There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the ’60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!
I’ve been wanting to get into some more influential movies from the ’50s and ’60s that started to shape how movies are made today. The shift from the days of Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, Sunset Blvd., and 12 Angry Men to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Graduate is fascinating to me. There’s obviously a very noticeable difference in the way movies were made and how they felt while watching them during that shift. So after a little bit of research, I decided Easy Rider would be a good example of a movie that started to change the way things were done in Hollywood.
I have to admit, this movie isn’t at all what I thought it would be. Not that I had any specific expectations going in, but it just felt quite different from the rest of the movies I’ve seen from the time period. The film, which came out in 1969, is about Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two bikers traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans after selling smuggled cocaine for a large amount of money. It doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward story — it’s somewhat episodic as these two guys travel across the country and encounter many different people and places. And while I have an extraordinary appreciation for everything that went into its creation, I think it holds up better as an artifact than as a movie.
Now, I wasn’t even close to a thought when this movie came out — my parents were barely even alive at this point — so I don’t really think I’m at the right age to understand the anxieties and difficulties faced by the main characters. However, I can relate to the idea of not conforming to society’s expectations for you. There’s a scene in a small-town America diner where the patrons bemoan and even directly ridicule the appearance and perceived lifestyle of Wyatt, Billy, and George (Jack Nicholson), who has joined their trip that’s a perfect microcosm of the movie as a whole. But overall, the movie feels so specific to its particular era. I do completely see why it became such a cult hit in its day and why it sparked a change in the types of movies Hollywood produced. It’s just not the type of movie that I could turn on at any point like I could do with something like The Graduate.
But again, I really love all the little behind the scenes factoids about how this movie was made and how it goes against the norms of the time. From the fact that it was independently funded, to its soundtrack of songs that weren’t written specifically for the movie, to its ad-libbed nature, and to its content and messaging, Easy Rider hit just the right way at just the right time. Early in the movie, I thought to myself about the likelihood of Hopper and Fonda doing the same amount of drugs that their characters were doing during filming. And I was unsurprised to read afterwards, that they actually were! It’s another way that the movie differentiates itself and sets itself apart.
Easy Rider may not necessarily hold up to modern audiences or be the best of its kind, but it inarguably played a large role in changing cinema when it came out over 50 years ago. It won’t be a movie I come back to time and time again because of its merits as a film, but I sit here writing this glad that I watched it and that I can now understand yet another small part of film history.