Dennis Hopper – a life in film

One day back in the early 60’s, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda dropped into film producer Bert Schneider’s office. Hardly dressed for the occasion in dirty denims they proceeded to ask for finance for a suicidal and slanderous project on the assassination of JFK. Schneider was a bit of a renegade in the industry but even this was a step too far for him. He did however enquire about the progress of their biker movie, at this time named The Loners. When informed by Hopper that current studio “AIP is just dickin’ around man,” he agreed to take it up. At this point nobody could have understood what was on the horizon, a high watermark for US cinema and a rebellious, frightening message from the counter culture to mainstream apple pie America. This was the film which became Easy Rider.

“Nobody had ever seen themselves portrayed in a movie. At every love-in across the country people were smoking grass and dropping LSD, while audiences were still watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson!”
Dennis Hopper

The extremely sad news came through on the 29th May this year that Dennis Hopper had died from prostate cancer. This all too common killer brought the curtain down on the life of a seriously uncommon man. The 1970’s saw a sea change in the output of American cinema, a coup de tat of the Hollywood power players. A film school generation took control and created a seesaw of mainstream blockbusters of unseen popularity and creative and violent counters to these such as Bonnie & Clyde. Hopper was a key architect of this revolution. Perhaps architect is the wrong term, it implies careful thought and planning, a measured mind. Dennis was the antithesis to this, a white hot, drug frazzled creator and antagoniser. Nonetheless, his role in the construction of the new Hollywood was pivotal, so let’s pay tribute to him with this stroll through some of his most famous appearances.

Most remember Hopper for his 60’s and 70’s heyday, a figurehead for the turn on, tune in, drop out generation. What many are unaware of is the genesis of his career. The belief that this mysterious outsider rode straight onto cinema screens on his teardrop chopper is a false one. Hopper worked and trained hard, long before the culture Easy Rider reflected was even imagined. His skills were honed in the famous Actors Studio where Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean and the like studied through the tutelage of Lee Strasberg. Hopper befriended Dean and co-starred in three of his pictures, admittedly not to great note or fanfare. He idolised Dean and his premature death destroyed him. He also starred in a number of westerns, even alongside John Wayne. His counter culture credentials may not have been explicit then but they were germinating. At one point he managed to get that limping champion of right wing rednecks ‘The Duke’ to march gun in hand threatening to kill him. Here he is in his first movie with a title which he eventually wore a lot more comfortably than the lead, Rebel Without a Cause.

Like most icons Hoppers main characterising moment came early. Like a junkie forever chasing his first hit he was destined never to reach those same heights. The aforementioned Easy Rider defined Dennis Hopper. Dennis wrote, directed (Peter Fonda disagrees to an extent) and starred in this epoch forming 1969 road movie which broke all the rules. Quite apart from showing a culture and lifestyle which was deemed unacceptable, Hoppers techniques were also dismissed offhand. Beautiful shots of sunlight creating rainbow arcs in the camera lens were thought to be amateur mistakes caused by the lack of filters. These opinions coming from professionals who had surely never dabbled with hallucinogenics. The shocking and violent ending to the movie was a mirror to the treatment dealt out to those unwilling to conform in 1960’s America.

Jump forward a decade to 1979 and we find Dennis in his next noted role, one so iconic it was parodied by the Muppets. Months in the jungle filming Apocalypse Now left Francis Ford Coppola a crazed and broken man. His famous quote reads “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” This insanity could not have been helped by the arrival of Dennis Hopper, playing an unnamed photojournalist. His lines lie somewhere between cryptic mysticism and mad inane ramblings but make for a truly memorable performance. The relationship between his and Brando’s onscreen characters reflected the reality of their feelings towards each other.

Now, it’s never good etiquette to speak ill of the dead but Hopper starred in a whole sackful of stinkers, partly because like Bowie he was willing to experiment, partly because like David Beckham he would often happy to whore himself out for cold hard cash. Super Mario Brothers springs to mind instantly. But I’m no film snob, I’m a lover of cult trash and they don’t come much trashier than the batshit crazy Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

In his autumn years he found his second calling, playing the bad guy. These roles perhaps became the stereotype, but stereotypes normally arise from a performance so great it’s impossible to look past it. For Hopper this was in the film which rescued him from a creative wilderness, David Lynch’s 1986 classic Blue Velvet. The film as a whole (like many of Lynch’s) is horribly unnerving but nothing can prepare us for the entrance of the character Frank Booth, the gas sniffing psychotic killer who needs his mommy. He’s magnetic and repellent at the same time, like stealing a glimpse at a particularly distasteful accident and later wishing you never. It’s a rare actor who can achieve this, and that’s why the man is such a loss.

There were many sides to Hopper, some violent and disagreeable. There are many tales of him, some hilarious, others unpleasant. Drugs and guns featured frequently. I’m sure he has few regrets though. My only small one is that he never took the role offered to him in Repo Man, he would have fitted perfectly. What can never be denied though is the man’s creative output. A keen and fairly successful photographer in later life, a writer, actor and on a couple of occasions a fine director. Surely his best film outwith Easy Rider being the LA gang drama Colors. A film which has dated poorly next to the fresher, harsher and more authentic work of John Singleton and the Hughes brothers, but nonetheless a well made, finely cast enjoyable film.

So, Hopper is a man who will be sorely missed. The current term de jour is ‘a game changer’ and in his respect this is surely true. He may not have been one of the most pressing forces behind Hollywood’s change but he was an instigator and a catalyst. Without him who knows where American film would be today. I’ll leave you with one of his finest performances, playing a victim for once alongside a wolfish Christopher Walken in True Romance . Seeing these two distinctive masters size each other up on screen is a total joy.

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