Rock Bottom Rides Again

Captain America and the Brown Dirt Cowboy: Peter Fonda in 'The Hired Hand'
Universal Pictures/Sundance Channel

"Dramatically unmotivated violence and brutality alternate with dazzling montage to provide a literal trip for turned-on audiences."

That's Variety's critic reviewing The Hired Hand in 1971--though he might just as well have been reviewing 1971. At the tail end of the American counterculture, movies that mirrored the counterculture--reflecting critically on the Vietnam War ("unmotivated violence") while reveling in psychedelia ("a literal trip") and the sexual revolution ("turned-on audiences")--proved not so popular in the mainstream press. Variety particularly relished treading on actor-director Peter Fonda in '71, dismissing his revisionist Western The Hired Hand as an "offbeat, confused oater melodrama." Less tolerant still, Time called the movie "pointless, virtually plotless, all but motionless, and a lode of pap." Newsweek none too cleverly cribbed the last line of Fonda's hit Easy Rider: "He blew it."

Or did he? Meditating on the death of freedom, an American tragedy that Easy Rider copped merely to blow us all away, Fonda turned The Hired Hand into something like one of his father Henry's flag-waving Westerns on peyote. The first-time filmmaker's woozy images of the untamed West seem to seep from the projector as if curling out of a pipe. And yet, especially when compared with The Last Movie--his Easy costar Dennis Hopper's own tripped-out horse opera from '71--The Hired Hand is steady, even sober. A year before his sister "Hanoi Jane" began rallying the troops in North Vietnam, Fonda delivered a poignant allegory of coming home. His lonesome cowboy character Harry Collings returns to Hannah (Verna Bloom) after seven long years of roaming the wilderness with Arch (Warren Oates), only to discover that his wife has been sowing some wild oats of her own. With Harry forced to choose between wide open spaces and a cozy cabin, between male bonding and marital breeding, Fonda's revisionist Western is perhaps even more distinctive as a revisionist romance: Here, for a change, it's the man who can't have it all.

A few weeks before jetting off to Minneapolis to introduce a screening of The Hired Hand at Oak Street Cinema (Friday at 7:30 p.m.), Fonda spoke to me by phone from the Montana ranch that he shares with his wife Becky. Although the man has been domesticated for years, he talks a mile a minute, cruising down Memory Lane as if he could go on forever. Perhaps, at age 64, Fonda has found a way to be both Captain America and the Brown Dirt Cowboy at the same time.


City Pages: Peter Fonda--how are you?

Peter Fonda: I'm alive.

CP: You're alive?

Fonda: Yes. Some people think I'm being sarcastic when I say that. I think they've lost sight of the fact that the alternative is unacceptable.

CP: Actually, death has done quite a lot for some people's careers.

Fonda: For me, it all comes back to my name. For years I hated my first name: It reminded me of the phrase to peter out. People would say, "But Peter means rock, you know?" I'd say, "I don't give a rat's ass. I don't like it."

CP: And "Fonda"?

Fonda: It means basin or foundation--or bottom. So my full name is Rock Bottom. And believe me, I've been there.

CP: Did The Hired Hand's failure in 1971 help bring you to the bottom?

Fonda: Put it this way: If Hopper hadn't made The Last Movie--the prophetically named Last Movie--first, and Universal's marketing division hadn't been asleep at the wheel, we could have walked away with Oscars. In '71, there was nothing like it--in terms of the editing and the cinematography. And the score. And the performances. But after Easy Rider, people just wanted to see me on a motorcycle smoking pot. And the studio was trying to bill it as Peter Fonda Rides Again.

CP: Speaking of the cinematography: The Hired Hand is the first major film shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who went on to shoot McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, and The Deer Hunter.

Fonda: Funny story. I originally wanted Laszlo Kovacs: He had done such a great job for me on Easy Rider. And since I was directing this one, and acting in it, I needed someone who could operate the camera. But Laszlo wasn't available: He was shooting Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland at the time. He said to me, "You know that fellow who hangs around with me all the time? The guy with the beard?" Yeah. "Well, he's my mentor. His name is Bill Zsigmond: You can call him 'Ziggy.'" Naturally I figured that if Laszlo had shot 19 or so films before Easy Rider, then his mentor must have at least 50 in his pocket, right?

CP: Right.

Fonda: So I hired Ziggy on the spot. Then about three weeks into the show, after a long day of shooting inserts of me walking around looking at the sky--I'm a farmer in 1881, so I don't go online to figure out the weather, right?--we're tear-assing down the highway to Santa Fe, Ziggy and me. We're trying to get there before they close all the restaurants at nine--which they still do in Santa Fe, by the way. We've got literally the first Blazer that GM ever built, and we're rippin' it--buried the needle at 110 [miles per hour]. I'm explaining to Ziggy the next day's shot and what it means--the allegory and the metaphor. He says, "I don't need allegory and metaphor, Peter, just where you want to put the camera." This went on for a while, back and forth, and I'm getting frustrated. Finally I say, "Vilmos, what do you do with the other directors you work with?" "What other directors?" he says. "This is my first film! I shoot only Coca-Cola bottles!" Man, the smoke from the burning tires filled the whole cab. I couldn't believe it.

CP: I wouldn't mind hearing about the allegory and the metaphor.

Fonda: Okay. The river is major--as it is in all mythology. It's right there in the first scene. I'm the fisherman, right? Up out of the water comes a figure [the young buddy character played by Robert Pratt] that's slightly out of focus. We pull focus and up it comes again--taking a breath. I shake my head, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, "You're fucking up my fishing, man." But the symbolism is there: I'm the fisher of men--the Christ figure. I catch this man--in a symbolic way. He comes out of the water--stumbling, bare-ass naked--behind me. He grabs his clothes and heads for the fire. All the elements are there: earth, fire, air, and water. Then we go across the river--into purgatory, where the evil lives, where [Pratt's character] loses his life. And I take revenge: I shoot the bad guy in the feet. Very religious. And foolish. That's the kind of violence I wanted to deal with: the unacceptable violence.

CP: Unacceptable violence was abundant in '71.

Fonda: Innocence is lost; in the movie, Ambiguity and Wisdom decide to ride back. My character is Ambiguity: He comes back from purgatory, he rides through this dry, desolate area, and he finally gets home--to the garden. Like Joni Mitchell says: And we've got to get ourselves/Back to the garden. But can you ever really go back? Can you ever really recapture youth? Men are always trying to do it--and failing [laughs]. In the end, [my character] has to be sacrificed--because of his ambiguity, and because of everything [wrong] that he's done to people. He's gonna get whacked--and the audience knows it.

CP: Sounds like another metaphor. I mean, it's not just in the movies of '71 where ambiguity gets whacked.

Fonda: I was feeling ambiguity in my own life, and I was seeing it all around me. I was seeing that it wasn't going to last. It's like when my character in The Limey is talking about the '60s and he says, "'The '60s were really only '66 and part of '67." It really was over after that. In Easy Rider, when they're in the hippie commune and Hopper says, "This is nothin' but sand, man--they ain't gonna make it," and I say, "No, man, they're gonna make it," I was lying through my teeth.

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