Back when Dennis Hopper was a hippie wildman, Kris Kristofferson wrote the song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Hang In, Hopper)” for Dennis, whom he had worked with on The Last Movie (the song was also supposed to reflect Kris’ other friends, like Johnny Cash and Jerry Jeff Walker, but his title betrays the main subject). Kristofferson’s lyrics, which can be found here, talk about the schizo nature of Hopper’s talent, how he was a “walking contradiction” (a line quoted by Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver, with a direct reference to Kristofferson, and yet another later in the film to Hopper).
Hopper definitely was a conflicted character when he was at his best — once the conflicts died down, so did the factors that made him an extremely watchable performer, and he made the conscious decision to appear in anything and everything (using accents he wasn’t very good at, and even playing Sinatra in one particularly odd pic that showed up on DVD). Perhaps to support his habit of buying art, perhaps to keep up with his upscale lifestyle, perhaps merely because he wanted to die “with his boots on” on a movie set. As a longtime fan of his, I’ve been cringing for the past 15 years plus, as he’s appeared in bad TV series, godawful “DVD premieres” (and their forefather, the “straight to video” movie), and stinking cable films; pretty much anything they offered him, he took. He completely ceased being a filmmaker after producing a few really interesting films, and became a character performer who would star in just about anything.
I say the preceding with regret, since I thought that, at his best, Hopper had a helluva lot to offer as an actor and as a filmmaker. Since the man has left us now, after a very public battle with prostate cancer (and his most recent younger wife), I’ll leave out the bad and just focus here on the good and the weird in Hopper’s work. He grew tremendously as a performer over the years, most likely due to his life experience and prolonged period indulging in drugs and really, really wild behavior (as with the sitting-in-the-middle-of-a-dynamite-circle story). Like his friend Jack Nicholson, he grew from being a really flat actor into a true multi-dimensional character on-screen, stealing some films outright and dominating others with scarily intense performances.
Hopper cultivated his “hipster” cred early on, from basking in the reflected glow of James Dean and starting a feud on a movie set with journeyman director Henry Hathaway. After the incident with Hathaway blacklisted him, he moved to New York, and tried for a “legit” reputation in theater and television. He gave some great performances in TV series, but also appeared in some compulsively watchable kitsch, like this episode of Petticoat Junction:
Even while appearing on fun crap like the above, he also kept moving in art circles, as is indicated by the fact he was in a “Screen Test” for Andy Warhol:
While researching this piece, I found that the clearest example of how Hopper grew as an actor could be found in his recitation of an all-too-familiar poem he’d memorized. He performed Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (which, btw, he had to remind us, was the middle word in “life”… man…) on The Johnny Cash Show (there was also a singing duet, which is wonderfully bad and can be found here). It’s pure corn, seeing Dennis recite the piece at this point in his career, kinda like him doing something “straight” for once, even as he is a hippie film star (with oddly groomed hair — what was it with that “pilgrim” look?):
He then performed the poem at a Dylan "Rolling Thunder" tour show, and of course inserted it out of the blue (plus the "middle word in life" bit) into Apocalypse Now. The most impressive clip I came across is him reciting the poem again as an older man, and a far, far better actor, giving it a genuinely emotional tinge that was missing in his earlier performances. Dammit if he didn’t get better as he got older (the reason why I was saddened by his descent into awful moviemaking for his final 15 years).
For a dose of pure hippie-visionary Dennis, the single best source is the documentary American Dreamer (1971), directed by L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller. When the docu was made, he was one of the hottest filmmakers in the world thanks to the success of Easy Rider, and he was about to shoot himself in the foot big-time with The Last Movie. Here he’s driving and rambling:
Here he centers in on Orson Welles as a model filmmaker, but also as the kind of person the studios simply would *not* trust with a film budget:
One of the docu’s finest moments, Dennis’s admission that he is a male lesbian:
The Last Movie (1971) is available in its entirety on YT. I have very mixed feelings about the film, since I think it is bold and daring and extremely crazy (always to be encouraged), but it actually winds up being only half a good movie, due to Hopper’s inability to actually carry off Godardian disjunctive techniques — plus the fact that he’s set up such a conventionally good storyline his working with alienation techniques wasn’t necessary:
He gave some great performances even while he was “indulging” in a major way. One of those was Henry Jaglom’s terrific Tracks (1977). The incredibly high-strung conclusion of the film finds Hopper going to that place he went to again in films like Blue Velvet:
He was also just perfectly cast in Wim Wenders’ brilliant crime-and-character picture The American Friend (1977). This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but Dennis’ scenes are in English:
Shortly after he gave the disciplined performance above, he went full-tilt gonzo for Coppola’s cameras in Apocalypse Now. It’s interesting that he was such a “type” when he gave this kind of performance, yet no one ever did an impression of him (although everyone I know wound up quoting his more batfuck crazy dialogue after seeing him give performances like this). He serves as the "doorway" to Brando, which is interesting in light of the fact that Marlon was forever going to be the paramount actor of Hopper's generation, given that Dean took an early exit and Monty Clift dissolved in the mid-Sixties:
Now we come to what I feel was the most underrated part of Hopper’s career, and the part he sadly abandoned when he started getting blockbuster salaries in the early Nineties: his filmmaking. Again, while he was still a dedicated “user,” he made an excellent low-budget independent feature in Canada that found him emulating the Cassavetes style to very good effect. Out of the Blue (1980) is hippie Dennis reflecting on the new punk culture, and the way in which people of his generation might not have been the most… attentive parents. It’s an excellently acted pic that is disturbing as hell and showed he was a very talented filmmaker who shoulda kept making movies. Here the lead character, Hopper’s fucked-up teen (Linda Manz), registers her complaints on a CB radio:
Here’s a little slice of the pic’s “atmosphere,” as the underage Manz wanders into a punk club:
And here Daddy Dennis comments on punk:
Hopper didn’t make another movie as a director until 1988, when he helmed Catchfire, which was released as Backtrack on video in 1990. It’s a bizarrely cast movie that is a helluva lot of fun, despite the fact that Dennis’s urban tough-guy accent is about as unconvincing as Nicholson’s in Prizzi’s Honor. The film was pretty much buried by its studio Vestron, just before Vestron itself was buried by bankruptcy. It exists on YT only as a pseudo-bondage clip uploaded for its fetish-y aspect, and for its Bob Dylan cameo, recorded here off of a TV set (I guess whomever holds the right to the title is demanding the clips come down?):
Hopper also made one of the best ever films about L.A. street gangs, Colors (1988). Superbly acted by Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and as tense as all hell, the film is definitely one to be seen. It has been uploaded in its entirety on YT:
Hopper’s last film as a director was Chasers in 1994, which can be best described as “The Last Detail with Randy Quaid replaced by a hot blonde from Baywatch" (yes, it’s that high-concept). He had spoken in interviews about creating a film school for directors, but he completely abandoned that part of his career after Chasers (with the exception of one short in 2000). A definite shame, considering the talent he did display as a director — and the fact that he stopped being interested in filmmaking around the time he started earning *giant* salaries in big-budget crapo blockbusters like Speed and Waterworld (which may have failed at the b.o., but Dennis made quite a lot doing it).
Since I don’t really want to draw too much attention to Chasers, I’ll close with the trailer to his last good pic as a director, The Hot Spot (1990), which is based on an old hardboiled novel, found Don Johnson actually giving an excellent performance, and costarred the dynamic duo of Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly, both unquestionably pleasing to the eye: