Peter Fonda, uneasy icon

Issue section: 
(449)

The actor Peter Fonda, who died last month aged 79, was Hollywood royalty. His father was Henry Fonda, star of classic films such as Twelve Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Fonda senior’s sensitive performances established the idea of the American as a thoughtful liberal, intent on rooting out prejudice and injustice and bringing about a better way of life for all.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Peter’s sister actress Jane Fonda led the Hollywood resistance to the US’s war in Vietnam and was denounced as “Hanoi Jane” by the press for her support of the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people.

Peter Fonda is best remembered for Easy Rider, the 1969 film he wrote and starred in alongside director Dennis Hopper. The film is an odyssey across the US from coast to coast, Los Angeles to New Orleans. It was quickly established as a counter culture classic, bringing an entire new generation into the cinemas and grossing over $70 million worldwide.

Easy Rider is a poem to America’s decline from the liberal ideas of Fonda’s father, and at the same time a search for new freedoms. It charts the difficulty that young Americans in the 1960s faced in establishing themselves and their new ideas — about the war, about how you should look and dress, about how long your hair should be — in the face of the establishment and its supporters.

The posters for the film bore the legend, “A man went in search of America, and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

In many ways it is a classic tale of two outsiders, cowboys on motorbikes on a journey to find the frontier. But here the usual story is told backwards; they travel not east to west but west to east, from LA, the youngest cultural centre of the US to one of its oldest, New Orleans.

Easy Rider was released in 1969, the end of the flower power era of hippy innocence. Things had begun to turn bad. Charles Manson’s gang had murdered the actor Sharon Tate and four others in August of that year, and a young man would be killed by the Hells Angels motorbike gang at the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont in December.

The 1960s had not turned out the way that many had hoped.

While Fonda appeared in many movies and had a go at directing with mixed results, he was never really able to emulate the success of Easy Rider again.

The image of Fonda riding his stars and stripes painted Harley Davidson is burned into the collective vision of our times, an icon of rebellion. Announcing his death his family said, “In honour of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”