Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 30, 2010
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:
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)
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.
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