DENNIS HOPPER: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE
The sound of the scratchy opening power chords to Steppenwolf's rock classic Born to be Wild immediately brings to mind the image of a cool, moustached Dennis Hopper on his growling motorcycle, zooming down an endless American highway; sunglasses covering his eyes, his mouth in a wry smile, his long hair blowing in the wind. It's almost the single, most defining image of the 1960s, and it came right near its turbulent end. Easy Rider, as both a film and a classic symbol of its time, has become so engraved into the world's cultural radar that it's almost easy for some people to forget the content of the film itself. Indeed, it's now almost a cliché of the sixties, spoofed and recreated countless times on film and TV. It's a primitively simple image - two men heading out on motorcycles to a rock soundtrack - but it's also one of the most liberating and memorable ever put to film. Legendary and utterly iconic, Easy Rider will forever be a film classic and an important historical document, reflecting both a view point and a time now long gone.
The story of Easy Rider's making is almost as legendary as the film itself, although it's also a lot more muddled and troubled. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had starred in The Trip together, and in that same era Fonda had become something of a cult icon thanks to his hit biker movie, The Wild Angels. Biker movies were dime a dozen back in the late sixties, but Fonda claims he wanted to make one with a difference; a modern western, with bikes instead of horses. Hopper and Fonda began work on what was initially called The Loners, but when already acclaimed screenwriter Terry Southern came in to collaborate, the catchy title Easy Rider reared its head.
By this time, Hopper had already penned his dream project The Last Movie, but as he had no real bankability yet, and given that fact it was such an avant-garde idea in the first place, he couldn't get the money together. With biker movies being so popular, he focused himself on the idea of making of Easy Rider instead. There are so many varying accounts of the film's birth though, that it can often become rather baffling when trying to figure out where and how it all got off the ground. Fonda got the funding from Columbia Pictures, and gave Hopper the job of directing. Hopper scared everyone involved in its making with his wild behaviour and somehow, lord knows how, it got finished and released. The complex business wrangling that went on after the film was a hit however often gets in the way of the whole message behind the picture, souring the hippie dream somewhat. One cannot ignore the irony.
"I went out and shot the movie in five and a half weeks," Hopper claimed. "Laszlo Kovacs said it was the best-organized picture he’d ever shot. When we spoke at AFI a few years before he died, he said 'People talk about how crazy the shoot was, but there was nothing crazy about that shoot.' The thing was, after shooting the film I came back to eighty hours of footage that I hadn’t seen, because in those days there was no way for me to see my dailies out on the road. I had an editing job that was just horrendous, took me over a year. And driving on the way to the studio to cut the picture, I’d hear all this great music on the radio: Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds. I heard all these songs and cut the picture to picture, and not to sound. Then when I put in a song like Born to be Wild it just fit perfectly. But when you see the movie, the story is told through the music, not the dialogue. It was just one of those things that worked."
Hopper's last sentence regarding the contemporary soundtrack sums up the simplistic impact of Easy Rider rather nicely. Yes, it's a film with a loose plot - two hippie dreamers sell a load of drugs then go looking for the American dream - but the real aim as I see it is to speak for the counterculture a whole. Easy Rider somehow condenses the alternative state of mind into an hour and a half movie, embracing the hippies and the freaks, uniting them together against the evils of the machine. There are long passages where we merely admire the motorcycles, revel in Hopper and Fonda's camaraderie, smile coolly at their sheer abandon and refusal to follow the rules of society; and we do this to the sounds of Hendrix, Steppenwolf and company. These are not merely just brief song snippets used to link scenes of dialogue together, they are full songs used in their entirety for their own merit and worth. It's the very first music video in a fashion, combining music and imagery together, way before MTV and the age of the promo video. As for Mean Streets getting the credit for supposedly being the first movie to soundtrack itself with the pop hits of the day, Easy Rider predates it by four whole years.
The rowing over "who wrote what and who thought of what" went on for decades, and Hopper carried his anger against Fonda - for supposedly ripping him off for a few percentage points - right until his death. After all, Peter wasn't even allowed into Hopper's funeral. He insisted Easy Rider was his masterpiece, and his alone; that Fonda just had the name and the money, and that Terry Southern did little more than think of the title. Either way, with childish squabbling aside, Easy Rider is still a brilliant film. It's very of its time yes, but also a perfect end to the sixties, bringing in a new, less naive and more cynical age for mankind.
"It certainly showed them that they could make independent films," Hopper said of it's impact on the tired old Hollywood machine. And he was right of course. Hollywood really had lost touch with its audience by 1969, as Hopper often noted, and they needed hip, tuned in people like him to get the youth interested in film again. Rock and roll was their new love, and Hollywood movies were old fashioned. Until Easy Rider came along, that is.
Easy Rider seemed to appeal to everyone in the alternative society back in 1969, as well as more straight forward film goers too. It was a massive hit, raking in 60 million at the box office (this is in 1969 for god's sake!), thus making over 180 times its budget back. For his European inspired directorial exuberance, Hopper won the First Film Award at Cannes, was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay and became, almost overnight at the age of 33, a counter cultural icon close to Cosmic god-like status. For a short spell of time, everybody loved Dennis Hopper. Talk about flavour of the month.
With the film's massive success however, came a lot of pressure. People say Hopper went power mad and claimed himself to be a genius to anyone who was or wasn't listening. He was adamant that everything he touched turned to gold; and for a while, maybe it did. “Terry Southern never wrote one fucking word of Easy Rider. Only the title Easy Rider came from him,” Hopper told The Guardian. “He broke his hip; he couldn’t write. I used his office and I dictated the whole fucking thing in 10 days.”
During filming, Hopper claimed that Fonda even tried to get him fired. Very clearly, along with many of the cast and crew members, Fonda was frightened of his monstrous behaviour. “Peter and Bill Hayward (Easy Rider's associate producer) are recording me,” Hopper told Interview Magazine before his death. “Every time I turn around they’re filming me—and I’m not sure why—but I’m saying things like, ‘We’re going to win Cannes, man! We’re young! We’re going to take our energy and our strength and we’re going to take this thing all the way! Just trust me and do what I’m saying! Nobody shoot any film until I tell them to!’ I mean, we were all in open fights with one another at the time. I didn’t find this out until Bert Schneider called me into his office after the movie was released, but Peter and Bill apparently wanted to pay him back the money he’d given us for Easy Rider and fire me. This is Peter and my brother-in-law, okay? This is before we’ve written a screenplay.”
In an interview with Howard Smith upon his arrival back from the film's successful premier at Cannes, Hopper was a little calmer, saying, "We wanted to make a film that was about what was going on in this moment. The experience of travelling across cross country... with long hair. You realise pretty soon that it doesn't have anything to do with if your skin is black or if it's brown, if your eyes are blue or brown. Anything that's different from that herd that keeps talking about themselves as free individuals. They talk about free individuals in the movie, but when they see a free individual it scares them."
It's not all black and white in the movie, and Easy Rider does make a clever turnaround as the picture progresses. For all his hip body language and sixties iconic status, Hopper's Billy is anything but cool and free; he's actually rather uptight, nervous, heavy handed and blows his fuse too quickly. Fonda's Wyatt on the other hand is calm and assured, the polar opposite to Hopper. He is the film's conscious, its quiet, restrained observer, while Hopper is the loose cannon embodying those who missed the point about the alternative society, the fact that having long hair doesn't automatically make you free and interesting. Billy represents those who were just along for the ride, in it for the drugs and the chicks. Fonda sees society for what it is, a corrupt snake pit, and comes to the realisation that they can never be free, no matter how far out they ride on their speeding vessels. They are, essentially, just as crooked and backwards thinking as the common American. They dress themselves in tassels and leather boots, but they may as well be driving a pick up in a straw hat.
In many ways, Easy Rider could have just ended up as a good schlocky biker movie. Lord knows Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda knew enough about biker flicks to make a truly great one, but the film quickly transcended that limited, potentially trashy genre and tore up the rule book. It's a modern western through and through, with Hopper and Fonda as a motorbike riding Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, outlaws to the bitter and bloody end.
Hopper, to the end of his life, saw it as his movie, his masterpiece, his defining statement. But as proud as he was, he was also frustrated by it too. Though he admitted it was great, Hopper had to add that "after that I should have made another great movie... but I don’t know, I just never felt I directed the film I really wanted to direct after Easy Rider. I know I never did. But I don’t think it was my fault that I wasn’t allowed to. I had a lot of help on this end. It may have been my behaviour that caused the rift to happen, but once it happened, it wasn’t my fault. I could’ve brought them a ship full of gold, and they wouldn’t have let me direct a picture..."
The tortured artist to the end.
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