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Dennis Hopper: Actor, Director, Artist, American Iconoclast

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 onApocalypse 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.


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