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Easy Rider Movie Review

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In his 1995 autobiography Endless Highway, David Carradine writes that Easy Rider was financed by Peter Fonda's Diner's Club card. Eventually, of course, it was picked up by Columbia, made everyone a fortune and gave Jack Nicholson the first of his many Oscar nominations. The turning point was the Cannes Film Festival, where this $375,000 road movie, partly shot in 16mm, won the First Film prize for director Dennis Hopper. (Although, as Vincent Canby sniffed in opposite full-page ads in the New York Times, “there was only one other picture competing in that category.” Let HIM try making an indie someday!) Then other honors began flooding in: Hopper received a special award from the National Society of Film Critics, which also named Jack Nicholson best supporting actor. The New York Film Critics Circle gave supporting actor recognition to Nicholson. Columbia poured money into Easy Rider's advertising campaign and the film became a blockbuster, winding up among the studio's top four moneymakers of the decade. But if Columbia executives had monkeyed around with Easy Rider from its inception, it would have emerged as a very different film. As a first-time viewer, I found the Oscar-nominated screenplay to be extremely uneven, but every guy I ever saw it with thought it was perfect. The mood of the film is bleak and depressing. (There are few things youthful international audiences appreciate more than a sharply critical view of the Land of Opportunity.) Lost in their drug haze, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) are a deeply boring team, but most of the guys I knew in 1969 worshipped the both of them. The movie didn't kick into gear for me until Nicholson, as George Hanson, arrives on the scene. He is such a free spirit, far freer than either Wyatt or Billy, and his sheer pleasure at the prospect of a free life is a joy to see. I wouldn't follow Wyatt or Billy anywhere, but George is such a bright, sweet clueless soul that you can't help falling in love with him. You WANT his life to have a happy ending and when he isn't around, the bleakness and depression engulf the screen once more. Easy Rider also paints an unbelievably ugly portrait of the South. Even New Orleans, as seen by the perpetually stoned Wyatt and Billy, looks creepy and sinister. Many of the younger audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area thought that Easy Rider's depiction of the South was as accurate as a documentary (it isn't) and were afraid to travel there, just because of this movie (THEIR loss)! The rock soundtrack is a great time capsule of its era.

1969 (R) 94m/C Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Toni Basil, Robert Walker Jr., Luana Anders, Luke Askew, Toni Basil, Warren Finnerty, Mac Mashorian, Antonio Mendoza, Sabrina Scharf, Phil Spector; D: Dennis Hopper; W: Terry Southern, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper; C: Laszlo Kovacs. Cannes Film Festival ‘69: Best First Feature (Hopper); New York Film Critics Awards ‘69: Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson); National Society of Film Critics Awards ‘69: Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson); Nominations: Academy Awards ‘69: Best Story & Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson); Cannes Film Festival ‘69: Best Film. VHS, LV, 8mm

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