There was a time when Dennis Hopper exulted in the reputation of being the first kid who knew what was wrong with Hollywood. What he said, more or less, was that the movies have gone dead, man, that it’s just old-timers doing it all on automatic pilot, that there’s no truth, anymore, man, and they won’t put me in lead parts.
There was some truth in what he said, and it was certainly the case that a number of veteran directors found Hopper an intolerable smart-ass who said he had known Jimmy--Jimmy Dean--and that what he was saying now was only what Dean would have said. Which may have been true. But which also allowed that Nicholas Ray--the director of Rebel Without a Cause, one of their two films together--also knew some of what was wrong about Hollywood, even if there was very little he could do about it. Come to that, Orson Welles, 15 years earlier had known, too, and had done his best to indicate another way out of the jungle.
Dennis Hopper was not a Dean or a Welles; he was not a Ray. But he was a bright-eyed, wide-browed kid with a slightly frozen beauty who looked a little like some silent screen actors.
Though he had come out of Dodge City, Kansas, he got to California early on and for a moment it was reckoned he had a career. He was a guy in the gang that hazes Dean in Rebel, and just a year later he played the grown-up son to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.
He did a few other films--Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (that’s the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas version) where he played Billy Clanton, From Hell to Texas, and The Sons of Katie Elder (with John Wayne).
In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, the stunning daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. The young couple was good looking enough to be taken for the next generation of Hollywood royalty, but no one quite noticed that the kingdom was melting like an ice sculpture out in the sun. Hopper fought with directors. He spouted a lot of Method talk about the actor feeling “right,” and his career was going nowhere.
Then something happened. Roger Corman was making his exploitation films of the moment and the subject was bikers on drugs having sex. One of these pictures was The Trip, with a scene where Hopper, Peter Fonda, and some others were at a campfire, passing round a joint, and improvising. Was that a real joint? Corman would ask later. He was shocked to think that could be going on. But others noted that the joint gave Dennis a gift of tongues--he made up a speech using the word “man” 36 times.
As a reward, he said, Corman sent Hopper and Fonda off into the desert with a nonsynch camera to get some atmosphere shots. They had a terrific time as can happen with gorgeous kids, a camera, and what may be joints. As Fonda remembered, “So we shot for a couple of days in Yuma, in Big Dune and back towards L.A. Dennis got some beautiful, beautiful stuff of me in the dunes with water behind me, water going into my profile and bursting behind me.”
Gee, this is easy, they thought, and so they reckoned they’d make a whole movie more or less that way. They called it Easy Rider and they did it without Corman. And Dennis would direct. A wild bunch of Hollywood kids came on board--Hopper and Fonda, Terry Southern, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Donn Cambern, Henry Jaglom and Laszlo Kovacs. Anyone they knew, passing by, was likely to be asked to help in the editing. Another kid they knew, Jack Nicholson, got the third acting role, the disenchanted lawyer--though there was a good deal of argument (and money in court later) over how he got the part when Rip Torn had been in line first. Thy shot stuff--beautiful, beautiful stuff. They had desert, sunrise-sunset, and girls. Kovacs was a terrific camera man. They laid music on the soundtrack and the film has a quest if not a story--of these cowboys driving across America for drug money (Phil Spector made a cameo as their connection--I’m not making this up).
Nor am I beyond the facts in estimating that this amateur movie made for around $340,000 (they had to pay for the drugs) took in $19 million in domestic rentals. That was 1969 and it was the start of cinema made by the new generation. Two years earlier, Bonnie and Clyde had been a far more interesting and less drugbound example of what was possible--but in both pictures hitting the road was a metaphor for escaping factory thinking. A moment would come when studios in decline said give the kid a chance--so if you haven’t got a kid yet, find one. It was the attitude that helped Robert Altman get M.A.S.H. (not a kid, but a doper); it got Hal Ashby started as a director as well as Peter Bogdanovich, Alan Pakula, and Bob Rafelson. It helped get Francis Coppola the directing job on The Godfather--and it was a good thing, even if Fonda and Hopper were at liberty to make airy claims about it all being part of their vision.
Hopper ran out of vision quickly. His marriage to Brooke Hayward ended. He then married Michelle Phillips for about a week, and next Daria Halprin, the warm-bodied statue Michelangelo Antonioni had used on Zabriskie Point. Dennis embarked on a venture to South America where he was intent on the definitive wipe-out--The Last Movie. The polite verdict was that the film was incoherent and pretentious. All of a sudden Dennis Hopper became an elusive figure.
In the late '70s, he loomed up occasionally on the international screen--as a Vietnam vet in Jaglom’s Tracks where he acted for maybe the first time; as the Ripley figure in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend; and as the demented photo-journalist in the jungle in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He was in a lot of trouble from drugs, and plenty of people doubted that he would come through.
Again, something happened. In 1980, he was cast in a spooky picture called Out of the Blue in which Linda Manz was playing the teenage daughter of a druggie Dennis. The director dropped out and Hopper was asked if he’d take over. He did and he turned the routine melodrama into something taut and special. He was in a Sam Peckinpah picture, The Osterman Weekend, and in 1986 there he was in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as Frank Booth, a drugged madman but horribly dangerous. The film was a masterpiece and Hopper was the most extreme figure in it, the violently sexed father figure as seen from the infant boy’s point of view. He carried a cylinder of some magical gas and you wondered if he was going to catch fire.
If he wasn’t acting, why wasn’t he in an institution? The legend of Dennis the Menace, this strange wild kid with stranger luck was renewed. Frank Booth is one of those characters from the '80s, like Jack Torrance and Hannibal Lecter, who showed how monsters were settling into ordinary life. The Academy was as alarmed as it was impressed, so they gave Hopper a supporting actor nomination for Hoosiers, made in the same year, where he plays a shy, inarticulate man with no confidence--the Jekyll to Frank Booth’s Hyde.
I’m sure the Hopper obituaries will begin and end with Easy Rider. But that orthodoxy is off the mark. In truth, Easy Rider deserves to be forgiven and forgotten. But Hopper’s fearlessness and his sense of being back from the brink made Blue Velvet possible (and please don’t forget Dean Stockwell!).
There now began the most stable period of Hopper’s life. He was a character actor, at last--a broad villain in Speed and Waterworld, a Dad to Molly Ringwald in The Pick-Up Artist, very effective on television in Paris Trout as a man without flair or beauty. He worked as a photographer and a painter, living in Venice, California, and he married Victoria Duff, his wife for 14 years. Alas, shortly before his death from colon cancer, there were stories that he was seeking a divorce in a legal maneuver to protect his estate. You didn’t want to hear about that. Though he voted for Obama in 2008, he had become increasingly drawn to the right wing in politics--why not, he was a hippie who had become a rich man and who had always thought he knew what was wrong with the system.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.