Sweet Smell of Success
Movie Easy Rider tells an American tale two ways
“When the easy rider left the highways and took to the trails,” reads the circa ’71 Arctic Cat minibike ad, “the riding wasn’t so easy any more.” Is the copywriter referring to the movie Easy Rider’s final scene, where Billy (Dennis Hopper) is gunned down by a pair of hillbillies after he flips them the bird? Is “left the highways” a veiled reference to being blown off the road by shotgun? And is “wasn’t so easy any more” an allusion to Billy bleeding out in a Louisiana ditch? Are we to believe that if Billy had Arctic Cat’s “easy ride of shock absorber suspension” instead of his Panhead’s hardtail, the movie could have ended happily?
Easy Rider is a landmark movie. But not in the way many believe. While it profoundly influenced motorcycle culture and style—there would be no Honda Shadow without it—and pioneered the extended pop-music-powered visual montage, its greatest legacy is virtually unknown. Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls makes a compelling case that it was Easy Rider that revived American cinema in the 1970s.
From Robert Altman (Nashville, MASH) to Hal Ashby (Coming Home, Being There) to Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) to heavyweights Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, auteur-driven ’70s American films remain among the best in the history of the medium. How did Easy Rider spawn such masterworks? Easy. It made money. Lots of it. Easy Rider proved the counter culture could pay.
In attempting to replicate Easy Rider’s success, Hollywood funnelled money to filmmakers it would have forcibly removed from its offices a decade earlier. Hollywood—inadvertently—funded a golden age of cinema. It didn’t last. Biskind cites Michael Cimino’s 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate (it cost $44 million but made just $3.5 million) as the end of the era.
Meanwhile, Easy Rider became a phenomenon. Despite its criticism of the mindlessness and brutality of contemporary America, the film, because of its success, became celebrated, bizarrely, as an exemplar of American greatness. Arctic Cat, in referencing a biker film about drugs and money and violent death and an America at sea—to sell minibikes to children—leapfrogged the film’s message but certainly not its meaning: in America, nothing succeeds like success.