In preparation for tonight's HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, presented by Bank of America, we take you back to 1969 with the original trailer for Easy Rider, and the original New York Times review by Vincent Canby. Notice how the review came out the day after the film was released. Was this what is was like in the days before critics received screeners? Read Canby's opinion, skip the fireworks tonight, and come watch Easy Rider on the lawn. Film starts after sunset.
Easy Rider: A Statement on Film
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: July 15, 1969
"EASY RIDER," which opened yesterday at the Beekman, is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it. How else are we to approach a movie that advertises itself: "A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere"? Right away you know that something superior is up, that somebody is making a statement, and you can bet your boots (cowboy, black leather) that it's going to put down the whole rotten scene. What scene? Whose? Why? Man, I can't tell you if you don't know. What I mean to say is, if you don't groove, you don't groove. You might as well split.
I felt this way during the first half-hour of "Easy Rider," and then, almost reluctantly, fell into the rhythm of the determinedly inarticu-late piece. Two not-so-young cyclists, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) who affects soft leather breeches and a Capt. America jacket, and Billy (Dennis Hopper), who looks like a perpetually stoned Buffalo Bill, are heading east from California toward New Orleans.
They don't communicate with us, or each other, but after a while, it doesn't seem to matter. They simply exist—they are bizarre comic strip characters with occasional balloons over their heads reading: "Like you're doing your thing," or some such. We accept them in their moving isolation, against the magnificent Southwestern landscapes of beige and green and pale blue.
They roll down macadam highways that look like black velvet ribbons, under skies of incredible purity, and the soundtrack rocks with oddly counterpointed emotions of Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Electric Prunes — dark and smoky cries for liberation. Periodically, like a group taking a break, the cyclists stop (and so does the music) for quiet encounters—with a toothless rancher and his huge, happy family or with a commune of thin hippies, whose idyll seems ringed with unacknowledged desperation.
Suddenly, however, a strange thing happens. There comes on the scene a very real character and everything that has been accepted earlier as a sort of lyrical sense impression suddenly looks flat and foolish.
Wyatt and Billy are in a small Southern town—in jail for having disturbed the peace of a local parade—when they meet fellow-in-mate George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a handsome, alcoholic young lawyer of good family and genially bad habits, a man whose only defense against life is a cheerful but not abject acceptance of it. As played by Nicholson, George Hanson is a marvelously realized character, who talks in a high, squeaky Southern accent and uses a phrase like "Lord have mercy!" the way another man might use a four-letter word.
Hanson gets the cyclists sprung from jail and then promptly joins them. He looks decidedly foolish, sitting on the back of Wyatt's bike, wearing a seersucker jacket and his old football helmet, but he is completely happy and, ironically, the only person in the movie who seems to have a sense of what liberation and freedom are. There is joy and humor and sweetness when he smokes grass for the first time and expounds an elaborate theory as to how the Venutians have already conquered the world.
Nicholson is so good, in fact, that "Easy Rider" never quite recovers from his loss, even though he has had the rather thankless job of spelling out what I take to be the film's statement (upper case). This has to do with the threat that people like the nonconforming Wyatt and Billy represent to the ordinary, self-righteous, inhibited folk that are the Real America. Wyatt and Billy, says the lawyer, represent freedom; ergo, says the film, they must be destroyed.
If there is any irony in this supposition, I was unable to detect it in the screenplay written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern. Wyatt and Billy don't seem particularly free, not if the only way they can face the world is through a grass curtain. As written and played, they are lumps of gentle clay, vacuous, romantic symbols, dressed in cycle drag.
"Easy Rider," the first film to be directed by Dennis Hopper, won a special prize at this year's Cannes festival as the best picture by a new director (there was only one other picture competing in that category).
With the exception of Nicholson, its good things are familiar things — the rock score, the lovely, sometimes impressionistic photography by Laszlo Kovacs, the faces of small-town America. These things not only are continually compelling but occasionally they dazzle the senses, if not the mind. Hopper, Fonda and their friends went out into America looking for a movie and found instead a small, pious statement (upper case) about our society (upper case), which is sick (upper case). It's pretty but lower case cinema.
EASY RIDER, written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hooper and Terry Southern; directed by Mr. Hopper; produced by Mr. Fonda; presented by the Pando Company in association with Raybert Productions; released by Columbia Pictures. At the Beckman Theater, 65th Street at Second Avenue. Running time: 94 minutes. (The Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code and Rating Administration classifies this film: "R—Restricted—persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian")
Wyatt . . . . . Peter Fonda
Billy . . . . . Dennis Hopper
George Hanson . . . . . Jack Nicholson
Rancher . . . . . Warren Finnerty
Stranger on Highway . . . . . Luke Askew
Lisa . . . . . Luana Anders
Karen . . . . . Karen Black