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Classic 'Two-Lane Blacktop' Takes the Long Road to Video

Movies: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson star in Monte Hellman's 1971 film loved by critics but battered at the box office.

November 03, 1999|DONALD LIEBENSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Two-Lane Blacktop" fans: Start your engines. Monte Hellman's legendary 1971 road movie is available for the first time on videocassette and DVD.

It has been a long road for the film that before its release was hailed by Esquire magazine as "movie of the year." A subsequent box office disappointment, "Two-Lane Blacktop" languished in the Universal Studios vaults, its video release stymied in part by entanglements over music rights.

Michigan-based Anchor Bay Entertainment, a producer and distributor of definitive editions of pop culture favorites and cult classics, licensed the long-sought film from Universal. Jay Douglas, Anchor Bay vice president of acquisitions, whose stated company objective is "to put out really cool movies," enthused in a phone interview: "This has given me the biggest thrill."

"Two-Lane Blacktop" retails for a suggested list price of $15 on VHS and $30 on DVD. Both present the film in the wide-screen format. The DVD includes audio commentary by Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz, and a documentary segment, "Monte Hellman: American Auteur," directed by George Hickenlooper.

"Two-Lane Blacktop" stars (in their lone leading roles) James Taylor and former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as, respectively, the Driver and the Mechanic. Warren Oates, in a performance that Leonard Maltin's "Movie & Video Guide" calls "as good as you'll ever see and should have had the Oscar," co-stars as the loquacious G.T.O., who challenges the laconic duo to a race between New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

The late Laurie Bird also stars as the Girl, a drifter who one day climbs into the Driver's back seat and comes along for the ride ("East? That's cool, I've never been east"), changing bed partners the way the Driver changes lanes. Appearing briefly, but memorably, is Harry Dean (billed as H.D.) Stanton as a hitchhiker who propositions G.T.O.

Like the film's '55 Chevy and '70 Pontiac GTO, "Two-Lane Blacktop" is a fully restored vintage model. It is a relic of the so-called "New Hollywood," when studios, wanting to duplicate the phenomenal success of "Easy Rider," flirted briefly with allowing filmmakers total creative freedom.

"It was a little pocket of time," screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer recalled in a phone interview, "a bubble of time when the movies weren't executive-driven. It didn't last long. There were four or five years when it was relatively free. Then the gates closed."

"Two-Lane Blacktop" was one of several films made at Universal in a then-new youth division overseen by Ned Tanen.

"Here was a major studio trying to figure out what it was that made independent films, particularly 'Easy Rider,' successful," Hellman recalled in a phone interview. "They thought, rightfully so, that one of the things was that the filmmakers had freedom.

"Contractually, they said they would not touch a frame of the film as long as it was under two hours. We didn't have any of the usual problems of a studio coming in and saying to cut out this or add that. We were left completely alone during the shooting and editing. Even producer Michael Laughlin, who was very supportive, did not come on location."

Character actor Will Corry wrote the original script for "Two-Lane Blacktop" and gets a story credit on the film. It was inspired, he said, by his own cross-country trek in 1968.

This was to be Hellman's first studio A-picture--albeit with a budget of less than $1 million. His previous credits included "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind," two critically acclaimed westerns that starred Jack Nicholson and that, anticipating "Two-Lane Blacktop," were better received in Europe than in the United States.

Hellman was introduced to Laughlin by his then-agent, Mike Medavoy, after returning to Hollywood from Italy, where a film project had fallen through. "Two-Lane Blacktop" was one of two films Laughlin presented to him.

"I told him I was very interested in the subject of 'Two-Lane' but not particularly in the script he had at that time," Hellman said. "Fortunately, he agreed to let me bring in another writer."

Enter Wurlitzer. Hellman had "flipped out" over his book "Nog," which Wurlitzer described as "a strange '60s road novel." The director recruited him to rewrite the script. It was Wurlitzer's first screenplay.

Anyone hitching a ride with "Two-Lane Blacktop" for the first time should not expect "Cannonball Run." This is a more meditative film.

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