It seems like a long time ago when Peter Fonda played a handsome young rebel in the film “Easy Rider”. It was 1969 and Fonda had a certain look that sold well.
That look gave the film a certain gravitas. It was a nice contrast to the more scalawag look that Dennis Hopper had as his sidekick.
Fonda’s appearance sold the film and so it is worth reflecting on it for a moment. It was a serious look. A look that suggested depth of character. A sense of the importance of rejecting societal norms and embracing an alternative, more free way of being. And it was a look that made fun of mainstream values. It was “in your face”.
The truth is, however, that there was not much else to the film. Just the look, the music, motorcycle riding, drugs, a bit of odd sex in a cemetary, and a tragic nasty ending.
That ending was, in fact, the real content served up by the film. The shocking contrast to the aimless wandering. Beautiful, romantic youth was killed in a senseless fashion by red neck society.. An ending of the type that we associate with the great romantics — Shelley and Byron. Hmmm … the fact that this was not a particularly original ending did not occur to folks at the time. To the contrary, the film seemed to be very different. And it was different than the mainstream Hollywood stuff that we were used to seeing.
It was different, for example, from “Funny Girl” and “Planet of the Apes” and “The Thomas Crown Affair”., three popular films from 1968. But in fact, “Easy Rider” shared characteristics with some popular films of 1969 — like “Midnight Cowboy”,, and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, Both of these 1969 films had similar tragic, romantic endings. That was a popular thing that year. We might also recall that Clint Eastwood gave us a similar rebellious look. And even the motorcycle thing had its own pedigree.
While this may not be particularly original or deep stuff,, Fonda was able to make it look deep. Perhaps he got that from his father, Henry Fonda who was very good at portraying serious characters (like Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”). Peter Fonda was the next generation and he captured the imaginations of lots of young folks because he seemed to reflect the questioning that was going on at that moment. He seemed genuinely determined to get to the truth about the meaning of life. He was a hedonist, as hippies generally were, but a hedonist on a mission or sorts.
Well, maybe Peter Fonda was serious about that. And maybe he was not that serious about it. Time went on, he got older, but he did not appear to get any wiser. To the contrary, he seemed to get a bit cranky. And he has now passed on at age 79.
It is tempting to dismiss this as just more evidence of the shallowness of Hollywood culture where a certain look sells — but just for a moment.
But it is a bit painful to be reminded that Fonda was not really a rebel. To the contrary, he was a rather typical creation of extravagant Hollywood culture. He came from a well known Hollywood family, and had a pampered existence. Naturally, he complained about it on the grounds that his famous father was emotionally distant.
That was the reality. And sad to say, it is a bit boring. So perhaps we can all be forgiven for not paying very much attention to the reality. Instead, we remember the fantasy. We remember the look and the pretend epic journey that Fonda and Hopper embarked on in the film. After all, we were with them, at least in our imaginations. Never mind that we were actually walking the dog, or cutting the grass, or grilling burgers in the back yard ,or cramming for an exam. We were much more than those things in our dreams and we still are!