There’s more to Dennis Hopper than his reputation might suggest
By Steven Rosen
(This first ran in Cincinnati CityBeat on June 2, 2010)
Most of the obituaries of Dennis Hopper, who died of prostate cancer May 29 at age 74, have followed a similar narrative arc:
After a promising start in supporting roles in two of friend James Dean’s movies – Rebel Without a Cause and Giant – the young, volatile actor fell afoul of director Henry Hathaway during filming of the Western From Hell to Texas and became a Hollywood outcast for almost a decade.
When the counterculture made “outcasts” hip, he came roaring back by directing, co-writing and starring in 1969’s Easy Rider but immediately blew it again on substance abuse and personal turmoil that rendered him one of the greatest burnouts of the era.
When he emerged in 1979’s Apocalypse Now — as a jabbering, crazed photojournalist — many people assumed he wasn’t acting. Then he disappeared again.
Finally, in 1986, David Lynch cast the now-middle-aged, sobered-up Hopper as the drug-sniffing Frank Booth, one of modern movies’ great villains, in that dreamscape of a thriller, Blue Velvet. The same year, he received an Oscar nomination — as a town drunk helping a high-school basketball team — in the far more ordinary Hoosiers.
Hopper was back. And from then on he was ubiquitous in movies, TV shows, commercials — in so many films he made Kevin Bacon jealous.
It’s a great melodramatic narrative with a fantastic comeback hook. And Hopper himself seemed to believe it, at least to the extent it served him. But, away from the limelight, he continued to believe he did good, adventurous work during those lost decades — the 1960s before Easy Rider, the 1970s after it. And he was right.
I was fortunate in the late 1980s to see two films in a Hopper retrospective at Berkeley’s Pacifica Film Archives: 1961’s Night Tide and 1971’s The Last Movie, his “disastrous” directorial follow-up to Easy Rider. He proudly attended the latter’s screening for a Q&A, pleased to discover the audience found in the flawed movie some dynamic, thought-provoking, Jean-Luc Godard-influenced filmmaking.
And Night Tide continues to be an overlooked jewel of early indie movies. Directed and co-written by the late Curtis Harrington — a Los Angeles underground/avant-garde filmmaker — the low-budget (and arty) thriller stars Hopper as a sailor on leave (pictured above) attracted to a mysterious woman (Linda Lawson) who works in a carnival sideshow as a mermaid. And she just might be one, a dangerous one at that. The daughter of the carousel operator (a fine actress named Luana Anders) seems to know, but the sailor won’t listen.
A film indebted to the atmospheric, naturalistic yet quasi-surreal horror movies of Val Lewton, Night Tide has a Cocteau-like poetic quality while also capturing the long-lost pre-tourist glitz style of life at Santa Monica’s pier at the time. It’s a beautiful hallucination of a movie.
The Last Movie has been derided as an excuse for post-Easy Rider Hopper and his hipster pals to party in Peru on a major studio’s dime, turning in an incoherent and self-indulgent movie whose very existence was a symbol of hippie-Hollywood’s arrogance. Well, yes and no. There are indeed indulgences (as well as wonderful cinematography from Laszlo Kovacs), but what comes together fitfully is a Marshall McLuhan-esque take on the ability of the camera, itself, to both empower and exploit people.
Hopper plays Kansas, a crew member who stays behind after production on a Western is shut down and discovers that Indian villagers are re-enacting film scenes … maybe for real. The movie unfolds in a deconstructionist style heavily influenced by Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and cinema-studies theory. Like Easy Rider, it also tries to update and question the most mythically American of movie genres, the Western, at a time when all American myths were under question.
Also worth seeing (but not easy to find) are some of his other 1970s films. In 1973’s Kid Blue, directed by James Frawley, a revisionist Western in which he portrays a criminal trying to go straight in the small town of Dime Box. Free from being a director or writer, Hopper can just act and does it quite well. And he also is fine in Henry Jaglom’s 1977 Tracks as a distraught Vietnam-era soldier escorting his friend’s body home to California on a train.
Wim Wenders, the German director whose fascination with Americana later resulted in the classic Paris, Texas, cast Hopper in one of his finest roles in 1977’s The American Friend. He’s the cowboy-hat-wearing art dealer Ripley, who seduces a picture framer into committing murder. It’s a politicized take on Patricia Highsmith’s oft-filmed Ripley’s Game, showing both Wenders’ and Hopper’s interest in America’s (and Hollywood’s) Western mythos and how it affects the world. I can’t imagine it without The Last Movie having come first.
And in 1980’s Out of the Blue, which Hopper directed, he plays the troubled father of a young small-town rebel, memorably played by Days of Heaven’s Linda Manz.
Hopper might have been as difficult in the 1960s and 1970s as the conventional narrative says, wasting the power he acquired with Easy Rider. But he also did some fine work that’s waiting to be rediscovered.
(Photo: From Night Tide)