‘Easy Rider’: Dennis Hopper Explains America


The long goodbyes can be the worst. The one we’ve been enduring for Dennis Lee Hopper ended on Saturday, 29 May, when the writer, actor, director, producer, visual artist, sculptor, photographer and hellraiser of a rare order died of advanced prostate cancer, at the age of 74.

This painfully extended farewell drew a crowd recently. Maybe you saw the photographs of the event in Hollywood on 26 March, when fans and friends and the media descended on Hollywood Boulevard, in front of the Egyptian Theater, to bestow on Hopper his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the 2,403rd such accolade. Among the well-wishers was Jack Nicholson, who sat next to his Easy Rider co-star wearing the perfect sartorial leitmotif for the moment: a shirt adorned in stars and stripes, but decidedly muted, with black and gray standing for the red and blue.

Everyone who’s ever seen Easy Rider knows what that means.

Fans of recent movies will probably remember Dennis Hopper as the vein-popping psycho Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as the manic photographer who evangelizes for Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. They’ll recall Colors, the 1988 Hopper film that dramatically defined the rules of engagement in the conflict between Los Angeles street gangs, and the parallel conflict between those gangs and the L.A. police department. Or his role as the ruthless, calculating bomber in Speed (1994), which foreshadowed the coming national nervousness about domestic terrorism.

Those with more encyclopedic memories will also remember Hopper’s bookends: as a film star who broke into the medium as a contemporary of and co-star with James Dean in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause; or his role as a hard-bitten military officer attached to the Pentagon in E-Ring, the shortlived 2005 NBC series that capitalized on the rush to the colors in the wake of 9/11. Of course, everyone will be able to recite some variation of the dirt on the man: the several marriages; the turbulent behavior on the set and off; his own admission of heroic daily chemical consumption (at one point, a half-gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine, “just to maintain”).

Many won’t have a clue about Hopper the artist, whose work will be curated by painter-film director Julian Schnabel for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in July. Or Dennis Hopper the photographer, who accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of supporters on the arduous journey from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 — as a visual witness to the cultural and social transformation of America. (Some of that work was captured in a recent exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York. Vanity Fair recently republished nine of the images from the exhibition in an online slideshow).

Many won’t realize that Hopper was featured in literally dozens of documentaries that plumbed various aspects of the human psyche, lesser-known projects that offered us a glimpse of his own.

Of all the Hollywood features and the library’s worth of docs in his half-century career, it’s Hopper’s directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), that was arguably his triumph, the perfect dovetailing of vision and circumstance. Like Orson Welles 30 years before him (with Citizen Kane), Hopper was in some ways cursed by his freshman success; it set expectations that were, for a variety of reasons, impossible to achieve.

Using the cultural language and cadence of the ’60s, Hopper tapped into something that ran deeper than one particular era: the root of American possibility, with all its attendant joys and hazards. Hopper and co-star/co-screenwriter Peter Fonda are Billy (Hopper, wearing buckskins) and Wyatt (Fonda, his jacket, helmet and gear adorned in full-color, whizbang stars and stripes), two California bikers fresh from a drug score that will set them up for in the indefinite future. Flush with cash and enthusiasm, the pair roar off to look for America.

With the benefit of a pitch-perfect soundtrack, Easy Rider offers some of the most emotionally naked images of modern American wanderlust: Open to the View-Master vistas they move through, Wyatt and Billy are together on the open road, our metaphorical river, avenue of the American dynamic. As a tandem in transit through a nation in transition, they echo and anticipate other vagabond unions in the culture, in a pursuit of freedom and revelation: Hawkeye and Chingachgook, Huck Finn and Jim, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, Thelma and Louise.

As director and co-screenwriter, Hopper brought the mythic construction down to something other than the literary, something that illustrated the modern expression of the outlaw subtext in the real world. Never mind the sale of illicit narcotics that sets their voyage in motion. Billy and Wyatt, undesirable on sight pretty much everywhere they went in the Southwest and Deep South, were also surrogates for others experiencing a sense of being outsiders.

Easy Rider was released the year after King’s assassination in 1968, when life for African Americans was a delicate, dangerous dance with history, custom and governmental and social inertia. Even with the Vietnam War, and the emerging divides of generation and politics seemed to make outsiders of everyone in the ’60s, race was always first among equals.

In one scene in Easy Rider, George Hanson (Nicholson), an ACLU lawyer by coincidence in a police station when Wyatt and Billy are brought in for questioning, rides to the rescue. “You’re lucky I’m here to see that you don’t get into anything… You can get out of here, if you haven’t killed anybody. At least nobody white”.

With Easy Rider, Hopper gave us a psychic road map to the nation, with Wyatt and Billy the embodiment of our national contradictions: liberty and accountability; the widest-open cultural possibilities and the ethical culs-de-sac we grapple with today. In a fictional scenario that anticipated everything from the Kent State killings to the Branch Davidian siege, the film distills just how deeply freedom and authority are fundamentally antagonists, even in America. Sadly, especially in America.

Rough-hewn and trippy, Easy Rider connects the dots between the xenophobia that wracked the ’60s and the divisiveness, that nasty nerve of fear that shoots through our culture and animates our politics today. Wyatt and Billy discovered in the ’60s what we all know in the 21st century: left and right, black and white, liberal and conservative — everyone takes turn at being the proverbial cowboys and the Indians.

The promotional copy for Easy Rider boils down the film’s essence: A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. Is that sense of drift, that anomic emptiness of the ’60s any less a part of the American experience today?

The polarities today are just as real, as well as the possibilities; there’s always been that sense of the dangerously, joyously possible for any of us in our own way as we’ve walked off, or walk off, to look for America. Dennis Hopper gave us that jangled, necessary explanation of this country, its essential duality, of how it plays no favorites, how it perversely calls us to enact our dreams and seeks to crush those with the nerve to do it.

So what are we gonna say now he’s gone, huh, man? What do we say? Are we gonna say he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Maybe. All of these are certainly true. Even more: Dennis Hopper was always there, casting his long and crazy shadow, a spirit wild at heart. He was everywhere. His visage still is everywhere. Hopefully we’ll say he had vision, a depth of field about the country he lived in; he had staying power, a stealth presence in the culture, and a way of understanding how the reach for something of worth is as important as actually grasping it, how discovery is not an event, but an untidy, ultimately revelatory process — for a nation and a filmmaker.