When it comes to the acting, starting with Peter Sellers and his celebrated trio of roles, all the principals manage to be both outrageous and in control. From Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper, worried about a plot to impurify our vital bodily fluids, to George C. Scott as the befuddled Gen. Buck Turgidson and Keenan Wynn as Col. Bat Guano, more concerned with protecting private property than stopping nuclear catastrophe, everyone has an understanding of the pitch this roguish script ought to be played at.
Interestingly enough, it was just this mixture of serious subject matter with maniacal humor that infuriated many critics on the film's initial release. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said it was "defeatist and destructive to morale"; the Los Angeles Times' Philip K. Sheurer called it "an evil thing about an evil thing," and others followed suit.
Yet, even with the abeyance of the Soviet threat, "Dr. Strangelove" seems continually relevant. What is especially poignant about the film today is realizing the difficulty something this politically engaged would have getting made now and how unlikely it would be, given what he has done lately, that the talented Kubrick would be the person to pull it off.
Despite all the fuss made about it, "Dr. Strangelove" was not as big a hit in its time as "Easy Rider," which shocked the studio Establishment by earning more than $50 million domestically on a budget of $375,000. Though nowhere the artistic accomplishment that "Dr. Strangelove" was, it definitely touched a nerve in the country, and its re-release is an attempt to see if just as many people will respond with dollars the second time around.
Although "Easy Rider" has come to be the quintessential 1960s movie, it is important to remember that it came out in 1969, when the era it celebrated was just about over. Rather than an influence on a moment in American cultural history, it was a mythologizing and a goodby that affected other movies more than it did society at large.
Loosely directed by co-star Dennis Hopper, "Easy Rider" follows cool dudes Billy and Wyatt (Hopper and Peter Fonda), flush with money from a rich West Coast drug deal, as they motor out to New Orleans for a Mardi Gras celebration of their fiscal success.
The most immediately noticeable thing about "Easy Rider" is how much it has become dated, turning into a relic of an era that has disappeared. It's not just hearing about people getting their thing together so they can have a groovy experience that now seems archaic but also the stoned philosophizing about the meaning of freedom that went along with it.
Running through all of "Easy Rider" is a naive awe at those lucky folk who "live off the land, doing your own thing in your own time." Most embarrassing is a visit Billy and Wyatt pay to an archetypal commune, where the marks of hippiedom, from the I Ching and Tai Chi to tepees and faded VW buses, clamor for attention.
Still the freshest thing about "Easy Rider," it will surprise no one who remembers it, is Jack Nicholson's supple breakthrough performance as a Jim Beam-drinking lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. To experience Nicholson curiously examining a joint or declaiming on everything from UFOs to New Orleans hookers is thankfully as much a pleasure as it ever was.
And as dated as so much of "Easy Rider" is (who wouldn't like to forget the oafish rednecks and that embarrassing New Orleans drug trip?), some of the simplest things the movie did prove to be as effective now as then.
First of all, the soundtrack, featuring songs by the Byrds, the Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and others, still sounds alive. When the music is joined to Laszlo Kovacs' invigorating cinematography, "Easy Rider" is able to call forth the sense of freedom and possibility that made it such a sensation way back when. More a time capsule than the enduring classic "Dr. Strangelove" is, it remains a long strange trip all its own.
* \o7 "Dr. Strangelove," the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; opens Wednesday; (310) 478-6379. "Easy Rider," Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; opens Friday; (213) 848-3500. \f7