Breakouts and Outbreaks: Jack Nicholson in ‘Easy Rider’

Few actors have carried their career as long or as far as Jack Nicholson. In 1969 Jack Nicholson starred in what was supposed to be a generic motorcycle road-trip movie, which were all too common and insignificant. However, Easy Rider was no generic film. It had the hidden talent of Dennis Hopper present. Dennis Hopper was recognized by Lawrence Olivier as a respectable actor, but with Easy Rider, Hopper brought more than just his talent to the surface.

With Easy Rider, Nicholson established his rugged persona that has carried him for over forty years. He is America’s badass; from free-spirited motorcyclist, to fake madman, to mob boss, Nicholson has always presented a dry, raw realism that creates very down-to-earth characters. With Easy Rider, he expressed the feelings that circulated America during the age of the psychedelic 1960s. The film didn’t have money for an original soundtrack, so it became the first films to compile hit songs to fill that void. The soundtrack has become a pivotal element to the film, the ultimate counter-culture examination.

Nicholson personified the “New Hollywood” movement that combined classical cinema with exploitation; it pushed the limits of what was acceptable and presented it straightforward and cinematically. It is a performance that walks the line of protagonist and antagonist, the film dares us to like him, makes us root for him. We sympathize but we are a little afraid.

The first half of the film really establishes the tone and characters for what unfolds in the second half. But it is in the short-on-dialogue first half that puts the viewer’s perspective of Wyatt and Billy’s lifestyle in place. In establishing his character, Nicholson expertly creates a character that represents the anti-establishment mood of the era and intensity. He is the bringing down of society, an ACLU lawyer that discovers betterment from abandonment. A man respected in society brought to the levels of these two cyclists and their marijuana. But is this a bad thing? Is it enlightenment? Should we enjoy this? The movie is not an advertisement of drugs; it is a study of a culture that can’t deny their presence.

Nicholson is the character that develops the most throughout the movie, he is the one that starts out clean and ends up in the newly-founded degraded form of society. His change is gradual, and Nicholson brings his dry, but potent delivery to each step of the transformation.

 Nicholson’s performance in the film garnered him the first of his twelve Oscar nominations thus far. He is the rare actor that in his long career, never significantly faltered. Despite the occasional Bucket List, his career always finds its way back into films of substance.  Like his character, George, Nicholson has transformed as an actor, always bringing to life quirky characters that are often intimidating. While it may be cliché to state that his masterful work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is his best, it really is a role that played to his strength and gave him a chance to shine as a lead. The Shining and Batman are two other great roles that allowed his wild side to show.

Nicholson has through the ages provided several classic performances, each in their own right worthy of recognition. He can play it soft, he can be a hardass, and he is an expert at drifting in between.

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  • Jose

    “He is America’s badass”
    Well said.

  • I just saw Easy Rider for the first time a few weeks ago. What a weird ending. I think that his better and far more deep performance was in Five Easy Pieces a year after. In terms of acting quality it was more of a breakthrough.

  • I completely agree Brandon, but I consider breakthroughs in terms of public notice, the films that gave them later opportunities, and Easy Rider is pretty clearly his breakthrough in that regard.

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