After spending the night in Santa Fe, I get up early and head to Las Vegas, N.M. It’s here that Wyatt and Billy run afoul of the law, arrested for “parading without a permit” after they ride their bikes through a small-town celebration straight out of a Jaycees brochure. Las Vegas is in the middle of a sleepy morning as I pull up, but I’m in for a shock. Parking my car just off the town square, I look up and read the marquee:
DOUBLE FEATURE: EASY RIDER & DUEL
I’m excited about seeing Easy Rider on the big screen, having only watched it on DVD. I slip into the nearby Popular Dry Goods, note an ad from a company boasting that its clothes were featured in No Country for Old Men, then excitedly ask whether the theater is still open and whether it’s really playing Easy Rider.
“It’s still open,” a man named Dennis replies, “but if you buy a ticket for Easy Rider you’re going to end up seeing G-Force.” Turns out the marquee’s been changed because there’s a movie filming in town, the Greg Mottola-directed Paul, in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play comic-book geeks road-tripping across America. My quest to discover how 40 years have altered a movie version of America has stumbled on a pocket of America altered for a movie.
Hollywood gets out here a lot. Tom Mix shot some Westerns here. The Communists invaded it in Red Dawn. Billy Bob Thornton’s been here a couple of times, once when he directed an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and again when he starred in The Astronaut Farmer. It makes a fine stand-in for McCarthy’s border country; the Coen Brothers were here for No Country for Old Men. But it’s also a fine stand-in for small-town America, which I’m guessing is why Paul is using it. Later, I’ll try to enter a cool-looking comic-book shop only to be told it’s also part of a set.
In Easy Rider, it’s here that Wyatt and Billy first encounter the small-town intolerance that will seal their fate. Their guide for this leg of the journey is a cellmate named George Hanson, a young local lawyer played by Jack Nicholson. Hanson wakes up next to them in jail, unsure where he is or how he got there. Soon the surroundings become familiar—thanks to his descent into alcoholism, Hanson has come to know the inside of the jail quite well. He speaks proudly of his work with the ACLU and matter-of-factly about the family connections that keep his jail stints short and relatively pleasant. “They’ve got this here, see, scissor-happy ‘Beautify America’ thing going on around here,” he tells Billy and Wyatt later. “They’re trying to make everyone look like Yul Brynner.”
Nicholson had been acting in films for more than a decade when he appeared in Easy Rider, but it was this film that made him a star. He’d done some memorable work for Roger Corman and starred in two notable Westerns for Monte Hellman, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. He wrote the latter, too, but even in writing his own character, he’d yet to find a role that took advantage of his talent for conveying a charming yet insistent spirit of dissent.
As a man just barely able to restrain his disgust with mainstream society even as he works within it, Hanson is the template for memorable Nicholson roles that followed, from Five Easy Pieces to Carnal Knowledge to Chinatown. He’s a bit more of an innocent than Nicholson heroes to come, but he shares their disdain for the world he’s been handed, one with clearly marked, if rarely remarked on, limits. In Wyatt and Billy, Hanson sees an instant escape from the life he knows. He’ll pay the price for that later.
Movies have long idealized small-town life. Easy Rider is not one of those movies. It presents the “silent majority” that swept Nixon into office the year before as a bigoted and ultimately murderous bunch. (What is still just a threat of prejudice and violence in Las Vegas becomes a terrifying reality when the film reaches the Deep South.) This no doubt played well with the movie’s counterculture audience, and it’s not as if a cultural divide didn’t exist in America at the time. But the movie’s depiction of Las Vegas and, later, the South tars a whole swath of the country with a broad brush.
Nicholson’s Hanson, however, is an exception. Here’s a man who’s born of the same soil and speaking the same drawling language as the “Beautify America” set—a football star even—who’s woken up to the shortcomings of the restrictive world around him. He’s evidence that things can change—or would be if he weren’t looking up from the bottom of a glass so often. Growing less effective by the drink, his ‘60s activism has gone limp in defeat.
“This used to be a hell of a country,” Hanson tells his new friends after agreeing to join their trip to Mardis Gras. It’s an oft-quoted line, one that makes Hanson sound more like the people he’s leaving behind than the hippies he’s joined. Would he really want to turn back the clock on the decade’s political advances? Or has the end of that decade left him feeling hopeless? While cameras rolled on Easy Rider, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy died violently, the Vietnam War showed no signs of slowing, and domestic unrest mounted. It was enough to make anyone nostalgic for small-town comforts.
I spent much of my day in Las Vegas hanging out in a charming coffee shop where tattooed baristas served senior citizens playing board games. I left ready to pull up stakes and move there. It fit my movie-shaped ideal of what a small town was supposed to look like: the pleasant, tree-lined town square, smiling locals, a burger joint not associated with clowns or kings, a corner drug store complete with a soda fountain. The town surely has the same problems found across America, but they were nowhere to be seen during my visit. Of course, Las Vegas has an incentive to appear idyllic. If it appears otherwise, filmmakers will need to look elsewhere to find small-town imagery to idealize or subvert in their films. I ended up unsure whether I’d really seen Las Vegas at all, or just some Hollywood idea of small-town authenticity. After admiring a cowgirl painted on the side of a building announcing I’d arrived where “the Great Plains meet the mighty Rockies,” I noticed it welcomed me to a town called “Calumet”—Las Vegas’ name in Red Dawn. I could live here, but where would I really be?