The 1970s were the Golden Age of New Hollywood Cinema. It was also arguably the Golden Age of the classic American road film. Some of the most definitive films of the sub-genre were released during the decade, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Wanda, Badlands, and Duel, to name but a few. However, the reigning king of them all is Two Lane Blacktop, the 1971 cult classic directed by Monte Hellman and starring James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as a driver and his mechanic who race across the United States in their beloved 1955 Chevy. Along the way, they pick up a young blonde played by Laurie Bird (at a diner, of course), who comes along for the ride, inciting a tense, unspoken jealousy between the two men. From its music to its fashion to its famous musician co-stars, Two Lane Blacktop is pure 1970s cinema at its finest, enhanced by several memorable scenes in road side diners. Unfortunately, the only one of these still open is Mary’s Cafe, where the Girl first climbs into the backseat of the Chevy, located 7136 North US Highway 89, just northeast of Flagstaff.
Jack Nicholson’s breakfast order in Five Easy Pieces is quite possibly the most famous in movie history. Released in 1970 at the very beginning of the New Hollywood era, Five Easy Pieces follows Robert Dupea, a foul tempered ex-piano prodigy who is forced to return to his upper class childhood home in Washington after years working in a California oil field. Robert’s waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) spends most of the film dressed in her pink uniform despite her aspirations to become a famous country music singer. On the drive up to Washington, Robert and Rayette pick up two surly female hitchhikers and the group stops at a roadside diner for breakfast. The waitress refuses to accommodate Robert’s order of a omelet with tomatoes instead of potatoes and a side order of wheat toast, insisting the diner has a strict “no substitutions” policy. Instead of changing his order, Robert goes to great lengths to get the meal he desires, ordering a plain omelet and chicken salad sandwich, minus the chicken salad. After Robert suggests the waitress holds the unwanted chicken salad “between her knees,” she has a enough of the group’s “smartness and sarcasm” and kicks them out the restaurant, prompting Robert to angrily swipe the menus and glasses of water off the table before storming out in a rage. The diner scene was filmed on Greenwood Drive in Eugene, Oregon and is now a Denny’s.
No film better depicts a changing America than Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road film about a pair of counterculture “long-hairs” who ride their Harley Davidsons across the highways of America in search of true freedom. With a production history as outlandish and drug fueled as the journey depicted in the film itself, Easy Rider roared onto the screens in 1969 and ushered in a radical new era of American filmmaking. Easy Rider was one of the first films to portray the counterculture in all its glory, use a soundtrack consisting entirely of rock and roll hits, and feature rising star Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The travels of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), and George Hanson (Nicholson) take them across the scenic byways of the American South and Southwest, stopping at gas stations, campsites, communes, hot springs, police stations, and diners along the way. When the three stop at a small café after a long day’s journey, they find themselves simultaneously harassed and seduced by the patrons inside. A police officer sitting at a nearby booth declares, “What the hell is this? Trouble makers?” while a group of young women giggle in titillation and discuss which of the men each of them likes best. As the three dirty hippies take their seats, the comments increase in both volume and severity. One man says, “I think we ought to put them in a cage and charge admission to see ‘um,” followed by another who remarks, “They look like a bunch of refugees from a guerilla love-in.” On top of it all, the waitress neglects to serve them any of the refreshing Coca-Cola and delicious handmade pies the sign outside advertises. Eventually, Wyatt, Billy, and George decide it is in their best interest to leave an establishment to which they are so obviously unwelcome. The diner scene might not be the most memorable in Easy Rider, but it perfectly encapsulates the cultural tension boiling between the established order and the longhaired, free-spirited hippie renegades who threatened to throw it over completely. The diner scene was filmed in the town of Morganza, Louisiana, about 50 miles outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. However, the diner, which was once located on Gayden Road, was torn down, leaving only an empty field and staircase behind.