'Easy Rider': THR's 1969 Review
On July 14, 1969, Columbia brought Peter Fonda's Easy Rider to the big screen at the Beekman in New York. The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars at the 42nd Academy Awards, for Jack Nicholson's supporting role and for the screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
After years of pandering, brutalizing and titillating films exploiting the spirit of vague protest comes Columbia's Easy Rider, a production of the Pando Co. in association with Raybert Productions. Its central characters ride motorcycles, yet this is no chopper film. They have some contact with drugs, yet this is no cheap trip of matinee psychedelics. Easy Rider is very likely the clearest and most disturbing presentation of the angry estrangement of American youth to be brought to the screen, played against the barren and bountiful beauties of a cross-country pilgrimage that is at once a search for freedom and a tragic encounter with the intolerance that corrupts the ideals of freedom. If Easy Rider succeeds in illustrating a manifest disillusionment with the land of the free, it is because it simultaneously and clearly chronicles the idealism of its youth. It presents as well their anguished recognition that one group's freedom to conform to one mode of expression encourages that group to presume to discriminate against, even justify liquidation of those who would freely choose a different style.
Largely improvisational, yet unified by variations on a constant theme and a sustained allegoric outline, Easy Rider develops episodically toward a brilliantly conceived and executed climax. Produced by its star, Peter Fonda, with Bert Schneider as its executive producer and William L. Hayward as associate producer, Easy Rider marks the directorial debut of co-star Dennis Hopper, who has assembled an outstanding company of younger and second-generation Hollywood talents before and behind the cameras. His original version of the film is said to have run nearly twice the present length, yet the final cut, executed by film editor Donn Cambern by collaborative agreements, unfolds with unmarred lyric simplicity. The film will not be limited to audiences of the young, thanks to an intelligent program of advance opinion maker screenings, which will spur general word of mouth for high profits and critical honors.
Thanks to a compact and creative NABET crew, Easy Rider manages what many other film on the road fails. It gets the scope of its travel on the film in all its variegate grandeur and individual character, the American Southwest literally serving as the backdrop and woof of the story fabric. Its visual glories owe much to the focal precision and mobility of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose excellent photography is for once retained in the superior processing and printing by Consolidated labs. The behind-the-frame technicians include such dependable veterans of freewheeling production as Paul Lewis, who operates as both production manager and assistant director. Technicians tempered by years of polishing trash respond with a dedication and challenge that makes Easy Rider one of the few films to see and show America. The rest is in the hands of a fine cast and evidently inspiring direction.
Fonda and Hopper complete a narcotics delivery that brings them the money they need to hit the road toward New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Casting off their watches at the starting line, proceeding without deadlines or required routing, they encounter a variety of individuals who have, for one reason or another, chosen some alternative to a conventional and competitive mainstream existence. Each is "doing his own thing in his own time," neither good nor bad, not hurting nor threatening anyone.
Fonda and Hopper also find that motel and cafe doors are closed to them on sight. Arrested for joining in the spirit of a small town parade, they meet drunken country lawyer Jack Nicholson in jail. Nicholson, in pleat front trousers and suspenders, is decently square in manner and speech, marked by certain of the attitudes of his region, yet uncommonly just in his conviction to the principles of individual freedom. In the film's most joyous and revealing sequence, he joins them on the trip, articulates the picture's theme and is martyred by the same repressive injustice he has cited.
The allegory of atonement is played out and the penitents, Fonda and Hopper, having parodied their last communion, fall victims to the same senseless and abrupt violence by strangers who see in them a threat to their own compromised freedom and would assault that image to prove themselves free. Fittingly, their murders take place against the most beautiful and fertile expanse of countryside they pass, a silent conflagration that trips no alarms and arouses no notice.
In dramatic terms, the fact that the journey begins with profit in narcotics traffic seems unfortunate, confusing the central issue, though some purpose with regard to the allegory of atonement may have been intended. It does not in any sense reduce the ultimate injustice the riders encounter, and we have not in fact been asked to approve or disapprove of the uses the riders make of their freedoms of choice. Perhaps, that, after all, is the point. But rights and laws are different if interdependent matters. The device does confuse the two and thus, by degree, weakens the case for the riders. It is the one point at which the pair's exercise of their own thing specifically involves an illegal and asocial act, one which may ultimately contribute to someone else's misery. Unfortunately, it is the starting point, and I wish it weren't. Fonda and Hopper may well feel that narcotics laws are repressive, but that issue properly should be another picture.
Fonda, masquerading as Captain America, a touch that works despite its potential for burlesque, gives a very sensitive and sympathetic performance, a bit too Jesusey here and there. Hopper provides the best of the film's comic relief, though he alone strikes the few artificial notes in a cast from whom he has obtained generally natural performance.
Jack Nicholson is one of the best young actors in town, long hidden in the underground and the quickie circuit, though to watch him work is to imagine how perfectly he could toss off remakes of the massed filmographies of Henry Fonda and James Stewart and still retain a film presence that is his alone. It may be, though it is more than one has the right to hope, that the year will bring us a more beautifully realized, natural and complexly individual supporting actor performance than the one he gives in Easy Rider. It is the binder in a film whose structure and spontaneity overpower its few flaws. It is the focus that brings clarity and meaning to the ascending episodes of the film, one of those few fine performances that is unforgettable as well. Only a writer of his talents and improvisational gifts could create such a fantastic sequence as the one in which he describes his belief that "minutians in vast quantities are mating with people from all walks of life in an advisory capacity."
Memorable in the cast are Luke Askew as a hitchhiker who leads the pair to a desert commune and Robert Walker, who leads a prayer of thanksgiving at the gathering.
Easy Rider employs recorded music tracks with rare aptitude and frequently incisive overlay of comment, irony or humor. Roger McGuinn's performance of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma" and his own "Ballad of Easy Rider" are the best of the alliances of music and action, while Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild," The Fraternity of Man's "Don't Bogart Me" and The Electric Prunes' "Kyrie Eleison" are exceptionally well employed. The latter, combined with the setting of the action, clarifies the whole conception of religious ritual in the construction of the journey. — John Mahoney, originally published on June 26, 1969.