So cancer finally succeeded in cutting short the odd and inimitable life of Dennis Hopper. That is a shame, of course, although we would probably be wise to give thanks that he managed to stick around as long as he did. He danced with the devil so often they were on a first name basis. And if Thoreau was wise to encourage us all to suck the marrow out of life, Hopper sucked, slurped and occasionally mainlined it. I’d like to think you could cut him open and a good chunk of 20th Century DNA would come oozing out. He may have had a few more battles in him, but no one can deny he left it all out on the proverbial field.
To acknowledge his eccentric and very original brand of genius, I’m inclined to leave the biographical nitty gritty (important as it is) to others and celebrate a handful of scenes that helped make our world a more real, and less predictable place.
First up, a one-two punch from the controversial (and influential), Blue Velvet (more on the movie, and David Lynch, here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-david-lynch-dilemma), which nicely illustrate what made Hopper so singular and, at times, untouchable. Exhibit A is that Top of the world, ma celebration of perverted depravity, one of the more genuinely scary and disturbing moments in all cinema. Exhibit B is the brief, beautiful shout-out to that most American of beers. No actor but Dennis Hopper could have pulled off either scene with similar success.
Then, of course, there is Easy Rider. It was iconic and of its time (boy was it of its time), and laid a foundation that several other writers and directors (and actors) improved upon. The acting of the two leads, well, the motorcycle scenes are cool. In fairness, it may be that Hopper (and, to a lesser extent, Fonda) were not playing roles so much as projecting themselves. And then there is Jack Nicholson. Even if this movie served merely as the delivery device to bring Big Jack into the mainstream (and let me be clear, it remains much more than that), it certainly served its humble purpose. Speaking of Jack…let’s appreciate him doing that thing he did, arguably without peer, for at least another decade:
It quite possibly says more about me than the movie, but one of the handful of scenes (sans Nicholas) I can stomach watching happens to be the scene where Hopper dies. And no, I’m not saying that the acting is so bad that seeing him get shot is a relief; I’m talking about how effective and unsettling this abrupt ending is (and I can appreciate how unprecedented it was in 1969). Full credit to Hopper, who directed, and help write, this material. There is no denying the impact it had (good, bad and definitely ugly) on film-making in America and on America, period.
And then, obviously, there is the unforgettable role in Apocalypse Now that begged questions about life imitating art or, more likely, the exact opposite:
And finally, inevitably, his ultimate moment (from True Romance, a movie that, pound for pound, quite possibly features as many sublime scenes as any other made in the last two decades).
This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted of all contemporary films. For good reason, and full credit to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances not only of Hopper but also the truly incomparable Christopher Walken. It also features the hulking presence of a then-unknown James Gandolfini.
The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating- schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is real acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.
The scene is uncomfortable and amusing in equal measure (well, in all honesty, it’s probably a hell of a lot funnier than anything else), but mostly a tour de force on every conceivable level. It just might represent Hopper’s finest work.
Dennis Hopper came close to death so many times he may have figured he was never going to actually die. But he eventually found out what all of us will discover sooner or later. And all this proves is that we are human. More importantly, he got more from life than it ultimately took from him. And we certainly got more out of this weird, wonderful man than we had any right to expect.