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Wheel On Screen

Wheels on Screen

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When gearing up for a long drive, many of us become the stars of the road movies in our minds: the Thelma, the Louise, the Harry, the Tonto. (Maybe not Tonto. Tonto was a cat.) So, for this issue, it made sense for us to convene an expert panel to choose their favorite road films, and comment on them, exclusively for Lexus.

Whether it was Daniel Boone looking for elbow room, or Huck Finn "lighting out for the Territory," real people as well as fictional characters were always going on the road, looking to find themselves, escape the ordinary, and discover adventure, even before there was a coast-to-coast America, movies, or paved highways to cruise. It was Hollywood, with its great capacity to literally show the open road, that was able to romanticize the journey as well as the destination; film makers created an art form out of the road movie, recording these epic drives artfully enough to inspire the urge to roam in each succeeding generation.

The genre probably didn't have a name until Jack Kerouac's On the Road (currently being developed as a film by Walter Salles, whose Motorcycle Diaries is one of the great contemporary road movies) was published in 1957. But Hollywood didn't need a name to embrace the situation. From early westerns like The Covered Wagon (1924), to the screwball comedy of It Happened One Night (1934) and the women-on-the-move joys of Thelma & Louise (1991), the movies have long understood the appeal of the road, and the way it makes abstract concepts like freedom, opportunity, and possibility as concrete as wheels on a freeway.

Although the recent success of Little Miss Sunshine (2006) shows that the genre hasn't lost its appeal, the Vietnam era was likely the golden age of the road movie. When the country was feeling lost and unsure, the road was where America looked to find itself, from Bonnie & Clyde (1967) forging their identities and falling in love during a traveling crime spree, to Jack Nicholson's failed concert pianist escaping conformity in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

It was another Nicholson film, however, 1969's Easy Rider, that was likely the ultimate modern road movie. The iconic image of Nicholson's country lawyer-wearing a football helmet and a look of pure pleasure—on the back of Peter Fonda's Harley tells us all we need to know about why we love road movies and why we always will.

—KENNETH TURAN, film critic, Los Angeles Times


In this beautifully observed women-on-the-lam thrill ride through the American southwest, best friends Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), demonstrate unswerving loyalty—and a sure sense of adventure—as they leave their old lives behind. One indelible moment happens 106 minutes into the movie, when Thelma confides to Louise, "Something's crossed over in me." That tells us that there's no going back. Directed by Ridley Scott; also starring the the unknown Brad Pitt as J.D., a charming hitchhiker and thief who thinks he's James Dean.

"My favorite road movie is Thelma & Louise. The girls blow up the truck of a guy who's been harassing them. It was our first collective look at Brad Pitt. Susan Sarandon just looks better and better as she gets grubbier and grubbier."

—MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours; author and screenwriter for the adaptation of his novel A Home at the End of the World; screenwriter and executive producer of Evening, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep.

LOLITA (1962; 1997)

The first, caustic version of the timeless novel, for which author Vladimir Nabokov wrote the screenplay, stars a perverse James Mason as Humbert Humbert. Directed by Stanley Kubrick; also featuring Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, and Peter Sellers. The second adaptation, with an excellent cast led by Jeremy Irons, is melancholy and deeply moving. Directed by Adrian Lyne.

"The two film adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita present the meandering, year-long flight of Humbert Humbert and Lolita as an insightful, hilarious odyssey through the hotels, motor courts, and diners of small-town America, circa 1947. The most enduring of Lolita's many gems, however, may be the single perfect word Nabokov coined to describe Lolita and pubescent sex kittens everywhere: nymphet."

—JOHN BERENDT, legendary editor of Esquire (1961–1969) and New York magazine (1977–1979); author of The City of Falling Angels and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time.


A classic study of Vietnam-era anomie, Five Easy Pieces defined the period like few other films, as its ne'er-do-well protagonist Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) quits the oil rigs of Texas to confront his family and his past in the Pacific Northwest. Nicholson has a memorable outburst in the famous chicken sandwich scene, which occurs 45 minutes into the movie. Directed by Bob Rafelson; also starring Karen Black, Susan Anspach, and (a pre–All in the Family) Sally Struthers as three of the "pieces" to which the title refers.

"Perhaps one of the most noteworthy aspects of Five Easy Pieces, a broodingly existential film about the confinements of class and the elusive freedom of breaking away from one's origins, is how well it holds up after almost 40 years. Notwithstanding the '60s anti-establishment spirit that wafts through the film and is personified by its alienated and self-hating protagonist, Bobby Dupea (Nicholson, before his flirtatious smirk became trademarked), there is little that dates it. From the enraged lesbian environmentalist to whom Bobby gives a lift when he drives across the country to visit his dying father, to Rayette, his punching-bag of a girlfriend (Black, in a pitchperfect performance), who longs to be Tammy Wynette, the film's ability to keep complex characterizations in play imbues it with singular heft. What marks it as being from another era are precisely its virtues: its closely observed, articulate script, and attentive, unflashy direction."

—DAPHNE MERKIN, essayist; former New Yorker film critic; author of the essay collection Dreaming of Hitler.


The swanky story of a glamorous but troubled marriage, told through a series of road trip flashbacks through Europe, remains an enduring touchstone to romantics. Directed by Stanley Donen. "Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn have to be the most beautiful and appealing unhappily married people that ever lived, and she was dressed, as I recall, by Pucci and Givenchy [actually it was Paco Rabanne and others] and he was burly and staggeringly masculine, and the only good part about their suffering was the thought that, with luck, when they finally separated, one of them might be available for a date."

—AMY BLOOM, author of Come to Me, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, Love Invents Us, and the recent novel Away; creator of the Lifetime TV series State of Mind.


Set to an acclaimed score of folk, bluegrass, and country spirituals, this visually arresting Depression-era black comedy stars George Clooney as the leader of a trio of escaped convicts running for their lives through the swamps of Mississippi. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Cohen (uncredited); also starring Holly Hunter and John Turturro.

"I was sitting in the theater in 2001, thinking that I knew something about movies and about life. The three jokers on the screen were arguing about what to do next, and one of them had a roasted gopher on a stick. Behind them, a few mysterious, zombie-like figures began to appear, walking through fallen leaves, among trees. The music was low, but melodious, and suddenly the shot opened up and the music filled the theater—As I went down in the river to pray, studyin' about that good old way." I felt lifted out of my seat by the surprising, overwhelming purity of the melody. The rest of the movie, a play on The Odyssey, worked, too—soothing lulls interspersed with shocks and jokes, all visual (bright, full of color) and aural (sensuous and playful), the way a movie should be. I have never seen another movie like it."

—JANE SMILEY, author of Ten Days in the Hills, The Age of Grief, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Thousand Acres, a reinvention of King Lear. The film adaptation starred Jason Robards, Jessica Lange, and Michelle Pfeiffer.


A true product of the '70s, this offbeat cult favorite has Kowalski (Barry Newman), a car delivery service employee, accepting a challenge that he can make the trip from Colorado to Frisco, in 15 hours. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian; also starring Cleavon Little.

"Top American road pick? Why choose a low-rent, low-budget movie starring Barry Newman? Because this little movie manages to capture the era—or perhaps, the end of an era-in a manner both ridiculous and sublime, providing a series of post-Vietnam, soul-searching clichés and tons of high-speed driving. It takes itself very seriously, which makes it a vehicle, pardon the pun, for existential angst and simultaneous self-parody. What could be more fun than that? Besides, it ends with our hero inexplicably obliterating himself in a fiery suicide crash. In today's world of pre-marketed entertainment, focus groups, and test screenings, no movie studio or TV network would ever let this one get through!"

—MICHAEL LEHMANN, director of the films Heathers and Because I Said So, and the "Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs" episode of HBO's The Comeback, which itself depicts a memorable and eventful road trip.


In one of the first American road movies, rebellious heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) escapes her domineering father in Miami and promptly meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on a bus bound for New York City. Gable was said to have single-handedly damaged the undershirt industry when he chose not to wear one in the famous hotel scene that happens 28 minutes into the film. Directed by Frank Capra.

"Runaway bride Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is stranded on the lonesome road without horsepower. Fellow vagabond Peter Warne (Gable) demonstrates hitchhiking techniques, but he's all thumbs. When Ellie flashes a shapely leg to hitch a ride, the driver who picks them up nearly loses his throttle. It's one of the first screwball comedies, one of the first comedies to metaphorically pair off a blue-collar guy with a blueblood gal, and one of the rare comedies to win a Best Picture Oscar."

—CARRIE RICKEY, Philadelphia Inquirer film critic for the last 22 years.



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