What’s So Great About Dennis Hopper’s ‘Easy Rider’?

Steven Bingen's Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America makes clear that he thinks Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider is a great film and it's not for the critics to decide.

Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America
Steven Bingen
Globe Pequot / Lyons Press
November 2019

What are we to make of Dennis Hopper’s landmark 1960 Boomer film, Easy Rider?

Certainly its importance cannot be underestimated. From the opening scene of Wyatt, AKA Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) riding into the Wild West on their Harley Davidson motorcycles, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” blazing on the soundtrack as the opening credits roll, the viewer is soaked in sensory overload.

Whether we were alive in this era or simply inherited this film through pop culture osmosis, the key scenes stay with us. Straight-laced George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) joining Wyatt and Billy in the diner as they soak in a sense of impending dread, the freak-out segment in a New Orleans cemetery, and the ending, where our heroes are literally blown away.

Steven Bingen and Alan Dunn’s Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America is a sincere attempt to effectively assess the cultural legacy of this film after half a century. But the end result, at only 148 pages (excluding notes) depends too much on transcriptions and recollections of others than anything new. Bingen draws heavily from various Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper biographies, Fonda’s memoir, and a biography of Easy Rider co-writer Terry Southern.

The problem might begin with Bingen’s introduction. He adopts a familiar, conversational tone with the reader, urging us to watch the film for ourselves, but his rationale for taking on this project doesn’t convince the reader that the film might be worth their time as an entire experience (not just something enjoyed in clips.) He writes:

“You can love it. You can hate it. You can even mock it, at your peril. But, like only a few other things in history, Easy Rider doesn’t belong to poets, or critics, or journalists who tell us what to like.”

To whom does Easy Rider belong? What we end up reading in the body of this book follows the stance of that quote, and therein lies its problem. In telling us the film doesn’t belong to poets, critics, or journalists he sets himself up to approach the film as a cherished artifact, a product for the average guy. The result is a text that seems to go in circles and never give us anything we didn’t know from far superior examinations. (See Peter Biskind’s look at Hollywood in transition after the demise of the studio system Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Simon & Schuster, 1998)

When Bingen writes in the introduction “…you either get it or you don’t, and never will,” he doesn’t give us much incentive to read through the remainder of the book.

The early chapters of this book are promising, and that’s what makes the majority of it so frustrating. Bingen writes about the antecedents of Easy Rider; films like 1953’s The Wild One (starring Marlon Brando) and 1966’s The Wild Angels (starring Peter Fonda and Bruce Der..) He notes that the term itself, “Easy Rider”, could refer both to a tamed horse and a woman of “…lose sexual mores.” (The misspelling of “loose” as “lose” is one of the typos that passed the editor’s eyes in this reader’s final copy.) In addition, when discussing player Phil Spector, (who plays a character named “Connection”), Bingen mistakenly lists Lana Clarkson, the woman Spector was convicted of killing, as his wife rather than her role as his girlfriend.

The collection of actors about to burst onto the scene at the time of Easy Riders‘ release is impressive. Hopper, who had been in the business for15 years (first on TV and a year later his feature debut Rebel Without a Cause) was set to make a turn from mainstream to counterculture in both his on-screen presence (long-haired, walrus-moustached) and directorial debut (elements of Jean-Luc Godard’s non-narrative, nonlinear cinema). Jack Nicholson had been playing bit roles in features and TV shows since 1956 and everything he did to make his character so memorable on Easy Rider set the foundation for the remainder of his career.

There are some interesting insights at the start of Chapter Two. Bingen concludes that Captain America and Billy are performers in a stunt show who just happen to be transferring cocaine on this road trip. “This puts the concept embraced by so many over the years in jeopardy from the very first shot…they are actually two circus performers who play bikers and outlaws.” Credit is also offered to the fact that the title credit song, “Born to Be Wild” included the first mention of “heavy metal”.

There are some interesting anecdotes about the early hippie commune scene and a traveling mime group called The Diggers, but it all gets undercut by Bingen’s style. Any transition that begins with “Anyway” just makes the reader feel like the narrative isn’t going anywhere. It’s biding its time. Other cultural debuts also deserve credit. Bingen quotes Hopper:

“‘This is the first time that marijuana had ever been smoked in a film that people who smoked it didn’t go out and kill a bunch of people or nurses or whatever.'”

What soon becomes apparent with this book is that the parts are greater than the sum. Bingen notes in Chapter Two that Easy Rider was an American Western, and Peter Fonda was drawing on the righteous American male archetype of his father Henry’s acting career. Hopper starred alongside John Wayne in True Grit, another cinematic touchstone of 1969 featuring an anachronistic cowboy character (Wayne) adapting to the changing attitude of his time. Bingen also effectively discusses the difficulties of Hopper’s experimental directing choices in the New Orleans cemetery drug freak-out scene, especially the acting choices of his co-star:

“It is Captain America, or perhaps Fonda himself, who is most exposed in this confounding sequence. Hopper somehow persuaded his costar to climb onto a statue of a woman in the cemetery and talk to it as if it were his mother. A sensitive topic, because Fonda’s mother had committed suicide when Peter was ten.”

Watching that part of the film in 1969 must have been upsetting to the “straights” of society and an eerily close approximation for others about how the certain mixture of some hallucinogens could provide scenes of bliss and torture at a moment’s notice. As for the ending of the film (before our heroes are blown up) it’s interesting to read that the original intention was for the two men to discuss the film’s themes (the open road, freedom, adventure, mind expansion through hallucinogens) but Fonda refused. He opted for three words, “We blew it,” that seemed to sum up the despondency of a generation that had seen so many dreams and lives vanish by the end of the ’60. Bingem cites a 1970 Playboy interview with Fonda:

“We’ve blown our freedom in the books we don’t read and in the universities that don’t teach. We’ve blown it around the world-and not just Americans. Everybody’s blown it.”

This is followed by a collection of other instances, through 2009, in which Fonda pontificated on how and why we all “blew it”. Certainly Fonda comes off as a bit of a blowhard in those moments, but the reader gets the impression he’s earned the right to reflect.

It’s not hard to believe that an original version of Easy Rider was four hours and thirteen minutes long. Fonda believed that the found footage was intentionally destroyed. The film won “Best Film by a New Director” at the Cannes Film Festival and — though financed and distributed by Columbia Pictures — immediately became the standard for “Independent Cinema”, a term that had never before been used in such a widespread way. We read a series of blurbs of initial reviews at the time (positive and negative) and an interesting spat between Fonda and Hopper. The former called the latter “…an idiot…stoned out of his mind all the time. Any man who insists on wearing his cowboy hat to the Academy Award ceremonies and keeps it on at the dinner table afterward ought to be spanked.”

The directing and acting choices Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson made in the wake of Easy Rider were, to say the least, interesting. Of Hopper’s The Last Movie, Bingen writes: “It single-handedly closed all the doors which Easy Rider had blown open.” Fonda spent nearly 30years after Easy Rider as a working actor in TV, exploitation films, and other genre features, only to have an alarmingly good artistic resurgence in 1997’s Ulee’s Gold.

Alcohol and other issues didn’t completely interfere with Hopper’s on-screen productivity, but he didn’t really find his artistic match until the mid-’80s, with strikingly memorable turns in such features as Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. Jack Nicholson’s career and persona exploded in the ’70s and only grew bigger up until his final (to date) 2010 film, How Do You Know. Of the three name stars in Easy Rider, only Nicholson remains alive to tell the tale, and he’s not saying a word.

Bingen does an exhaustive, diligent job citing how Easy Rider changed the culture with a seemingly countless series of films about people searching for America. He cites Albert Brooks’ 1985 classic comedy Lost In America as an example of how the Easy Rider story was idealized. Nobody wanted to remember how Captain America and Billy ended up. They just wanted to embrace the open road, as seen even in Brooks’ character in Lost in America; a hapless yuppie who trades in everything for a Winnebago in which to conduct his journey towards actualization.

The problem with this book is that Bingen’s energy seems to run out in the final third, proving that the six chapters (especially Chapter Two) would have been better processed as magazine articles. The final third is interesting, especially the story of actress Ileana Douglas’s experience with Easy Rider (the effect the film had on her parents), but even there Bingen seems to be existing on the good graces of his sources. In other words, Douglas’s memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper, is a better examination of the consequences of believing the Easy Rider myth. Biskin’s book is better, and Fonda’s memoir is stronger.

Easy Rider certainly does not hold up well. Fonda is wooden and Hopper is spaced-out. The only thrill is found in watching Nicholson at the birth of his superstardom.

Bingen’s heart seems to be in the right place, and the reader can’t help but feel his love for the topic, but there’s a triteness to his narrative. It’s filled with clichés. Take this: “…they were looking to find their own thing. In their own time. Let’s hope they find it. Let’s hope we all find it.” Bingen runs out of gas long before he finds anything truly revelatory, and Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America reads as a collated collection of idealized recollections rather than a substantial and important addition to cinema history of the late 1960s.

RATING 4 / 10