The late American indie film auteur Monte Hellman was fond of a quote from Jean Cocteau that poetically summed up the fate of any real work of art: “A work of art should also be ‘an object difficult to pick up.’ It must protect itself from vulgar pawing, which tarnishes and disfigures it. It should be made of such a shape that people don’t know which way to hold it, which embarrasses and irritates the critics, incites them to be rude, but keeps it fresh. The less it’s understood, the slower it opens its petals, the later it will fade.”
Cocteau’s dictum certainly applies to Hellman’s 1971 film, “Two-Lane Blacktop.” It opened its petals 50 years ago today and still confounds not only the critics but its fans and friends, including the film’s unit publicist Beverly Walker, whose groundbreaking campaign for the film included getting Esquire magazine to reprint “Blacktop’s” complete script and put an unknown actress from the film, Laurie Bird, on the cover. All her efforts were for naught, as the film crashed and burned with the all-important New York critical fraternity and audiences were no friendlier. Within weeks, “Blacktop,” designed to be Universal’s new “Easy Rider,” was more like a low budget “Howard the Duck,” an embarrassment to the Studio and the last film Hellman would ever make inside the Hollywood “system.”
Chatting with Walker this week makes it clear that she’s still working out what she thinks of Hellman’s film, which has landed in the U.S. National Film Registry and many critics’ lists of best American films of the 70s, and one ranking that deemed it “The greatest road movie of all time.”
“I don’t really think of it as a road movie,” counters Walker, but after our conversation, she sent me a lengthy clarification of that point. The Hollywood veteran, who moved from the New York Film Festival to publicist on Michelangelo Antonioni’s equally ill-fated “Zabriskie Point” (1970) to duties with other major filmmakers including Francis Coppola, is still grappling with the shooting of a film that took place more than 50 years ago.
But Walker’s ambivalence isn’t simply about Hellman’s idiosyncratic Samuel Beckett on Route 66 take on Hollywood’s “youth movie” craze of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it’s also a reflection of her proximity to the making of film art and memories of an immersion into an unorthodox filmmaker’s unyielding artistic quest that didn’t serve the needs of the Hollywood studio that made it, or the drive-in audiences that were confused and/or bored by it, but it has kept cineastes, film critics and filmmakers up for long nights discussing what “You can never go fast enough” really means.
“I had just come off of ‘Zabriskie Point’ and Fred Zinneman’s ‘Man’s Fate,’ which was never made and Fred Roos was in New York and asked me if I wanted to work on Jack Nicholson’s “Drive He Said” or Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop.’ I knew who Jack was because of ‘Easy Rider,’ but that was it. I was familiar with Monte’s film, “The Shooting,’ and having a snooty mindset about films, I went for the film that was more offbeat and interesting.”
According to Walker, Hellman’s unconventional creative choices began before the film took off on its cross-country shoot, as planned Hellman to film his chronicle of a coast-to-coast contest between a souped up ‘55 Chevy and gleaming new factory-made Pontiac GTO in sequence and with the three of the film’s four leads complete acting novices.
“I begged Monte not to use amateurs,” says Walker of legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor, who starred in his only film role as The Driver, Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys as The Mechanic and teen model Laurie Bird as The Girl. The lone acting pro was Hellman favorite Warren Oates, the subject of a current Lincoln Center retrospective that includes “Blacktop.”
“The two kids that Antonioni chose for ‘Zabriskie’ were a disaster,” recalls Walker. “So, we had a lot of back and forth about that. I was very worried.”
Next up for the anxiety inducements was Hellman’s refusal to let the actors see the script. “There was a kind of iciness in Monte’s refusal to give James the script” says Walker. “Dennis was very easy. He was a performer. Laurie didn’t have a clue and didn’t care. But James is his own man, and he writes his own songs and records them. Not being allowed to see the script major issue. I went to Monte and told him this and three weeks in, he finally relented.”
Which bring us back to Walker’s take on the film, which has, as Cocteau surmised, has never been less than “difficult” to hold. In Walker’s rear-view mirror, “When I first saw it, I didn’t project what the film would be. I was worried about Laurie and James. I really didn’t like Laurie in the film. I loved her as a person, but in the film, I thought she was kind of disastrous. That said, there is an authenticity to Laurie, an ‘Anything goes, I’ll sleep with you tonight’ quality, and Monte did capture that. But in terms of an audience being able to figure out this girl in a way that is satisfying, Laurie made that more difficult. Then there’s James, and then the austerity of the film and the tempo.”
Hellman’s 50-year exile from Hollywood studio filmmaking may be one of the most extreme cases of “director jail” in recorded history, but in Walker’s view, Hellman’s extreme creative choices – think Bresson, Olmi and Ozu having fun with American pop culture – earned his banishment.
“Monte’s personality is at one with that film,” asserts Walker. “His character, his rhythms. The role of the vastness of the country and role of the car dealing with this vastness becomes what the film is about. And the men relate to each other on the basis of the cars they’re driving.
“I’ve seen it relatively recently and quite a few times. The things that were troubling me then, now contribute to the somber aesthetic of the film. The gravity takes your breath away, if you have the patience to go with it. But I still can’t separate its qualities from the fact that it didn’t find an audience. It doesn’t seem fair that ‘American Graffiti,’ which is a delightful cotton candy, succeeded so spectacularly and ‘Blacktop’s’ failure was so extreme.”
Much has been written about “Blacktop’s” release and subsequent failure, with many fingers, including Hellman’s, pointing to studio boss Lew Wasserman as the culprit who decreed that the film must not succeed, lest other similarly independent and unmanageable directors get confused about who’s in charge of the process, commerce or art.
Walker was there, and she says it just isn’t true.
“I’ve heard the stories that Lew Wasserman hated it and it’s just flat out not true,” says Walker. “I was central to the creation of the campaign. Top consultants that I found were hired and paid a great deal of money to create a campaign for the film. Certainly, at that point, the hope and expectations were that the film would do well. But the critical response was not good. It was clear this not going to be ‘Easy Rider.’ Then the early box office out of New York and other markets was not good.”
Now as for Walker’s contrarian take that “Two-Lane Blacktop” “is not a road movie,” a day after we spoke, Walker was still adjusting her grip on Cocteau’s “object difficult to pick up.” And as if it were still 1970, and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were still singing “Happy Birthday” to her during an impromptu party thrown for her on a movie set somewhere out in America, she again finds herself totally immersed in the movie’s obstinate quirkiness and tackles What Hath Hellman Wrought in an email: “Even though Monte denied (to me) being influenced by existentialist philosophy, ‘Two-Lane ‘clearly owes a lot to Beckett, Camus, Sartre and others. In fact, it could’ve been called ‘No Exit’ if that title wasn’t already taken! ‘Two-Lane’ leaves the audience bereft of any emotion. Numbed. It’s almost cruel in that respect.
“I believe what attracted Monte to (screenwriter) Rudolph Wurlitzer was the Beckettian edge in Wurlitzer’s novels. ‘Two-Lane,’ therefore, is doubly drenched by a bleak, despairing, view of human life, specifically the difficulty men have relating to each other without an external reference point — cars, in this instance. A powerful need to compete and win is part of the male DNA (apparently). That’s the beating heart of ‘Two-Lane.’
“This is why I’ve never thought of ‘Two-Lane’ as a “road” movie per se, despite its adherence to certain conventions of the genre. To me, it’s more of a meditative treatise in visual terms, fitting as readily into the ‘film noir’ category as the ‘road movie.’
“In no way is ‘Two-Lane’ an ‘entertainment.’ But it can be mesmerizing, if truly paid attention to. A viewer must accept it on its own terms, not hold it at bay or wish it to be something it is not. The American film industry should have a place for such films, just as one finds in theater, literature and music. ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ doesn’t owe an apology to anyone,” Walker concludes.