Death’s Angel: Peter Fonda in Easy Rider

Death’s Angel: Peter Fonda in <em>Easy Rider</em>

Amelia Heinle, as an ingenue in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 The Limey, gazing at a psychedelic concert poster from the 1960s: “I like the colors.”

Peter Fonda (1940–2019), as her older lover, himself a relic of that lysergic decade, gazing at his reflection in a mirror, checking his hair, checking his teeth: “We all did.”

In 1966, Fonda—actor, director, celebrity biker, heartfelt activist, hilarious stoner, and consummate movie star—was handcuffed in a riot of colors on the Sunset Strip. It was all a crazy trip: hippies and tourists clogging intersections, demanding their freedom to go-go-go past an idiotic 10 p.m. curfew recently implemented by local businesses and other community-group squares. All the kids wanted was to stay up late, and to rock and roll without getting hassled by the Man. The Man, by definition unhip to those energies and desires, moved in. As ’60s riots went, it was all pretty tame. Jack Nicholson and Sonny and Cher were there; Frank Zappa and Buffalo Springfield wrote songs about it. It’s easy enough to picture Fonda—son of Henry, brother of Jane—in the midst of that madness, detained by the Fuzz, smiling his blinding, perfect-toothed smile at all of it. He’d be back within a year to turn those visions into the penultimate spasms of Roger Corman’s pro-LSD 1967 masterpiece The Trip, and there was more shaking yet to come. In 1969, Fonda and his filmmaking partner Dennis Hopper set off a riot all their own with Easy Rider, a film about the colors and the chaos and the head-trips of a new generation, a film that would seismically shift the commercial bedrock on which Hollywood was built.

Fonda knew all about Hollywood chaos: born the year his father starred in The Grapes of Wrath, he had grown up in a house haunted by both celebrity and suicide, and by ’66 he was dropping all the way out. Or was it all the way in? His mother had slit her own throat ten days after her forty-second birthday, when Fonda was just ten. Years later, when asked to recall his young life with his father, Fonda would sometimes simply curl his smile and inquire, “Well, you’ve seen Fort Apache . . . ?” His reference to John Ford’s 1948 cavalry classic, in which the elder Fonda plays an insufferable martinet, was meant to say all the incautious interlocutor needed to know about those particular Oedipal straits.

Twenty-six at the time of the Sunset Strip riots, Fonda had spent the early ’60s passionately expanding a Hollywood bag of his own, with a fistful of episodic TV guest spots, a mild-mannered leading role across from Sandra Dee in some Ross Hunter fluff (Tammy and the Doctor [1963], photographed by Russell Metty and as such the closest the actor would ever get to working with Douglas Sirk), and finally some real flexing of his acting chops (as a suicidal mental patient, no less) for a high-profile director in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). His star was slowly on the rise, his sideburns progressively wider. The riots happened the same year he became a drive-in movie icon, as the nihilistic biker-badass-in-black-leathers named Heavenly Blues (only heads knew what that meant) in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels. But when the cops cuffed the actor on the Sunset Strip, near the shuttered-in-’67 nightclub Pandora’s Box (seen, not unpleasantly anachronistically, still standing in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood’s “1969”), Fonda just smiled and claimed he was there filming a movie. The Man smiled back. The cuffs came off.

Movie stars (and their kids) getting a pass from the LAPD is as old as slapstick in Hollywood, but Peter Fonda’s smile could have charmed the skin off a snake under any circumstances. To meet the Easy Rider star in person, you’d think you’d encountered a grounded god. Strikingly tall, attractively lean, sporting a pair of designer shades inevitably tinted as whiskey-gold as afternoon sun on a wave of wheat, eyes sparkling brighter when he removed those shades than the lights in the Valley at night. And those teeth. He had Ultimate Movie Star teeth. (Full disclosure: I hung out with Fonda a few times in 1995, staying up over weed and wine with him late enough one night to see him perform his pre-slumber dental ablutions, a rich and lasting memory.) It was as if Fonda, distilled from his father’s fine-cut features, was bred to become iconic, his countenance inextricable from the lineaments of his era, yet his bronzed beauty proportioned for something far more than mere matinee idol for the Love Generation. There was something undeniable, ineluctable, preordained in Peter Fonda’s visage, something radiant, beatific, and the more he let his hair grow, the more beautiful he became.

Inside the actor, another process was underway. Taciturn, pissed-off, and hopeless, The Wild Angels’ Heavenly Blues was the caterpillar. Impenetrably introspective and lost in metamorphosis, The Trip’s soul-searching TV commercial director Paul Groves was the chrysalis. And when Fonda’s Wyatt emerges in Dennis Hopper’s skittish, paranoid, and finally apocalyptic Easy Rider—a film that Fonda dreamed up, cowrote, and produced—he’s a brand-new kind of death’s head moth, fluttering aimlessly and inexorably toward some certain doom. Cape-draped in Old Glory, Wyatt (a nod to the Earp his pop had played in Ford’s My Darling Clementine) is Easy Rider’s super-unheroic “Captain America,” a perpetually spaced-out biker whose leathers and chopper are festooned with stars and stripes. Though as terse and stoic as any Gary Cooper lawman, Wyatt’s always high well before noon, even as he plays straight man to his more-zonked-still partner in crime Billy, this crypto-western’s volatile Kid, who’s irrepressibly incarnated by Hopper in the fringed buckskins and tonsorial tumbleweeds of a grizzled prospector. Acutely aware of the turned-on and tripped-out nature of both the film’s narrative and the unusual approach to filmmaking they were using to create it, Fonda clearly realized that, especially for the angrily anti-establishment Easy Rider, he needn’t actually give a performance at all. Instead, he delivers an anti-performance. Indeed, he offers us one of the great anti-performances in all of Hollywood cinema. He does everything by doing pretty much nothing at all.

Nigh Bressonian in its flattened affect, its lingering distractions, its awkwardnesses and overall disinterestedness in human engagement, Fonda’s performance in the film was the canniest thing the actor could do. Playing straight man to a medium as hot as Dennis Hopper in full-bore, booze-and-bennies mania, he didn’t need Marshall McLuhan to tell him that the only way to burn any brighter was to cool his jets entirely, down to a frosted glow. While Billy bounces off the walls, Fonda’s placid, patient Wyatt is almost totally “here” and “in the now,” and the actor comes close to avoiding acting altogether. He simply moves through the world he’s inhabiting, discovering its textures and patterns, open to anything, ready to forgive even as he senses that we’ve fucked everything up already.

Lighting out from the golden West on what the movie’s poster described as a search for (a probably unfindable) America, the bikers’ ride proves never an easy one. After an early encounter with a friendly if questionably functioning commune somewhere in the Southwest, Wyatt and Billy’s expedition quickly turns ugly as they enter the deep South’s dyspeptic underbelly, and violence begets violence the further they go. Yet, beaten and bruised, Wyatt refuses to project even his sense of defeat onto those who might deserve it. “We blew it,” he finally, famously, metaphysically confesses: he knows that a big fade-out is already coming for this bright new dream, a big flame-out at the end of the road, the frame caught in the projector gate. Yet Wyatt keeps moving, moth-winging it toward the flame. “It ends in fire,” as Hopper would later say of his LAPD opus Colors (1988), flipping through memories that began with Easy Rider. “All my films end in fire,” the director could then still ruefully claim.

As each of Fonda’s obituaries has dutifully noted in recent weeks, the familiar refrain from the Beatles’ “She Said She Said”—“I know what it’s like to be dead”—originated as a mantra of Fonda’s making, predicated on a time in childhood (a year after his mother’s death) when he’d managed to shoot himself in the abdomen, and nearly died in surgery. John Lennon heard Fonda tell the tale during an acid trip, and one of the myriad flowers of rock mythology blossomed. The importance of that comment—and of that quality of Fonda’s own character—to Wyatt’s ghost-ridden distractedness and peculiar attunement to the temporal (“I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go”) shouldn’t be underestimated. Call it the Peter Principle: in so many of his best performances, Fonda would work to suppress his naturally friendly demeanor, knowing the more he tamped down, the more mortality’s Cheshire grin would shine through. Easy Rider allows him to work through this transmogrification of life into death in a kind of ninety-minute slow motion. The relaxed smiles and fleeting good times on which Hopper’s reverse western begins give way to increasing introspection (“You’re pulling inside yourself,” Billy kids Wyatt, “You’re getting a little distance, man”) and eventual spiritual dejection. It all finally climaxes in an emotionally brutalizing flight into the arms of death. “You’re such a cruel mother,” Wyatt whispers to a granite angel in a New Orleans cemetery, deep in the throes of acid vexations, “I hate you so much.” His hour of obliteration is almost at hand.

“Going through changes” was the way that variously turned-on and tripped-out people in the late 1960s tended to refer to these sorts of things: radical transformations of psychic processes, mind-storms of inner turmoil that could lead to rapturous enlightenment as easily as to horrifying recognitions of inevitable death. For Easy Rider, Hopper, cinematographer László Kovács, and editor Henry Jaglom discovered a host of dazzling mechanisms to visually illumine those changes, but Fonda seemed merely—merely!—to be embodying them. There’s a scene near the end of the movie where, in the wake of one death and with more sure to come, Wyatt and Billy take a trip to Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights to memorialize a friend. It’s a whorehouse out of Visconti, but Wyatt feels only despair. The mise en scène doesn’t help: “All paths of glory lead but to the grave,” reads an engraving across a mantelpiece. “Death only closes a man’s reputation and determines it as good or bad,” reads a painting on the wall. Two prostitutes are proffered, played by Karen Black and Toni Basil. Hopper drunkenly paws Black, but Fonda and Basil (one of the most vivacious presences of the decade, as her collaborations with Bruce Conner dazzlingly attest) sit quietly together, Fonda reining in the possibility of a smile, both of them careful, patiently plumbing the depths of each other’s tender, tentative frames of mind. Outside the whorehouse, Mardi Gras is in full swing. They’re all about to go there, into the madness and well beyond it. But for this strange, uncertain caesura in Easy Rider, everything stands tremulously still.

Peter Fonda was the one who held it there. He knew what it’s like to be dead. And he’d stopped on his way there for a moment, hoping to hip us about time.

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