Wow, man — ‘Easy Rider’ is turning 40 this summer

[5 February 2009]

By Lewis Beale

Newsday (MCT)

Cultural trendsetter, or dated, hippie-dippy artifact?

“Easy Rider” will be 40 years old this summer, and viewers can determine for themselves whether this Dennis Hopper-directed flick is still shocking and raw, or a reminder of how crazy, sick and self-absorbed the ‘60s could be.

A road movie about two hippie drug dealers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), who decide to ride across America on their Harleys, the film was produced on the cheap and grossed an astonishing $19 million (more than $90 million in contemporary currency). It provided Jack Nicholson with a role that turned him into a star, and it pointed the way to the new, more independent filmmaking of the 1970s.

Seen today, “Easy Rider” seems filled with the excesses of youth and is a perfect reflection of the sex, drugs and rock and roll spirit of the age. Whether it’s actually any good, however, probably depends on your political convictions and the number of joints you smoked back in the day.

Here are 10 things you need to know about “Easy Rider”:

1. The scene in which Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson smoke dope? That was real marijuana they were inhaling.

2. The movie’s original title was “The Loners.”

3. The cocaine dealer in the beginning of the movie is played by record mogul Phil Spector.

4. Hopper originally proposed a 220-minute cut of the movie. Another editor was brought in who reduced it to a more watchable 95.

5. Four police cycles - 1949, 1950 and 1952 Harleys - were used.

6. The hippie commune was re-created in Santa Monica, Calif., because the New Mexico commune it was patterned on did not permit filming.

7. Nicholson’s role was originally slated for Rip Torn. But Torn, a Texan, withdrew after he and Hopper almost came to blows over the director’s comments about Southern rednecks.

8. Toni Basil, who would go on to greater fame as a choreographer and singer (“Mickey”), had a small role as a prostitute.

9. The movie was nominated for two Oscars, including best screenplay and best supporting actor for Nicholson.

10. In 1998, the movie was added to the National Film Registry, an honor given to films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

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