Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the release of “Easy Rider,” the low-budget ($360,000) feature that made a fortune ($41 million), changed Hollywood forever, and mythologized the counter-culture. The late Dennis Hopper directed; he also co-starred and wrote the screenplay with Peter Fonda (who produced).
Ironically, although their legacies have been cemented by a film that encouraged a generation to drop out, join communes, and pursue their own version of the American Dream, the financial success of “Easy Rider” resulted in a bitter lifelong feud between Hopper and Fonda over — believe it or not — money:
Fonda recalls, “Well, I knew that Dennis was dying and I made many attempts to see Dennis as did Bert Schneider [the Easy Rider financier]. But he refused to see us. The funeral service was in a chapel in Taos, New Mexico. I rented a private jet and flew in, but I was not allowed in the chapel. So as much as I wanted to pay my respects, to Dennis and his family, I was not allowed to be a part of it.”
“My [Easy Rider]contract with [Hopper] was the same, he just felt that he deserved to have that. He got millions from me that he misappropriated investing in phony gold mines. That’s his problem. I mean, it’s a shame, because he was too whacked out on drugs. I just think that he was so caught up in his own megalomania and his own bitterness that he couldn’t see that I treated him quite fairly and that I respected his genius and his work.”
The 74-year old laughs heartily at the irony of all these money problems coming from a movie that was supposedly about not caring about money. He says, “I find it amazing that Columbia insists that Easy Rider has only made $19m, I know what I got, I know what my percentage was, I can do the math, it’s really simple.”
Let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to be a dirty, filthy hippie when you’re a multi-millionaire.
It seems, though, that Fonda fails to understand what his own film is really about — it’s certainly not about the evils of money.
“Easy Rider” begins with Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), two footloose hippies, selling smuggled cocaine to “The Connection” (Phil Spector in a perfect cameo).
This score of a lifetime is not portrayed as evil or the root of all evil — just the opposite. The money is the ticket to the freedom and unencumbered adventure Billy and Wyatt so desperately desire. That’s because “Easy Rider” is really about freedom, human liberty, refusing to conform, and the ultimate promise of America. And money is what frees them.
What undermines their freedom is a petty government that jails people for riding their motorcycles in a parade without a permit and those around them threatened by their lack of conformity and individuality.
Forty-five years later, “Easy Rider” is not only a legitimate masterpiece, it’s a conservative /libertarian film — a total repudiation of a hippie/boomer movement that turned into One World Groupthink Enforcers Enamored with Conformity and Central Government.
Hopper, I think, understood this. Later in life, his politics evolved away from the conformist Left.
I’m a huge of The Mighty Peter Fonda fan (see this Tweet from just yesterday), but his head has always been in a cloud formed sometime around 1967. He might want to watch his movie again.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC