JULY 30, 2022
THE MANSON MURDERS rocked Hollywood and the nation in 1969. Joan Didion, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, recalled that “no one was surprised.” The affluent Hollywood Hills were rife with questionable characters on the margins of the film industry, who took many high-profile victims along the way. Maybe it was always that way. After all, people still debate who murdered director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. The same goes for Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, killed, dismembered, and left on public display in 1947. Every Hollywood generation seems to endure some grisly event that exposes its dark side.
Jon Lewis, author of Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles (2017), follows up that study with another book about cultural conflict in Tinseltown. In Road Trip to Nowhere: Hollywood Encounters the Counterculture (2022), Lewis explores the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s peace and love years. Only there wasn’t much peace, and the love may have been overstated. The rosy misconceptions of this era often come from the mythos surrounding the Woodstock music festival, but according to Lewis, this “was always an incomplete and convenient fiction.” When you dig beneath the glitzy surface of the era, you find a more nefarious counterculture that was chewing up nearly everyone it encountered.
Road Trip to Nowhere begins and ends with the Manson murders. In between, films like Easy Rider (1969) Zabriskie Point (1970) are discussed at length, along with the constant fumblings of Dennis Hopper’s career and strange fate of Mark Frechette. Christopher Jones, the star of Ryan’s Daughter (1970), is profiled, along with his precipitate fall into drugs and promiscuity following his breakout role. Another chapter focuses on the disparate journeys of four key actresses: Jean Seberg, Jane Fonda, Dolores Hart, and Barbara Loden. The scope of Lewis’s coverage is roughly 1967–1976, though he offers ample background on major stories that predate these years. Lewis shows in great detail how some of the top echelon of the so-called New Hollywood were living their lives as if they were novel characters in a noir crime from the 1930s.
Lewis focuses on stories of “sudden success followed by a self-inflicted career implosion,” the eponymous road trip to nowhere. One story he omits is that of Peter Bogdanovich, who arguably had the most striking rise and fall during these years. Bogdanovich, deservedly well respected as one of the first oral historians of Hollywood’s Golden Age, got his start with Roger Corman in the 1960s and saw great success in the early ’70s with The Last Picture Show (1971) Paper Moon (1973). After a series of flops, he got involved with Playboy model Doro Stratten, who was murdered by her husband. From the mid-’70s to the late ’90s, he embarked on a series of road trips to nowhere. Orson Welles, on this lonesome trail himself, lived with Bogdanovich for some of this time. Bogdanovich finally regained some footing in 2001 with the criminally underrated The Cat’s Meowa recreation of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. The director’s last two decades were highly prolific, suggesting that some people can ultimately survive their road trips to nowhere if they live long enough.
Francis Ford Coppola also comes to mind. Coppola owned the 1970s, with Oscars for the first two Godfather films (1972, 1974) and a nomination for The Conversation (1974). But he broke himself (and maybe part of the Hollywood system) with Apocalypse Now (1979) and had a more modest career thereafter. Eleanor Coppola’s Oscar-winning documentary about Apocalypse Now‘s production, Hearts of Darkness (1991), plays as one long road trip to nowhere, even though the film itself has now become an unequivocal classic.
One film Lewis focuses on is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. The history of the film’s production sounds like an episode of The Offer (2022), with G-men, lawyers, Black Panthers, Teamsters, park rangers, and the US Department of Justice all playing a role. Following the film’s release, breakout star Mark Frechette was caught robbing a bank and would later die in jail (some suspect murder). Lewis also discusses how Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) wreaked havoc with the Production Code, helping to usher in the new MPAA ratings system in 1968.
Road Trip to Nowhere differs from other popular histories of the period, such as Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), in refusing to value the era. Instead, he shows it for what it was — the bad along with the good — while highlighting some of the stories lost in all the reefer smoke. Christopher Jones, for example, came and went so fast that most people likely don’t remember him at all. He starred in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, a film that was bashed so venomously by critics that Lean took a break from directing. Jones, who was an up-and-coming heartthrob in the James Dean tradition, soon realized that he preferred sex and drugs over work. While just about everyone knows the story of Jane Fonda, some may not know the fate of other prominent Hollywood actresses like Jean Seberg (exiled after being targeted by the FBI), Dolores Hart (who joined a convent), or Barbara Loden, Elia Kazan’s wife, whose 1970 film, Wanda, was excoriated by American critics (despite being a hit in Europe). Lewis tells each story as a unique road trip to nowhere.
It is impossible, of course, to consider this period without talking about Charles Manson. Quentin Tarantino dredged him up in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), though Lewis observes that Tarantino did it right, giving the psychopath only minimal screen time and showing him as the “small-time loser he was in real life.” Lewis compares the Manson story to the William Desmond Taylor murder. Taylor, a prominent Hollywood player, was involved in the 1920s drug culture on some level, which likely fed into the manner of his death. Though the incident was shocking at the time, it didn’t push the industry into a state of fear quite like Manson’s murders did. Lewis argues that “[b]eing counterculture in Hollywood meant one thing before August 1969 and something else again afterward.” Perhaps this was for the best. In the 1970s, we got less Dennis Hopper and more Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Jane Fonda knew how to take her talents mainstream without giving up her well-earned counterculture credentials.
Road Trip to Nowhere is a necessary addition to the discussion of late-’60s and early-’70s Hollywood cinema. Lewis highlights some overlooked films and lost histories, offering a cogent analysis of an era oversaturated with commentary. He doesn’t argue that Zabriskie Point, Ryan’s Daughteror The Last Movie (1971), Hopper’s fiasco after Easy Rider, are great films. In fact, he candidly cautions us to avoid them. But examining the stories behind these movies can reveal fresh perspectives on the New Hollywood era. Anyone who has spent time in a Hollywood archive knows that there are scores of tales left to share. Road Trip to Nowhere tackles bumpy terrain and does not disappoint — though you may be disappointed by the behavior of some of its major characters.
Chris Yogerst is associate professor of Communication in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His latest book, Hollywood Hats Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictureswas published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2020.