Easy Rider: freedom, escape and the open road

easy rider

Easy Rider is the legend that almost never was. At the end of the film’s chaotic, weeklong shoot, producer, co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda threatened to fire director, co-writer and co-star (you really don’t have to look far to find the incestuous origins of the chaos) Dennis Hopper and refund all the backers. Hopper didn’t just want to film an on-the-road ‘rock n’ roll’ lifestyle, he wanted to live it: chaos, drugs, alcohol, loaded guns and trashed TV sets and more.

easy rider

But the film was made and released. Moviegoers went to watch it. Then they went again. The low-budget ‘problem child’ would go on to make more than $40 million at the box office. But it wasn’t just about the money. Through a drug-induced haze, Hopper and Fonda had created something that would come to mean so much more than the sum of its parts, a movie that would still be recognised, referenced and revered in popular culture more than 45 years after its 1969 release.

easy rider

So what’s the appeal? It’s not the sensitive direction, the endearing characters, or even the storyline. It’s not the costumes, the art direction or the editing. In terms of production, the only thing Easy Rider really has going for it is the rough and ready soundtrack, a musical commentary that was added in for the first studio screening. In truth, the appeal of the movie is intangible – on the surface it’s about romance and authenticity, the ability to reconnect with something lost. But these ideas are coded into open roads and barren landscapes, and they had been since another Fonda (Henry) had left Oklahoma for California (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940). No, Easy Rider wasn’t the first, best – and certainly not the last – movie to examine a counter-culture diametrically opposed to the mainstream.

easy rider

Bonnie & Clyde, released two years earlier in 1967, had already marked ‘the road’ out as a metaphor for crisis-ridden America. Younger filmgoers accepted (even expected?) that heroes would be fallible – in fact, it was cool to think everything was futile, that nonconformists had their fun and then got what they deserved. Yet in spite of the clichés (admittedly more pronounced for contemporary viewers), Easy Rider‘s cool rapidly cultivated a cult following.

easy rider

You don’t have to look too hard to work out that this is a film about freedom. Amongst the drugs and prostitutes, Billy (Hopper) and George (Jack Nicholson) talk about it:

George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.

Of course, freedom isn’t just about the ability to live as one wishes. Freedom is often a trade off; it’s a bargain in disguise. Yes, Billy, George and Wyatt (Fonda) choose to live outside convention and they pay the ultimate price. But even before their deaths they’re ridiculed for their clothes and their long hair – a transient, as-you-like-it lifestyle was no protection from polite society – incidentally one that’s never polite.

easy rider

Perhaps it has less to do with freedom and everything to do with escape. Escape from social conditioning, the ‘rat race’, and the machinations of consumer culture. Escape from judgement and the ensnaring promises of the American dream. But escape is hard and, by their own admission, Billy and Wyatt ‘blew it’. But it was probably less about selling out on their dream, but the realisation that truly living to personal values requires an internal conformity and a life of ‘struggle’ that doesn’t exactly sit with the definition of escape.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on day 1 (the Silent era)day 2 (the Golden Age) and day 3 (the Modern era).

All About Eve: it’s going to be a bumpy night!

Whilst researching one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite movies, I was scandalised, shocked and outraged to discover that it regularly ranks amongst the most misquoted. Apparently, lesser mortals fail to match Bette Davis’s effortless, defiant and disdainful delivery of All About Eve’s classic line Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’. In fact, they dare to replace ‘night’ with ‘ride’. What would Bette think? Well if Margot Channing, her character in the film is anything to go by, she’d probably offer those naïve fools ‘a milkshake’.

But perhaps they should be forgiven. Not to give the line (and Davies’s delivery) less than it’s due, but it sits within a wonderfully accomplished and articulate dialogue, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed the film). Every scene is filled with cutting and witty asides that perfectly capture ‘theatre folk’ and their preoccupations. So, in a film filled with perfection (the critic Richard Schickel once claimed Mankiewicz was “one of the tiny handful of epigrammists that have written for the screen”) – why this particular line and the particular cocktail party scene?

Davis, Bette All About Eve

Firstly, this is a key scene within the movie. All the main players are present and correct, and this is the first time the viewer is able to assess how individual motivations and secret agendas fit together. Secondly, it’s Margo’s opportunity to really display just how she feels about Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter), timid, shy Eve who wouldn’t say boo to goose but has inserted herself rather too well in Margo’s life. The audience is already aware of Margo’s growing jealousy, but this is the first time it spills over and becomes apparent to the other characters. In the process, Mankiewicz sets up one of the movie’s central themes – the established actress who’s terrified of aging and the fledgling talent who can’t wait to take her place.

At this point it’s definitely Eve we side with, but there’s always a frisson of sympathy for Margo. Those cutting put-downs and her difficult ways mask fear and paranoia – but ironically Davis was never better than in this film. Growing old suited her, as it eventually suits Margo Channing – both just have to realise that it’s an inevitability to be celebrated rather then ignored. Later, Davis recognised that the role was the greatest break at that of her career, that Mankiewicz ‘resurrected me from the dead’. A typically theatrical response from Davis, and one that could have been spoken by Channing herself.

Davis, Bette All About Eve_01

During the cocktail party scene, fork-tongued theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) arrives with yet another youthful, luminous wannabe star, Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe). Margo, who has already made it clear DeWitt isn’t her favourite guest (“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest-list. What are you doing here?”) is cool yet Miss Caswell takes it in her stride. Monroe’s role in the film is brief but impactful and, although surrounded by actors with considerably more experience, seems to draw all the attention. In a foreshadowing of the ‘Monroe’ stereotype DeWitt steers her towards a powerful producer. “Go and do yourself some good”, he advises. She acquiesces, asking “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”. Margo is left holding Miss Caswell’s opulent fur stole. ‘Amen’, she proclaims, holding her glass in toast.

Davis, Bette All About Eve

That bitterness speaks to us all. As Margo will observe later in the film, in a ‘softer’ moment: “There’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted”. The universal themes of All About Eve ensure it’s enduring appeal but lets not forget that this is Mankiewicz’s masterpiece, a happy marriage of script, talent and ideas that’s a love letter to performance.

Just remember: don’t yell butler. “Maybe somebody’s name is Butler…”

Further reading: the script 

This post is part of the ‘…. And scene!’ blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Sister Celluloid who, I know for a fact, would never dare to misquote Margo Channing. Read all the entries here.

Pre-Code morals: Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘bad’ girls

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933

There’s a moment in almost every one of Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-Code films when the actresses’ energy and fire breaks through into her character, creating a moment of pure emotion and intensity. It’s pure speculation to suggest that Stanwyck’s working-class background and upbringing directly influenced the snappy, back-chatting roles she took and how she chose to play them, but her brusque and no-nonsense approach allowed audience sympathy to remain on her side, no matter what role she was playing. Bank robber, gold-digging opportunist, a scrappy nurse: in the pre-Code era, Stanwyck played them all (and more). Her ability to walk the line between good and bad enabled her to get away with the characters – although that’s not to say the films escaped censorship.

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933Take 1933’s Baby Face (directed Alfred E. Green, also starring George Brent). Stanwyck’s promiscuous character Lilly Power set in motion a chain of events that would change film history forever: Darryl Zanuck – who co-wrote the screenplay – resigned from Warner Brothers, and calls for increased film censorship heightened. Of course, Zanuck, Green and Stanwyck were merely following the standards that had been set by I’m No Angel, Sign of the Cross and more, but Baby Face seemed to provoke particular outrage. Although previous characters had showed little remorse at ‘bad’ actions, there was something too natural about Stanwyck’s performance – it seemed like this was a course the everyday woman could follow – right to the top.

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933

Various reports suggest Stanwyck herself had a hand in the creation of the character. She was keen to take on the role because it promised a transformation from dowdy to glam (see above). Fans ‘disapproved of all the ‘gingham and ‘flannel roles she had been playing, and wanted her to ‘go back to her evening gowns’ (and go back to them she did – Orry-Kelly’s social climbing wardrobe is truly wonderful and worthy of a post in it’s own right). Of course, the external transformation is part of a wider plot to attract the next man up the food chain. At an early age Lilly Power understood what men could – and did – take, she flipped the coin and used sex for her own gain. By playing the helpless innocent she allowed each man to retain control – they believed they were ‘in charge’ but, in reality, she was running the show. It’s no coincidence that most of Powers’ (female) co-workers guess what she’s up to pretty quickly. The first man to call her bluff is the bank’s newly appointed President, Mr Trenholm (Brent). He works out exactly who she is, and packs Lilly off to Paris, with the promise of a job and a ‘new start’. Not to be outsmarted for long, Lilly commits to the long game, bides her time and becomes the model employee. Trenholm’s reaction when he pays a visit to the Paris office is priceless.

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933

Barbara_Stanwyck_Baby_Face_1933

Sex is just part of the scandal when it comes to Baby Face. Powers’ ambiguous relationship with her maid Chico (Theresa Harris) always teeters on the unknown. Their relationship, born out of a mutual dislike of Lilly’s father, is the film’s one real consistency. Clearly the bonds formed at the hands of abusive men hold firm, and Lilly is protective of her companion. Chico never rises above her place (she remains Lilly’s maid until the very end) but she’s a confidant and comrade – and most notably of all, she doesn’t have to put out to be rewarded. And lets not forget the system in which Powers chooses to operate. In Depression-era America, audiences must’ve enjoyed seeing bankers and their associates give way so easily to feminine charms. Most of the men Lilly seduces are older and wealthy, or young and flattered – but their common trait? Ignorance (even stupidity) and an inability to see Lilly for who, and what, she is.

Yet in spite of all her wrongdoings, audience sympathy remains firmly with Stanwyck. She’s just using what she knows to get ahead, her machinations don’t necessarily reflect her true self – she’s just doing what she can to better her own life. Who wouldn’t do the same? It’s a sentiment that plays out across many of Stanwyck’s pre-Code characters. In Ladies They Talk About (also released in 1933, directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley) Stanwyck’s cool and calculating Nan opens the film assisting some bank robbers. Except this time, her ‘poor me’ act doesn’t fool anyone, and she’s packed off to prison for her role, despite her best efforts to sway preacher and childhood friend David Slade (played by Preston Foster) to get her off the hook. As in Baby Face, she willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants – but it’s ok folks, she’s trying to make life better for herself.

Ladies They Talk About

Ladies They Talk About

There are other similarities between Lilly and Nan – plucky backchat and a strong female friendship (in Nan’s case, with Linda, another inmate). Punishing Nan from the start allows her to rebel against the system but she remains unrepentant, yearning after fellow gang member Lefty, who always promises to visit but never does. Nan might be bad, but many of her emotions are relatable. Whilst previous gangster and prison-related films focused solely on the male protagonist, Ladies They Talk About is interesting look at crime from a female perspective. Life behind bars isn’t glamorised – indeed many of these women have a limited moral compass and are indifferent to their wrongdoings. When Linda shows Nan how prison life works, she remark: ‘you’re always a few feet away from what you really want – freedom. And men’.

Ladies They Talk About

Despite the dysfunctionality there’s a strong sense of female solidarity, and the bickering and catfights are undercut with real warm relationships and true characters that have found their niche. Many of the characters are stereotyped – including the butch inmate who ‘likes to wrestle’ – and, in a lesson that could have been preached by Lilly Power herself, it’s intimated that only those willing to adopt masculine characters or values will survive. The remorseless Nan assists a prison breakout from the men’s cellblock because she believes her chum Slade can get her off the hook. She too will use the right man for a get out of jail card.

Ladies They Talk About

Clearly Stanwyck was comfortable playing strong, sexually empowered women and her self-assured, down-to-earth demeanour and crooked front tooth must’ve made her more relatable to audiences of the day than say, Mae West or Jean Harlow. Capable of depth and conflicting emotion – cool passion, cynical emotion, sensitive rage – she played everyday characters in just-about-feasible situations. That’s probably one of the reasons why Baby Face (and to a lesser extent, Ladies They Talk About) contributed so strongly to the implementation of the Hayes Code – this was dangerous behaviour that women could imitate and men could accept.

Ladies They Talk About

Ladies They Talk About

But ironically, today even her most progressive roles appear wildly sexist. Lilly Power might sleep her way ‘to the top’, but ‘the top’ isn’t independence or a successful career, it’s marriage to a wealthy man who will provide security and stability. Her strength is simultaneously celebrated and exploited. And both she and Nan still need a man in their corner. How is it possible to reconcile contemporary feminist discourse with pre-Code? The key is that – most notably in Baby Face – sexuality is championed and grudgingly respected. Powers’ knows it’s her ‘golden ticket’ to a better life and she’s not judged for using it by the men she seduces, perhaps because they know they would do the same if the roles were reversed.

Lilly and Nan might be anti-heroes, but they’re real and likeable. The and/or concept that governs much of contemporary characterisation is refreshingly absent in many of the films from era, as is the lack of punishment for refusing to conform to ideals. The idea that pre-Code provided women with more complex roles is hardly revelatory but too often the true value of these characters is obscured by reading the story lines with a contemporary eye whilst refusing to acknowledge how modern ideas have yet to catch up.

Further reading: Complicated Women – sex and power in pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on day 1 (the Silent era)day 2 (the Golden Age) and day 3 (the modern classics).

Billy Wilder and The Apartment: ‘Shut up and deal’

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

There’s a line in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that reveals so much about the film and its director. ‘Why do people have to love people anyway?’ laments elevator operator Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine). Her despondence follows the breakdown of an affair with Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a married man who’s also her boss. There’s a double-edged irony to Kubelik’s situation: sceptical of happy endings, she’s been lied to before – yet she’s still sucked into Sheldrake’s promises, believing that he just might leave his wife for her. This is the kind of sardonic satirical comedy, undercut with a dash of romantic realism, that Wilder excelled at. In fact – by his own admission – The Apartment was probably the best on-screen realisation of his vision.

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Released in 1960, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon (appearing in his second of seven Wilder-directed film) as CC Baxter, an ambitious office worker who lends out his one-bedroom New York apartment to his philandering bosses, enabling their romantic trysts. But his eagerness to climb the corporate ladder is to his own detriment – he spends hours wandering the streets to the city, waiting to be granted admittance to his own flat. Baxter is flawed (he plunders social security files to glean information about his colleagues, for example), but he’s likeable. Similarly Miss Kubelik, who is willing to sleep with the boss if it allows her to get ahead, no matter the cost to her own wellbeing. These perfectly imperfect characters exist in the anonymity of the big city and a vast corporation, two vast stages on which small lives play out with surprising depth – if anyone should care to notice.

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Above all, this is a film about discovering where you fit in, and who should fit in to your story with you. Baxter spends little time in his apartment, but it never fully seems his. The posters of paintings – inspired by masters including Picasso and Mondrian – speak of a cultural sophistication that goes far beyond the low-paid office worker. When he’s finally admitted to his apartment, he spends most of his time taking out his bosses’ trash and re-stocking the drinks trolley. He doesn’t fit into his surrounds because he’s tried too hard to create one that doesn’t suit him. Always striving for something more, he works hard to ‘get ahead’, but he remains a nameless face in the crowd (many of his co-workers don’t call him by his full name, instead opting for the generic ‘buddy boy’). He is a slave to and a product of ‘the system’, and it’s only his love for Miss Kubelik (he always calls her ‘Miss': a term that provides deference and distance) that he’s able to break free – both from his career ambitions and his own ideas of ‘who’ he needs to be seen to be.

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Miss Kubelik thinks that the big boss, Sheldrake fits into her story. When she discovers he has no intention of leaving his wife (and has in fact previously made the same promises to other women in her position), the consequences are almost tragic. Never over-wrought, MacClaine’s performance is by turns low-key, truthful and instinctive. Surely the sexually-active, modern-working girl would’ve been a refreshing character in 1960, but it’s testament to Wilder, long-term screenwriting collaborator IAL Diamond and MacClaine that the part still feels fresh today. There’s something universally appealing in Fran Kubelik’s vulnerability and betrayal, her new hair, new start approach to life that reaches out across the decades. Her allure too, is subtle and underplayed, she’s no ditzy dame, but a good-hearted realist who wants to be in the right place at the right time. She chooses Sheldrake, mistakenly thinking that he’s her ticket to something better. Much of the charm (and authenticity) of The Apartment comes from how long it takes Baxter and Kubelik to get together. And even by the end, you’re not sure if this is a relationship that’s going to go the distance. In a series of interviews with Cameron Crowe, Wilder revealed that, fresh from Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe had sent out feelers for the part. But according to Wilder: ‘It would not be real… Everyone in the whole company would be after the elevator girl’.

Billy_Wilder_The_ApartmentBy choosing to shoot in black and white to capture the drab repetitiveness of city and office life, Wilder infused the entire film with a sense of melancholy. The story might be set over the festive period, but there’s no joviality to be found here, only lies, deceit and half-baked dreams. The Apartment is a deeply affecting film, but Wilder’s deft direction and the thoughtful characterisation prevents it from seeping into soap-opera sentimentality. Much of the first half deals with people who get deluded into exploitation, who sacrifice personal happiness for a bigger idea that’s always sold short. The second half? The realistic consequences. Thankfully, Wilder didn’t opt for the ‘love heals all evils’ angle, which would’ve short-changed both the plot and moviegoers. The ending is inevitable, but the twisting road to it is refreshing for a modern audience so often conned with easy or contrived romance. Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

In fact the closing line (‘shut up and deal’, reference to a long-running gin rummy game that Baxter and Kubelik are engaged in) is less about the lovers final ‘getting together’, more that they’ve finally both stood up against Sheldrake and embraced what they believe will make them happy. Masters of their own destiny, if you will. This discovery of self-respect is much more powerful than love, and Wilder knew it.

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Billy_Wilder_The_Apartment

Is The Apartment Wilder’s best film? Contemporaries showered him with love (the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing Story and Screenplay) but many still prefer the comic perfection of Some Like It Hot or the introspective pathos of Sunset Boulevard. Personally, I remain divided. If it’s proof of Wilder’s visionary genius that’s needed then CC Baxter is the go-to tale. Consider that The Apartment was filmed (and released) eight months before Kennedy took office. The Sixties, and what we now understand them to represent, were yet to begin. In many ways, the movie is the perfect bridge between the Mad Men era of wealth and prosperity and the Big Business disillusionment it created. What happened to the ‘little’ people caught up in the glamour? Wilder didn’t have all the answers, but he was willing to think about what they might be, that ultimately it was about human emotion and happiness. IAL Diamond once claimed Wilder was a blend of ‘the sweet and the sour’, and that’s certainly an apt description for The Apartment, which deftly juxtaposes corporate blandness and cynical career climbing with friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. It’s the ultimate happy-sad picture, and it’s unlikely that anyone other than Wilder could’ve made it work.

This post is part of the Billy Wilder blogathon, hosted by Outspoken & Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Read all the odes to this most celebrated of Hollywood directors here.

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