander the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, ending up in a cemetery, where they take drugs and have surrealistic visions.
The film ends tragically as Billy and Wyatt are victims of drive-by shooters who hate hippies.
This is a Jack Nicholson blogathon, and his appearance in the film lasts maybe all of 20 minutes. So why did I choose it?
Because in his handful of scenes you can witness the birth of a bona fide movie star.
Nicholson had been around in the business a while before Easy Rider. He appeared on TV and in films for Roger Corman, and if you’ve ever seen any of those efforts, you know he was kind of mediocre. Even the famous dentist office scene from Little Shop of Horrors does not show much to indicate that Nicholson would eventually become a multiple Oscar nominee and winner.
Sure, you’ve seen the “straight person tries marijuana for the first time and gives a hilarious monologue” scene only a million times, but rarely as funny or well-acted as this one. Fonda and Hopper are so laid back that Nicholson’s appearance is a shot in the arm for the movie. He’s the most vibrantly sketched character in the film, and Nicholson took total advantage of that. Billy and Wyatt, who seem to be living out their ideals, are actually sell-outs from the first moment of the film. It’s George who has more understanding of their place in society and why many see them as a threat to it.
(Though the film may seem dated, it’s also remarkably prescient. I thought to myself during this viewing that Billy and Wyatt selling out predicts how most hippies became yuppies by the 1980s.)
Hopper, who also directed the film, went on to make a few more but he was erratic and difficult and the results never matched the success of Easy Rider. He made an acting comeback during the 80s playing character roles and villains. Fonda has had a busy acting career but never became an A-list star.
It was Nicholson who shot to fame, first headlining some of the most memorable films of the American New Wave (Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and eventually evolving into an American icon. Watching Easy Rider today, it’s not hard to see why.