The Cannes Film Festival is famous for many things, including its strict dress code for premieres. But when “Easy Rider” debuted 50 years ago, the stars found a fashion loophole in the rigorous “comme il faut” rules. As Variety reported on May 21, 1969, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda attended in Civil War uniforms. The antiestablishment look was deemed OK “since uniforms are acceptable evening wear. Nobody specified in the regulations which war or which army.”
The Hopper-directed movie won a prize for best first film, which created a different dilemma: It was immediately banned in France, due to the characters’ drug use. In Britain, it was released with a Certificate X, which was considered a victory: Fonda’s earlier drug-themed “The Trip” had been banned in the U.K. because of the on-screen use of drugs, but insiders said “Easy Rider” was approved because it also depicts their effects.
Columbia released “Easy Rider” in the U.S. in summer 1969, and it was a phenomenon. In the days before box office was scrupulously tracked, Peter Fonda told Variety that its worldwide estimate was $50 million-$60 million, hugely profitable since he pegged the final budget at $375,000. Fonda, who produced the film, said he hoped it makes the point that “you can make 50 films and employ a lot more persons in small crews than hiring 50 for one multimillion-dollar flick.” In the Nov. 6, 1969, interview, Fonda said the actors received SAG minimum, with participation. “Easy Rider,” he concluded, proved “the importance of making movies for a little bread … without skimping, but with nobody stuffing his pockets.”
The success of the film rattled a lot of people in Hollywood. For one thing, “Easy Rider” confirmed that there was a huge youth market that most studio execs didn’t know how to reach, and it was proof that hits like “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde” were not flukes.
Equally important, the film was yet another reminder that lavish spending on a film was not the only guarantee of finding an audience. In contrast with the biker film were studio films like “Star!” (1968) and the 1969 trio of “Hello, Dolly!” “Paint Your Wagon” and “Battle of Britain,” with price tags ranging from $10 million to $25 million. All three did OK at the box office but were not profitable, due to high costs.
In the November 1969 interview with Variety, Fonda demonstrated that, as the son of Henry Fonda and the younger brother of Jane, he understood the film industry first-hand. He also demonstrated his rebel streak. In the interview, he casually mentioned that he had persuaded Columbia to schedule two free shows of the movie in London “for the freaked-out longhairs who haven’t got bread.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film, Fonda will be appearing at the Cannes Classics screening this month on the Croisette. In addition, Fathom Events will be holding special two days of screenings, July 14 and July 17, in more than 400 theaters, including a new introduction by Fonda.