Nobody went to see Easy Rider (1969) only once. It became one of the rallying-points of the late ’60s, a road picture and a buddy picture, celebrating sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the freedom of the open road. It did a lot of repeat business while the sweet smell of pot drifted through theaters. Seeing the movie years later is like opening a time capsule. It provides little shocks of recognition, as when you realize they aren’t playing “Don’t Bogart That Joint” for laughs.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play Captain America and Billy, journeying cross-country on their motorcycles, using a drug deal in Los Angeles to finance a trip to Mardi Gras. The drug is cocaine (sold to a dealer played by rock producer Phil Spector), but their drug of choice is marijuana. Billy gets the giggles around the campfire at night. Captain America, who could handle it better, is cool, quiet, remote, a Christ figure who flies the American flag on his gas tank, his helmet and the back of his leather jacket.”
“The film comes alive with the electrifying entry of the Jack Nicholson character, a lawyer named George Hanson whom they meet in a jail cell. (They have been jailed for “parading without a permit” after wheeling their bikes into a small-town parade.)
Historic moments in the cinema are not always this easy to identify: Nicholson had been in movies for years, but his jailhouse dialogue in Easy Rider instantly made him a star. “You boys don’t look like you’re from this part of the country,” he says. He’s an alcoholic lawyer on good terms with the cops; he arranges their release, supplies the name of a topnotch whorehouse in New Orleans, and says that he’s started out for Mardi Gras many times without getting past the state line. That sets up the film’s most famous shot: George on the back of Billy’s motorcycle, wearing a football helmet.