Countering Counterculture: Easy Rider and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Spoiler Warning: This article describes details of the plots to both Easy Rider and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
On June 14th, 1969, just under two months before the horrific murder of Sharon Tate and five others on Cielo Drive, the directorial debut of Dennis Hopper Easy Rider took America by storm. It’s no surprise then that this movie would act as one of the many influences on the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, a story that shamelessly plays with the history of the summer of 1969. The relationship between the two films is a complicated one, however, as Tarantino’s latest seems just as interested in condemning the hippie lifestyle as it does in reveling in the majesty of a pre-Manson Hollywood. Tarantino taps into a darkness that is present in Easy Rider, a darkness that helps point to what ultimately led to the death of the counterculture movement.
On the surface, the influence on Tarantino’s latest is obvious. The way he shoots driving and soundtracks the sequences is almost identical to Easy Rider. Both films sit with their characters as they drive, never rushing through a moment. Often these sequences will change between multiple songs on the soundtrack as a marker of distance and time traveled. Both films are also totally in love with their main characters and just want to spend as much time as they can with them just living. They are “hangout” films that allow us to come into the lives of these characters, until the moment they aren’t and everything becomes real.
OUATIH is a Hollywood fairy tale, it happily twists history to its own enjoyment whenever it pleases, but it is also an examination of what was going on in L.A. leading up to the events at Cielo Drive. Our two main characters, Rick (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt), represent a dying age. Rick has starred in old school westerns and “shoot em up” flicks but we see his time is running out when the best offer he can get is to go to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns.
The entirety of Easy Rider is about two hippie bikers, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), who are escaping formal society. They are breaking free from old traditions to try and live the ultimate life. The two are constantly being told to cut their hair and being labeled as “queers” for their willingness to shed societal norms and live how they want to live, something Rick Dalton openly detests in OUATIH.
Early on Rick sees a group of hippies and scoffs at their very existence which sets the tone for how the entire film is going to treat them. As much as this movie adores Hollywood in 1969, it has very little love for the hippies hitchhiking all over it. Not necessarily for the movement or ideologies as much as specifically for the people that flooded LA with no money and no plan only to be drafted into some commune/cult. Our first formal introduction to them in the film is a group of Manson girls dumpster diving for food, not necessarily the best sell for the “free” life.
On the other hand, Easy Rider aims to show the counterculture in its best form, it's a love letter to a movement and the people who make it happen. OUATIH shows us that same movement in its darkest form, what happens when this ideology is taken to the extreme? Well, just like any other set of beliefs, it becomes incredibly dangerous. The former wants to remind us how dangerous it can be for us to think outside of the norm, while the latter reminds us how dangerous it can be for others when we let those beliefs run unchecked.
In the fifty years since its release, however, it has become clear there is a subtle darkness prevalent in Easy Rider that can't be unseen in a post-Manson world, and Tarantino taps into that. You can see this clearly when you compare both movies “hippie commune” sequences. In Hopper’s film, the commune is mostly seen as a happy, if not struggling, community, but there is an uncomfortable feeling you get while watching it. Something isn't right there. Whether it be the power structures between men and women, or their lack of food and supplies, you can feel it all around. The Spahn Ranch sequence, one of Tarantino’s most intense sequences ever, takes that tension present in Easy Rider and quadruples it. He doesn't want us to see anything good in this situation, these people are dirty and starved and clearly have been brainwashed enough to be absolutely fine with it.
Spahn Ranch, much like the restaurant sequence in Hopper’s film, is where it ceases to be a “hangout” movie as we are being prepped for a shocking ending. The finale of both films are a perfect representation of the relationship between them and how one is a comment on the other. At the end of Easy Rider, after the loveable lawyer played by Jack Nicholson was killed by “The Man”, we watch as our two heroes get gunned down by two disgusting hillbillies for daring to be different. Despite the films love for the lifestyle its ending is a stark reminder that freedom comes with responsibility. Just moments before this Wyatt declares to Billy that they “blew it” a line that seems to have stuck with Tarantino.
At the end of OUATIH, we see a fictional take on the events of Cielo drive on August 8, 1969. The Manson followers going to commit the Tate murders get intercepted by Dalton and Booth. A turn of events that ultimately leads to the would-be Tate murderers getting killed themselves in a sequence of glorious vengeance. The movie is taking out decades of built up anger at the Manson family specifically, but you can't help but notice a little of that vengeance being held for the movement as a whole which allowed for this extreme situation to happen.
Tarantino is interested in how 1969 shaped the entire future of Hollywood. He doesn't kill Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in turn leaving us all with the fantasy of what Hollywood could have been if that were the case, do the paranoid 70’s ever come? The film also looks at what 1969 did for the lasting legacy of the counterculture movement. After Cliff and Rick kill the family members that invaded their home he comments to his neighbor, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), that all of the invaders are dead and when Jay asks “is everyone alright” Rick answers “the hippies aren’t”. A hilarious line that also reminds us that their movement never recovered from the Manson family, they did in fact “blow it”.
What drives it all home though, is the relationship in the film between Rick and the hippie culture. He’s so worried about being washed up that you can feel much of his disdain coming from that fear. Hippies are the youth and he fears what he isn't able to tap into, but that change is inevitable. When he shows up on the set of Lancer, he's surprised to learn that his classic Hollywood good looks aren't wanted. He’s to be put in a wig, fake mustache, cowboy hat, and a frilled leather jacket. He's wearing the exact wardrobe of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. He starts crying as he unloads his anxieties on an eight year old girl, he breaks down in anger in his trailer and examines his entire life, and then cries tears of joy when he's told how good his acting is, all while dressed as Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Sometimes the future is inevitable no matter how hard you fight it.
Dalton’s relationship to the hippies is distilled perfectly in one small joke that got a huge laugh from me both times seeing it. When Rick confronts the murderers in their car he calls Tex (Austin Butler) “Dennis Hopper”. In the movie it's now been almost two months since the release of the film and the counterculture movement was already losing steam before the Manson murders. Post-1969, if you were still a hippie society saw you, at best, as a wannabe Dennis Hopper and at worst a member of The Family. People like Dalton no longer see them as anything but a joke and are happy to call them such to their face.
As with any Tarantino film the list of influences is almost endless, but Easy Rider’s footprint on his latest is massive and can not be ignored. It's clear he has grappled with what this movie means to America and to Hollywood and there is no better place to examine all of that then within the confines of a Tarantino flick. He tapped into the subtle darkness of Hopper’s masterpiece and used it highlight what was happening in Hollywood in the summer of 1969. He also deeply loves the film, you can see its influence all over the movie. From the way it’s shot to the way it’s soundtracked you can see his admiration for the filmmaking. The way both films are at times riding the same wave, and at others are in direct contrast to each other make them great companions. When played together they tell a clear story of what happened to American in, and after, the Summer of ‘69. I cannot wait for a double feature when Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood hits blu-ray.