The Essential Warren Oates: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are the characters at the center of Monte Hellman’s classic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, but the character who has always won my heart is Warren Oates’ GTO. Named for the canary yellow muscle car he drives, GTO wanders into the path of two professional street racers who drift their way from city to city, making their living tearing down back roads. They end up in a cross country race, headed east to Washington DC, with the pink slips of the cars in the balance. But that’s not what Two-Lane Blacktop is about.

But GTO is different. Oates brings a magic to the performance, in a role that Hellman always intended for him. The Girl sits ignored in the backseat of the Chevy while GTO stops and picks up every hitchhiker he finds and regales them with his life story - different with every person he picks up. There’s a profound sadness and loneliness at GTO’s heart, and Oates is the only actor who could have found it. Wearing ascots and silly driving gloves, GTO is a phony who doesn’t know a thing about cars, but he’s also very genuine. In other hands the surface bravado of GTO - he’s won the car in Vegas, he bought the car with his earnings as a test pilot, he won the pink slip off two long hairs - would overwhelm the character. He’d be a creep, maybe comic relief. But Oates pinpoints the humanity, the desperate need for connection. GTO has a bunch of tapes in his car, and they’re of all kinds of music. Whatever the hitchhiker wants to listen to, be it rock, soul, funk, hillbilly or western. Hell, even when Harry Dean Stanton comes onto GTO the driver doesn’t kick him out of the car; he gives him another shot, and even then won’t drop the guy off in the rain.

Oates himself is something of a ringer in the film. The rest of the main cast are non-actors; Bird was a model while Wilson was a Beach Boy. James Taylor had just released his first album, and this was the only movie he ever made (as of 2007 he hadn’t even seen it). There’s an honesty and a rawness in their performances, but they’re also manifestly amateur. Oates’ genius is that he doesn’t blow the others out of their scenes together; he allows the rock stars and the model to be in his world, never sacrificing his own talents but also never drawing attention to their lack of it. Two-Lane Blacktop is a notoriously languid film, evoking the distances of long road trips, but it’s also often electric. Every GTO scene is filled with Oates’ energy, which he modulates to fit into the naturalistic world Hellman is creating.

Two-Lane Blacktop is one of the few films where Oates had a chance to play the lead (or one of them, anyway). He’s brilliant in it, subtle and nuanced and honest. As I get older and revisit the film, GTO more and more becomes the hero of the piece to me. The Driver and The Mechanic are kind of dicks, and The Driver’s feelings for The Girl come across as petty and possessive - it’s like he wants her just because The Mechanic fucked her. The scenes where they help GTO during the course of the race once felt to me like cowboy chivalry, but now feels like smugness. Watching it now, Two-Lane Blacktop feels like Oates’ movie, one that he graciously allows Taylor and Wilson to share. Maybe he’s a square, maybe he’s a bit of a putz, maybe he’s a big talker and a tale spinner, but GTO is emotionally honest and decent. Two-Lane Blacktop is a 70s movie, which means everybody is looking for something. The Driver and The Mechanic are essentially empty, just looking for the next street race. The Girl is looking for the next person to take her somewhere, and then ditch. But GTO is out on the road looking for something real - a human connection.