Remembering Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper passed away yesterday morning at the age of 74 from complications related to prostate cancer (he’d been diagnosed with it late in 2009). That same morning I heard of the news from over 12 Facebook posts by friends, and from there the tally continued to climb. Somewhere, someone has surely come up with a formula that matches the speed and quantity with which news of a passing celebrity gets around along with a correlating chart mapping out their iconic status. Clearly, in  Dennis Hopper’s case, that iconic status was cemented over the years, and for different generations, by various roles that tapped perfectly into the zeitgeist. 

A Wild One for the Fifties

Hopper was born on May 17th, 1936, in Dodge City, Kansas, and started acting as a teenager. As a supporting player to James Dean in both Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) he often cited Dean’s influence on him as pivotal in so many ways that it was not uncommon to hear of Hopper being described as a “James Dean acolyte.” This may have also contributed to Hopper’s embracing a moody, brooding, and hedonistic attitude that made him unpopular with veteran filmmakers, thus relegating him to the fringe. Earlier on, that meant TV work and things like Night Tide (1961), which I mention as a personal favorite. But being off in the fringe during the sixties turned out rather well for Hopper, because that’s how he got together with Peter Fonda while working on Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), where fevered brain-storms fueled by booze and drugs gave birth to Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut: Easy Rider (1969).

A Stoner for the Sixties

Easy Rider was originally titled The Loners, but both Hopper and Fonda were partly inspired by an Italian film called  Il Sorpasso (1962), whose English title was The Easy Life, and was about two guys taking a car trip through Italy. That was one side of the story, anyway. Another sixties icon, Terry Southern, wrote the original script on scale (which was about $350 a week at the time) and he claims to have come up with the title based on American slang for “a man who lives off the earnings of a prostitute” (Wikipedia). The extent to which Southern’s script was used, versus how much material was improvisational or replaced by Hopper and Fonda, remains under dispute – but all three shared in the Oscar nomination for screenplay. What is not disputed is that the film was made for near $400,000 and went on to gross well over a hundred-times that amount worldwide. Easy Rider clearly tapped into something huge, and it became as emblematic of the death of the sixties as many of the gruesome realities that surrounded it, such as The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, or Charles Manson, or the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Losing His Head in the Seventies

With fame and fortune to fuel his eccentricities, Hopper went from having a reputation as a temperamental actor to one of a fully unhinged filmmaker. On Easy Rider his state of drug-induced paranoia was so explosive that “he screamed at everyone” and “crew members secretly recorded his tirades and sent the tapes to the production company in Los Angeles to explain why so many of them quit the film.” (IMDB) In today’s world, those tapes would have most certainly gone viral on YouTube, much like Christian Bales’ tirade become one of the most popular memes of its time. Released the same year as Easy Rider was True Grit, where Hopper managed to get John Wayne so mad that the Duke chased him with a loaded gun.

Even without YouTube and the internet, word of Hopper’s erratic behavior (to put it mildly) quickly became the stuff of legend. In The Last Movie (1971), he embarked to Chinchero, Peru, and came back with 40 hours of footage that he then spent more than a year editing only to deliver something to the studios that they deemed “incomprehensible.” Then there was his starring role in Mad Dog Morgan (1976), a six-week shoot in Australia where Hopper drank enough rum to be legally declared dead and was arrested by the Victorian police to be placed back on the first plane to Hollywood.

This madness was all put to excellent use by Francis Ford Coppola, who was working on his own reputation for going out of control and insane while filming Apocalypse Now (1979). The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie provides some excellent background for Hopper’s role in that film:

The character of the photo journalist was written entirely on location by Coppola, who saw him as “a foil and a fool to Brando’s king.” A far-out guy, he became a combination of Hopper himself and the Russian in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not forgetting legendary Vietnam photographer Sean Flynn. In a memo dictated by Coppola on 1 October, the Hopper character is referred to as a kind of Virgil, and “a very important element in the end of the script, in that he is really the comic relief.” Quoting T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, he tells Willard, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” (p. 82)

The scene where Hopper comes out to the PBR to welcome Willard and the crew required no fewer than fifty-four takes. On Scene 238, take 26, Coppola’s frustration exploded. “Whaddya want me to do?” yelled Hopper. “I told you a hundred times,” shouted the director. “There are some fucking heads on the fucking walkway, and you’re saying what a great man (Kurtz) is, and you’re trying to bridge that contradiction. Explain to (Willard) that I know it looks funny, but the guy goes too far, but he admits he’s a good man. ACTION!!!” (p. 82 & 83)

1986

That’s right, I’m giving that one year to Hopper. Because while he still did plenty of interesting stuff in the eighties, such as Out of the Blue (1980) or Rumble Fish (1983), in 1986 he left an indelible impression on me with a string of four films, all released that year: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet, and Hoosiers – the last earning Hopper an Oscar nomination for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.” Ironically, his roles in these films all played to his reputation as either intoxicated, crazy, or out on the edge and teetering into the abyss, but it was three years earlier in 1983 that Hopper entered a drug rehabilitation program after what can only be assumed to be an epic bender to end all benders somewhere in the Mexican desert.

Of the four aforementioned films, Blue Velvet deserves to be singled out as the one that revitalized Hopper’s career. He clearly sensed its potential early on when, after reading the script, he “called Lynch and told him ‘You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!’” (Wiki)

American Psycho

Hopper managed to make the transition from an erratic madman who was infamously hard to work with, to a reliable and prolific actor who could be counted on as a “go-to-guy” to play either a madman or a meaty character with an edge. But although he’ll be remembered by most for the maniacal bad guys he played in such films as Speed (1994) and Waterworld (1995), I prefer the actor who branched out a bit with such things like The Indian Runner (1991), Red Rock West (1993) and True Romance (both 1993), Space Truckers and Basquiat (both 1996) and Jesus’ Son (1999).

Hopper has over 200 acting credits on IMDB and I cannot lay claim to seeing anything close to a majority of this prodigious output. But he made his mark on me, and both in his life and his work he clearly went beyond being “an entertainer” to something more. He was an icon for hippies, and later for Republicans, even donating thousands to the RNC (although even Hopper couldn’t get behind Sarah Palin, and he ended up supporting Barack Obama in 2008). He was also a photographer, painter, and sculptor. His many contributions to American popular culture will be subject to forthcoming biographies, art exhibits,  and have already been chronicled in various documentaries. Whether you loved him or hated him, or took him to task for his work, or his past, he lived his life to the full. He was his own-kind of ramshackle Renaissance Man for quick-changing and mutating times, becoming part of our D.N.A. in the mix. He also, miraculously, managed to outlive his own reputation as a temperamental and self-destructive artist and, somehow, managed to make it to some pretty far-out destinations while sober, and do so simply as an artist.

18 Responses Remembering Dennis Hopper
Posted By franko : May 30, 2010 3:08 pm

I never swallowed the James Dean/Dennis Hopper comparison. Dennis was a better actor and definitely more fun to watch.
R.I.P. Dennis Hopper, you cool crazy dude.

Posted By franko : May 30, 2010 3:08 pm

I never swallowed the James Dean/Dennis Hopper comparison. Dennis was a better actor and definitely more fun to watch.
R.I.P. Dennis Hopper, you cool crazy dude.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 30, 2010 3:23 pm

Dennis and James Dean were friends, friends can effect our lives forever. We certain become a little or a lot like them the more we spend time together. I know this must be true of Dennis. I miss him already. It’s only been one day. I want to say,”This is so sad” and throw in “man” at the end like Dennis would’ve. I love the parody of him on “The Animaniacs” so long ago. Man!

Posted By Juana Maria : May 30, 2010 3:23 pm

Dennis and James Dean were friends, friends can effect our lives forever. We certain become a little or a lot like them the more we spend time together. I know this must be true of Dennis. I miss him already. It’s only been one day. I want to say,”This is so sad” and throw in “man” at the end like Dennis would’ve. I love the parody of him on “The Animaniacs” so long ago. Man!

Posted By morlockjeff : May 30, 2010 8:18 pm

I was just boarding a plane this morning and saw the obit on the cover of some tabloid and thought it was a joke. Bummer. Besides choice acting roles, I have great admiration for OUT OF THE BLUE, a completely nihilistic, over the top melodrama that could never have come out of Hollywood. And CHASERS is surprisingly enjoyable and should have been a boxoffice hit in its era. I’ve never been able to get through THE LAST MOVIE but maybe I’ll drop some acid and attempt it again. I think it deserves that much, at least.

Posted By morlockjeff : May 30, 2010 8:18 pm

I was just boarding a plane this morning and saw the obit on the cover of some tabloid and thought it was a joke. Bummer. Besides choice acting roles, I have great admiration for OUT OF THE BLUE, a completely nihilistic, over the top melodrama that could never have come out of Hollywood. And CHASERS is surprisingly enjoyable and should have been a boxoffice hit in its era. I’ve never been able to get through THE LAST MOVIE but maybe I’ll drop some acid and attempt it again. I think it deserves that much, at least.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : May 31, 2010 12:57 am

Far Fuckin’ Out Man! I had to laugh reading the Obituary in the WaPo this morn where Adam Bernstein wrote about his eight day marriage to Michelle Phillips; “Seven of those days were pretty good,” he said. “The eighth day was the bad one.” I guess even Bog itself took a break occasionally. Thanks Dennis, Bon Voyage

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : May 31, 2010 12:57 am

Far Fuckin’ Out Man! I had to laugh reading the Obituary in the WaPo this morn where Adam Bernstein wrote about his eight day marriage to Michelle Phillips; “Seven of those days were pretty good,” he said. “The eighth day was the bad one.” I guess even Bog itself took a break occasionally. Thanks Dennis, Bon Voyage

Posted By Al Lowe : May 31, 2010 11:22 am

I remember seeing THE LAST MOVIE when it played at my neighborhood theater. As I was buying my buttered popcorn, the owner or manager complained about getting stuck with showing it and asked why Hollywood would even release such a plotless mess, almost a home movie.
It wasn’t like I knew this guy. I guess there weren’t many patrons in the theater and he felt like venting to one of them.
Well, THE LAST MOVIE had a plot but not much of one. To me it looked like Hopper was spitting in the faces of those who enjoyed watching movies. It was an anti-movie.

A couple other thoughts:

Of course there have been many accounts about the making of APOCALYPSE NOW. I read that Brando wanted Hopper for the film. I also read that Brando refused to work with him. Which is true? Or are both versions true? Does anybody know? (It is interesting that writers devote space to writing about Hopper in connection with this picture but ignore Robert Duvall, whose portrayal was one of the peaks of his career.)

It is understandable that the obituaries are ignoring a couple purely commercial projects Hopper directed: COLORS, a routine story about street gangs, and THE HOT SPOT, an attempt at film noir in color, with Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly, both incredibly sexy.

Posted By Al Lowe : May 31, 2010 11:22 am

I remember seeing THE LAST MOVIE when it played at my neighborhood theater. As I was buying my buttered popcorn, the owner or manager complained about getting stuck with showing it and asked why Hollywood would even release such a plotless mess, almost a home movie.
It wasn’t like I knew this guy. I guess there weren’t many patrons in the theater and he felt like venting to one of them.
Well, THE LAST MOVIE had a plot but not much of one. To me it looked like Hopper was spitting in the faces of those who enjoyed watching movies. It was an anti-movie.

A couple other thoughts:

Of course there have been many accounts about the making of APOCALYPSE NOW. I read that Brando wanted Hopper for the film. I also read that Brando refused to work with him. Which is true? Or are both versions true? Does anybody know? (It is interesting that writers devote space to writing about Hopper in connection with this picture but ignore Robert Duvall, whose portrayal was one of the peaks of his career.)

It is understandable that the obituaries are ignoring a couple purely commercial projects Hopper directed: COLORS, a routine story about street gangs, and THE HOT SPOT, an attempt at film noir in color, with Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly, both incredibly sexy.

Posted By Keelsetter : May 31, 2010 5:06 pm

Al – In case it’s of interest, Cowie’s book does have ten references to Duvall, which is equitable to how many Hopper gets. Offhand, I can’t remember whether the book has an answer to your question and – unfortunately – the number of references Brando gets in the index eclipses BOTH Hopper and Duvall put together by a daunting number.

I remember seeing THE HOT SPOT as a 16mm print on campus, where it did very well. It’s one I’d like to revisit.

Wilbur – Thanks for the quote! That gave me a good laugh.

Jeff – I have to admit to never seeing OUT OF THE BLUE, so I’ll have to add it to the list.

And, yes, it goes without saying that he is one crazy dude that will be missed.

pk

Posted By Keelsetter : May 31, 2010 5:06 pm

Al – In case it’s of interest, Cowie’s book does have ten references to Duvall, which is equitable to how many Hopper gets. Offhand, I can’t remember whether the book has an answer to your question and – unfortunately – the number of references Brando gets in the index eclipses BOTH Hopper and Duvall put together by a daunting number.

I remember seeing THE HOT SPOT as a 16mm print on campus, where it did very well. It’s one I’d like to revisit.

Wilbur – Thanks for the quote! That gave me a good laugh.

Jeff – I have to admit to never seeing OUT OF THE BLUE, so I’ll have to add it to the list.

And, yes, it goes without saying that he is one crazy dude that will be missed.

pk

Posted By grannyannie : June 2, 2010 11:33 am

My favorite Dennis Hopper movie… Flashback. Just pulled it out of the cabinet to watch. Still makes me cry when “Free” is watching home movies at the hippie compound. My favorite line (especially now in retrospect)…”wait until we get to the ’90s! They will make the ’60s look like the ’50s”

Posted By grannyannie : June 2, 2010 11:33 am

My favorite Dennis Hopper movie… Flashback. Just pulled it out of the cabinet to watch. Still makes me cry when “Free” is watching home movies at the hippie compound. My favorite line (especially now in retrospect)…”wait until we get to the ’90s! They will make the ’60s look like the ’50s”

Posted By suzidoll : June 2, 2010 1:55 pm

I thought both COLORS and THE HOT SPOT were nicely directed, especially the latter with its atmosphere of both futility and menace. The critics jumped all over it because they wanted to beat up on Don Johnson, who was popular at the time. Maybe both films will get a more fair evaluation now.

I met Hopper once at a video convention just after his comeback with Hoosiers. I waited in a long line to get his autograph. He was very appreciative of all of us fans–all adults–who waited. He was gracious, impeccably dressed, drop-dead handsome,and extremely charismatic. I will remember him that way.

Posted By suzidoll : June 2, 2010 1:55 pm

I thought both COLORS and THE HOT SPOT were nicely directed, especially the latter with its atmosphere of both futility and menace. The critics jumped all over it because they wanted to beat up on Don Johnson, who was popular at the time. Maybe both films will get a more fair evaluation now.

I met Hopper once at a video convention just after his comeback with Hoosiers. I waited in a long line to get his autograph. He was very appreciative of all of us fans–all adults–who waited. He was gracious, impeccably dressed, drop-dead handsome,and extremely charismatic. I will remember him that way.

Posted By BRIAN : June 12, 2010 7:26 pm

Hes Alive(1963)Hour Long Twilight Zone Episode.Peter Vollmer(Dennis Hopper)is head of a Nazi organization.His best friend Ernst Ganz(Ludwig Donath)is an elderly concentation camp survivor.Ernest feels sorry for Peter understanding he was once an abused child but is dead set against his Nazi views,
One night Peter is called by an unknown stranger(Curt Conway)who always remains in the dark.He advices Peter how to sway a crowd to see things his way.Its up to Ernest to stop them.Also who could the stranger be?
Dir by Stuart (Cool Hand Luke)Rosenberg.
Powerful episode and good character study of the good and evil in people.D.H.is outstanding.

Posted By BRIAN : June 12, 2010 7:26 pm

Hes Alive(1963)Hour Long Twilight Zone Episode.Peter Vollmer(Dennis Hopper)is head of a Nazi organization.His best friend Ernst Ganz(Ludwig Donath)is an elderly concentation camp survivor.Ernest feels sorry for Peter understanding he was once an abused child but is dead set against his Nazi views,
One night Peter is called by an unknown stranger(Curt Conway)who always remains in the dark.He advices Peter how to sway a crowd to see things his way.Its up to Ernest to stop them.Also who could the stranger be?
Dir by Stuart (Cool Hand Luke)Rosenberg.
Powerful episode and good character study of the good and evil in people.D.H.is outstanding.

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