Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Dennis Hopper

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dennis Hopper

by Tony Dayoub

Just a few months after I started this site, I got the opportunity to meet Dennis Hopper in New York. I had just flown in to cover the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, and attended a rare screening of a restored version of Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1961) that evening. Hopper surprised all of us by making an appearance to give an impromptu discussion on the film, his first as a lead. As I recount elsewhere, the screening of this surreal love story between a sailor and a mermaid took a turn for the stranger due to some inadvertent rearranging of the film's second and third reel. Hopper seemed fairly irritated, but as I braced myself for the actor-director to explode in a rant derived from some bizarre melding of his photojournalist character in Apocalypse Now with Blue Velvet's deranged Frank Booth, I was instead pleasantly surprised to see the actor-director take a breath and begin to get us up to speed on the plot points we'd missed from the misplaced second reel.

The younger iconoclastic Hopper got to work with an eclectic list of directors, including Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), George Stevens (Giant), and Andy Warhol (Tarzan and Jane Regained... Sort Of), before directing Easy Rider (1969), a pivotal film which helped propel American cinema into one of its most fertile periods. Offscreen, the same rebellious reputation he fostered with drug-induced escapades slowly made him radioactive careerwise: sometimes wrongly, like when he and director Ray collided over Ray's affair with Hopper's then-girlfriend Natalie Wood while shooting Rebel, or passively provoked the right-wing John Wayne into chasing him around with a gun on the set of True Grit (1969) simply because of his association with the radical left; but more often than not rightly, like when he allegedly pulled a knife on actor Rip Torn on the set of Easy Rider before replacing him with Jack Nicholson. With his newfound success, though, came a growing maturity. Rarely one to hold grudges, he would later help Ray secure a teaching job after the elder director had fallen on hard times.

It wasn't until many years later that Hopper's standing as both an actor and director would solidify. Francis Coppola's rehiring of Hopper on Rumble Fish (1983) after his manic, improvised performance on Apocalypse Now (1979) seemed to point the way as to how to best use the actor. But 1986's one-two (three if you count his minor role in River's Edge) punch as the horrifying Booth in David Lynch's masterpiece Blue Velvet and as the town drunk Shooter in Hoosiers proved a disciplined Hopper had the range to ply his craft in ways he hadn't demonstrated before.

The Eighties also gave us some underrated films by Hopper the director. Nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes, Out of the Blue (1980) is just about the grimmest character study I've ever seen, benefitting greatly by the inspired casting of Linda Manz (Days of Heaven). 1988's Colors is an early look at the realities of gang life in South Central L.A. with two solid performances by the unusual team of Robert Duval and Sean Penn. But his most assured film came in 1990, The Hot Spot, a neo-noir with a Southern hothouse twist, that stars Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly (with a superb soundtrack by Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker).

Hopper's later performances in Carried Away (1996) and Elegy (2008), reflected a certain acknowledgement of his mortality. In the former, he plays a crippled schoolteacher who sees a chance at redemption in the attentions of one of his young students. In the latter, his deathbed scene resonates quite strongly with his equally aged but immature friend played by Ben Kingsley, and I suspect the scene's resonance has only increased with Hopper's passing.

This seasoned Dennis Hopper is the one who most fascinated me, a contrast between the Republican art collector he had become and the impish auteur he used to be. It was why I felt comfortable approaching him to share a handshake and a few words after initially fearing the worst. This was the Hopper I encountered at Tribeca in a nutshell; a man with some wildly acquired mileage who had mellowed into a revered artist, and more importantly, a professional of some renown.

He died May 29th at the age of 74.

Recommended Films - As Director: Easy Rider, Out of the Blue, Colors, The Hot Spot

As Actor: Giant, Night Tide, Queen of Blood, Cool Hand Luke, Easy Rider, The American Friend, Apocalypse Now, Out of the Blue, River's Edge, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, True Romance, Speed, Witch Hunt (TV), Carried Away, Elegy


Unknown said...

What a nice tribute! He left us so many memorable performances in both good and bad films. Even in recent years I quite enjoyed his riff of Rumsfeld in George Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD. He will certainly be missed.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, J.D.

I missed his performance in LAND OF THE DEAD, but have been curious about it since apparently he supported Rumsfeld quite strongly at one point.

bill r. said...

Great piece, Tony. That's so cool that he showed up to host a screening of NIGHT TIDE. I don't think a lot of legendary actors would, several decades removed, bother to stump for a no-budget horror film that most people have never seen. I meant to rewatch NIGHT TIDE and write it up as my in memoriam post, but for whatever reason I keep putting it off.

And I keep forgetting OUT OF THE BLUE exists. I really need to see that.

Joel Bocko said...

Sorry to see him go, and glad you got to see him first (wish I had too). One of the initial shocks on discovering he'd died (before finding out he had cancer) was that he seemed to have aged so well. You would not have thought he was 74 (maybe it was different in person, but that was my impression seeing him on TV etc.) let alone a 74-year-old who'd spent 20 years on a drug-and-alcohol binge.

If he hadn't been Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, he'd still be the director of the still shit-kicking Easy Rider, and if he hadn't made Easy Rider, he'd still be Frank Booth. (And if he hadn't done either, he'd still have a career to be proud of, but better for all of us that he did both!)

Tony Dayoub said...

Well Bill, TCM is running NIGHT TIDE at 4:30am June 9th as part of its tribute to Hopper. I'd love to see a post on it from someone with your inclination for films of that nature. And OUT OF THE BLUE is a must-see!

MovieMan, glad to see you again in these parts. I hadn't heard from you in a while. I've been lurking around WitD and am glad to see you will keep writing under your original shingle.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah Tony, I've become very infrequent on other blogs as well as my own. I think the consolidation was a good idea, and from now on I'm of the mindset that blogging is going to be fun and not a second (or as it were, third/fourth) job, which I kind of treated it as sporadically for a couple years. I'm glad I did at the time but it's not where I'm at now. Hopefully without pressuring myself to write as much, I can drop by other blogs more often as well...