RIP Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010
(This piece originally appeared in Providence Monthly’s July edition, albeit in an altered, shortened form.)
In the long, ever strange history of Hollywood, Dennis Hopper shall stand fast as one of the most vivid flesh-and-blood parameters of an American industry turned inside out and eventually splintered and rendered all too soporific. Born in Dodge City, Kansas he was a pure-bred farm boy whose family eventually moved to San Diego in the late 1940s. He apprenticed at that city’s well-known Old Globe Theatre and became a very young contract player at Warner Brothers, building a budding career until a now apocryphal 1958 showdown with one of the then movie industry’s most macho despots, director Henry Hathaway, wherein the rebellious and cocksure young actor refused to give into Hathaway’s direction and faced him off in a widely viewed and reported public showdown that supposedly went on for some 80 takes, which resulted in a newfound status as a Tinseltown pariah.
Hopper quickly skipped off to New York City and became yet another charismatic Lee Strasberg acting apostle and an Actor’s Studio warrior and jumped from the stage into the burgeoning television dramatic scene, making over a 100 TV appearances. Reputation newly enhanced, he went west coast again, tilting sideways into the disintegrating studio system (even reworking with Hathaway) before inexplicably elbowing his way to the top of the pops by writing, directing and starring in the game changer that was Easy Rider in 1969. Drugs and bloated egomania dropped him to his hippie knees again after the colossal failure of his personal freak flag project The Last Movie in 1971, only to go further drug crazy and wander off into other artistic pursuits before coming back again under the wide shoulders of movie brat generalissimo Francis Coppola in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. A final phase, the ultra-professional actor-for-hire, crowned his grandly strange career trip.
Hopper was always something more than just big screen player, he was and shall remain a dual headed symbol of the both new Hollywood and an in-the-flesh poltergeist of the lost glamour of Hollywood Studio system, bridging the gap from florid and burnished 50’s melodrama (co-starring and rubbing in the glowing-but-mutated pixie dust of James Dean in both 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1956’sGiant), through the emerging American new wave (the sensational mix of drive-in flick and socio-political parable with Easy Rider) to Dream Factory paradise lost (his directorial and personal shenanigans on The Last Movie would become a part of gonzo Hollywood lore), , through the unexpected emergence of the second wave of American independent/commercial filmmaking (David Lynch’s modern day classic, 1986’s Blue Velvet).
Hopper was a writer, photographer, actor, producer, director, performance artist, demi-monde celebrity, and an unending and totally willful repository of personal and professional chaos, plus one of the more memorable post-beat poets of self-immolation. Somehow he endured it all as an indestructible man with an equally indestructible career. Hopper easily stood out in his early films, with his deep boned Midwestern hipster looks belying the fact that even in his roles as hoods, misunderstood youth, or uneasily turbulent cowpokes, he seemed to dig deeper than the better looking hunks of meat surrounding him, his eyes flashing with intensity while he alternated a jaundiced sneer and a dreamy giggle. He transitioned into an alternative culture superstar while simultaneously drowning himself in irony and riches, recreated himself as one of the ultimate pop cultural guilty pleasures as the sharpest and most nuanced exemplars of movie-movie sociopaths (his lanky forehead head and sloped nose just about gleaming with the remnants of his own real life back-story), and lassoed it all into being gracefully acknowledged as one of most consistently solid character actors of all, and maybe even the truest pop cult granddaddy to such lost soul savants as Kurt Cobain. Bad movie, weird movie, great movie, I could never take my eyes off Hopper, and I always watched him both as explorative actor and living, breathing cultural zeitgeist.
A Hopper Baker’s Dozen
11. An American Friend (1977). A cinematic treat, combining the talents of and on-his-game Wim Wenders, a perfectly cast Bruno Ganz, the blueprint of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, and Hopper as Tom Ripley, the ultimate mercurial, two-sided ugly American.