If you are among those who wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras today but couldn’t make it down to New Orleans, fear not! There is a solution to your problem. You can always just watch 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider.
Easy Rider features one of the most famous Mardi Gras scenes of all time and adding to the scene’s authenticity is the fact that it was actually shot in New Orleans during the celebration. If you watch the Mardi Gras sequence carefully, you’ll notice that several people on the streets of the French Quarter actually stop and stare directly at the camera. It reminds you that you’re watching a movie but, at the same time, it also reminds you that you’re seeing something authentic. Those weren’t just professional extras pretending to get drunk and glaring at Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Those were people who were actually in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and who just happened to end up getting included in one of the biggest cult films of all time. If you want to know what Mardi Gras was like in the late 60s, this is the film to watch.
At the same time, after watching Easy Rider, you may be find yourself happy to not be in New Orleans today. As with almost everything else in Easy Rider, Mardi Gras starts out as something exciting and full of promise but it ends as something dark and full of death. One minute, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, and Toni Basil are walking down the streets of New Orleans and having what appears to be a good time. The next thing you know, they’re in a cemetery and Peter Fonda’s sobbing and talking about his mother’s suicide while Toni Basil and Karen Black are freaking out. Of the four of them, only Dennis Hopper appears to not be having a bad trip but then again, Hopper is so naturally spacey in Easy Rider that it’s kind of hard to tell.
The next morning, Fonda and Hopper leave New Orleans on their motorcycles and promptly get blown away by two shotgun-toting rednecks in a pickup truck. It seems a fitting conclusion to a film that celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while, at the same time, suggesting that almost everyone who lives there is a complete and total prick.
Of course, the whole Mardi Gras sequence doesn’t occur until the very end of the film. The majority of the film deals with the journey to New Orleans. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who have just made a small fortune off of selling cocaine to Phil Spector. Billy and Wyatt are heading to New Orleans to celebrate and visit a famous brothel. Wyatt is cool and stoic and always seems to be thinking about something. Billy is Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider is often referred to as being a hippie film but neither Billy nor Wyatt is really a hippie. They’re outsiders and they like to smoke weed but they’re also largely apolitical. They just want to enjoy the open road. If anything, they’re beatniks who were born a year or two too late.
As they ride from California to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt meet plenty of people along the way. They stop off at a hippie commune and then later, they get harassed by a bunch of rednecks in a diner. The rednecks are menacing while the hippies are annoying. The rednecks throw Wyatt and Billy in jail for “parading without a permit.” The hippies have a mime troupe. The rednecks drive around with shotguns. The hippies try to grow crops in the desert. (I’m enough of a country girl to know that Billy’s right when he scornfully says that nothing that they’re planting is going to actually grow.) The rednecks are ignorant. The hippies are smug. None of them really seem like people that you would want to spend too much time around.
Along the way, Wyatt and Billy temporarily travel with two others. The hitchhiker is played by Luke Askew. We never learn his name but he does play a key role in the film when he gives Wyatt the tab of acid that will eventually ruin Mardi Gras. Meanwhile, George Hanson is an alcoholic lawyer and he’s played by Jack Nicholson. At the time that the film was shot, Nicholson was on the verge of retiring from acting so he could concentrate on directing and writing. He took the role and expected, as almost everyone did, that Easy Rider would just be another biker film. Instead, Easy Rider became a hit and a cultural milestone that not only won Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination but also made him a star.
Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson is not really that good in Easy Rider. His attempt at a Texas accent is terrible and you never believe him as someone who has never smoked weed before. If anything, Luke Askew gives a far better performance than Nicholson and he actually has more screen time as well. However, I think Nicholson benefited from the fact that George is probably the most likable character in the film. (Depending on how you feel about Billy and Wyatt, you could argue that he’s the only likable character in the film.) He’s not a smug hippie nor is he a murderous redneck. Unlike Wyatt and Billy, he has a job that doesn’t involve selling cocaine to Phil Spector. Whereas Luke Askew’s Hitchhiker seems like the type of guy who would just love to lecture you about why Vietnam is all your fault, George comes across as being a gentle soul. George is a character that viewers can feel safe identifying with, even if Nicholson is never quite convincing as someone so naive that he fears he’ll freak out after taking one hit off of a joint.
Easy Rider‘s critical reputation tends to go up and down, depending on who you’re reading or talking to. There’s a tendency, among many critics, to complain that Fonda acted too little while Hopper acted too much. Personally, I think there’s a lot of hidden wit to be found in Hopper’s performance and I love how annoyed he gets when they’re at the hippie compound. As for Peter Fonda, he may not have been the most expressive actor but he did capture a certain feeling of ennui. For most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything actually going on in Wyatt’s head. Then, we follow Wyatt and Billy to that cemetery in New Orleans and we discover that there’s actually quite a bit going on behind Wyatt’s wall of stoicism. After watching Wyatt curse at a statue while sobbing, we understand why he keeps so much hidden.
When it was released in 1969, Easy Rider was a huge box office success and it inspired every major studio to try to duplicate it’s success with a counter culture film of its own. (Hopper was given several million dollars and sent down to Peru to make a follow-up to Easy Rider. The result was The Last Movie, a legendary disaster that temporarily ended Hopper’s career as a director.) Seen today, Easy Rider is undeniably pretentious but always watchable. The scenery is beautiful and the Mardi Gras sequence sets the standard by which all other bad trips should be judged. Most importantly, the film works as a historical document. Everything about it — from the music to the cultural attitudes to even Hopper’s attempts to imitate Jean-Luc Godard in his direction — makes this film into a time capsule. Until they invent a time machine that works, Easy Rider is as close as some of us will ever get to experiencing the end of the 60s.
And finally, it’s the ultimate Mardi Gras film, even if it’s main message seems to be that everyone needs to stay the Hell away from Mardi Gras. Or, at the very least, don’t accept LSD from a scruffy hitchhiker before rolling into New Orleans. Seriously, the more you know….