[30 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Dennis Hopper never did anything halfway. From acting to art appreciation, directing to drug taking, he was a maverick that made every moment count. From a system (and somewhat self) imposed exile in the ‘70s to rebirth and re-determination in the ‘80s, he was that rare combination of studio-honed star and radical with a struggling personal cause. It seems unfair then that, after decades of destroying his body with every combination of pharmaceutical imaginable, it would be cancer that killed him - and not a cancer derived from said years of insane debauchery. Even at his last major public appearance - as a belated recipient of that arcane Hollywood sign of respect, a star on the Walk of Fame - his frail, fragile facade could not cover up a personality that was going full throttle to the end.
Dennis Lee Hopper was born on 17 May, 1936, and is seemed fairly obvious he was destined to be different. Before his parents moved from their Midwestern home to California, the young boy attended classes at the Kansas Institute of Art, where he excelled. At Helix High School, he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and it was there where he was bitten by the acting bug, seizing an opportunity to study at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego before later taking up residence at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York. Early on, Hopper experienced the bright burn and quick fizzle of his future profession first hand. In the pursuit to find “the next Brando”, he was paired with James Dean in two of the rising star’s most famous films - A Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
The icon’s infamous death nearly destroyed Hopper, and he became a rebellious, disruptive force on sets. Vowing to get away from the shallow attributes of Tinseltown, he traveled East. Under legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg, Hopper began to plumb the complex facets of the “Method”, a psychologically heavy technique which allowed performers to apply “sense memory” to their interpretation of character. It fed his belief in a more natural and realistic style of performance. It was also there where he met and became friends with genre icon Vincent Price. The legendary horror idol introduced Hopper to the burgeoning New York art scene. The attraction was instantaneous and long lasting. Hopper would become a major collector, championing unknowns and underground experimentalists that would later transform into the major players of the ‘60s.
Hopper eventually returned to California, but he was no happier within the studio game. More or less blackballed, it was John Wayne who would see he was hired for The Sons of Katie Elder (at the time, Hopper was the son-in-law of Margaret Sullavan, the Duke’s great friend). Another pairing on True Grit proved that the guy had some mainstream chops, and with the Summer of Love in full fade the decision was made to capitalize on the decade. Along with friends Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Jack Nicholson, Hopper came up with the story of two bikers running drugs and desperate to discover the true American Dream. With practically no budget and such unusual approaches as improvisation and quick cut editing, Easy Rider would officially usher in the age of post-modern moviemaking.
Tapping directly into the disgruntled zeitgeist of the weary Woodstock nation, Rider would set a looming benchmark for Hopper. It would represent one of his greatest professional triumphs while acting as a personal albatross. On set issues strained his friendship with Fonda. His marriage to Brooke Hayward fell apart. Perhaps most importantly, Hopper began to fuel his muse with a vast array of drugs - everything from LSD and pot to experimental combinations crafted by friends and admirers. By the time of a marketplace-mandated “follow-up” to Rider, the actor was in no shape to create. Yet he let his undermined aesthetic lead to the mostly forgotten and egoistically ambitious The Last Movie. A bizarre tale of a former stuntman who seeks refuge in Peru, only to discover the local citizenry making their own “film” with stick cameras, it was a surreal, self-indulgent mess.
For a year, Hopper hid out in Taos, New Mexico, acting as host to marathon parties and feverishly trying to cut his latest epic into shape. Substances such as cocaine became part of the process, from waking one up in the morning to supposedly sparking bouts of creative frenzy. When finally screened at Cannes, the results were slammed by critics. They cited its ambition but otherwise arch and overwrought approach. Broke and newly married to Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas (albeit if briefly), Hopper sought employment anywhere he could. Europe proved to be a place where he could be easily cast in low budget quickies. It seemed like just treatment for the man who fought the polish of old world filmmaking and got lost in his own dissenting designs. A mere six years after being nominated for an Oscar (for Rider‘s screenplay), he was cinematic poison, posited as a victim of the counterculture he so vigorously defended and portrayed.
Luckily, Hopper still had friends in very high placed. Francis Ford Coppola was looking for someone to play the doped up press photographer/evangelist to Marlon Brando’s insane Vietnam era Colonel in his interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While it may seem like typecasting, the actor has often said that his performance in the classic Apocalypse Now represents the purest form of ‘sense memory’ he ever offered on film. Later, Hopper would step in for a fired director when it looked like his latest effort, 1980’s Out of the Blue, was in trouble. It was the first time behind the lens since The Last Movie and proved that, increasing problems and all, he still had the skills that brought him to prominence in the first place. It would take three more years, a couple of protracted benders, and some highly acclaimed work in titles like Rumble Fish before Hopper would finally clean up.
In 1983, the fresh-from-rehab actor started pounding the pavement, trying to prove that he had changed his ways. Small roles started coming his way and in 1986, Hopper exploded across screens with several performances that would come to redefine his persona. Tobe Hooper tapped him as the obsessed Texas Ranger hunting Leatherface and his family in the gore-drenched sequel to the seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He was dope dealer Feck in the brilliant teen angst masterwork River’s Edge. Then former Hills Street Blues and Miami Vice director David Anspaugh tagged him as the alcoholic father of a small town high school basketball star in the extremely popular Hoosiers. But it was as the foul mouthed, gas sniffing criminal fiend with a fetish for sadistic sex (and Roy Orbison) in David Lynch’s definitive Blue Velvet that put Hopper over the top. Frank Booth would come to literally turn the actor into a go-to villain, leading to similarly styled work in such unusual films as Super Mario Brothers, Speed, and Waterworld.
Hopper soon settled into his role as baddie for hire, working consistently throughout the ‘90s. His new profile as ‘60s survivor gave him credibility and clout. In turn, he applied said cache to personal projects (such as documentaries on art and specific painters) and individual passions. Considered by many to be an expert on the pre- and post- pop movement, his vast collection of canvases (valued well into the millions) was exhibited around the globe. As the new millennium approached, Hopper was still in demand. While no longer anchoring high profile (and concept) efforts, he made dozens of independent and off the radar films until his health began to deteriorate. As recently as last year, Hopper was part of the ensemble cast for Starz TV series revamp of the Academy Award winning Crash.
Unfortunately, in our tawdry, TMZ tailored present, the dying actor became a celebrity scandal. Within months of his diagnosis with prostate cancer, he filed for divorce from his fifth wife Victoria. The case quickly turned ugly, with accusations of abuse and financial misdeeds on both sides. Up until his day on the Walk of Fame, Hopper was challenging almost every aspect of his estate. Whether he was concerned about his legacy or simply angry that his last years were left to battle over money and Monets, it’s unclear. What is certain is that Dennis Hopper died as he lived - confronting the norm, pushing the envelope, unearthing the new and undiscovered - and sometime, paying the price for same.