Dennis Hopper and I only briefly shared a table one morning at a film festival four years ago, but we hadn't talked more than five minutes before he alluded to the death of James Dean. Hopper's brief friendship with his co-star and mentor on the sets of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant marked him for life; they shared a passion, which Dean was the first person in Hopper's world to fully articulate.
“I took Jim aside when we were on Rebel,” he told me, reiterating a story he told often. “I said, 'You're doing something I don't understand.' ” As a teenage stage actor, Hopper had trained hard, honing classical chops, but he'd been moved out of his comfort zone by this new friend's charismatic anarchy. Dean advised him, “Don't do so much. Stop doing 'line readings.' Stop acting. Smoke the cigarette or drink the coffee or whatever, but take it moment by moment. If you're not feeling anything, accept that. If the emotion comes, great — but don't 'presuppose' it.”
This philosophy enriched Hopper's work at every stage of his life, up until his death last weekend, of prostate cancer, at age 74. You could compile an uproarious anthology film simply from clips of his best bit parts and cameo moments: the raggedy hero-worshipper acting as an emcee to Colonel Kurtz's jungle in Apocalypse Now; the cracked “husband” of an inflatable sex doll in River's Edge; the stoic dad, playing psychological chess with the man he knows will kill him, in True Romance.
A festival of Hopper's best lead performances, on the other hand, would constitute quite a marathon. Apart from his astonishing turn in Blue Velvet (1986) and films in which he directed himself (especially his love-struck hit man in 1989's Backtrack), a proper Hopper fest would include Night Tide (1961), his sweetest role, as a vulnerable sailor in love with a mermaid; Henry Jaglom's Tracks (1975), as a Vietnam vet disintegrating over the course of a homeward train ride; Wim Wenders' The American Friend, in which he plays Patricia Highsmith's “talented Mr. Ripley” as a fallen angel attempting to right his own wrongdoings against a defenseless man; and Boiling Point (1993), a little-known gem directed by James B. Harris, in which Hopper gives tragic weight to a petty crook grown too gentle for his profession. Add your favorite, but capping the lot would be Elegy (2007), based on The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth. There, in a supporting role opposite Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz, Hopper is particularly moving, persuasive in his erudite arguments regarding women, art, poetry and mortality. It is a fitting and memorable conclusion to his career.
Hopper carried a unique wound from childhood. At age 6, early in World War II, he was told that his father had been killed: This was a deliberate lie for security purposes (his dad was an agent in the OSS, forerunner of the CIA); only his mother knew the truth. The agony of that loss, followed by the trauma of discovering the lie, left him with a lifelong mistrust of both women, and male authority. Small wonder Dean's passion for honesty mattered so much to him. Small wonder that after his friend's sudden death, Hopper fought director Henry Hathaway on From Hell to Texas (1958), running up a legendary 87 takes of a simple bit on the last day of principal photography and derailing what had been a highly promising mainstream acting career. Small wonder that when he came back in triumph with Easy Rider in 1969, he burnt this success to the ground with his next directorial effort, The Last Movie (1971). As if having crushed every other authority he could rebel against, he rebelled against himself — embracing exile once again on the margins of the mainstream, where the pressures were entirely internal. Finally — considering how these agonies had piled onto one another by the time he was pushing 50 — it is no wonder that his most symphonic on-screen performance should be as Frank Booth, the baby-talking, stimulants-happy killer and misogynist at the dark heart of Blue Velvet (1986). Hopper's greatness in this role is that he enacts every terrible impulse in a man — from murder to sexual assault, from fascist crocodile tears to infantile self-pity — and owns these repugnant furies from the inside, with the naked honesty of an artist who is actually free of them for the first time. The film itself marked his survival, and the definitive rebirth of Hopper's career.
One fellow critic with whom I recently discussed this “rebirth” objected, “You're forgetting all those self-parodying performances in bad movies.”
No, I'm not! If he's up there talking with his hands (his one lifelong vice as an actor); or has been formulaically positioned (hello, bad guys of Waterworld and Speed); or if he's just a mad-poet-drifter hired to channel the ghost of that dead biker from Easy Rider, Hopper's weakest moments on-screen ring no less true for me than his most disciplined stuff, precisely because his was essentially a Zen attitude. Once he'd come back with Blue Velvet, he showed up “ready for work.” It was up to filmmakers to use him well. His hoke-a-delic turn in Hoosiers (1987) was a deliberate affirmation of this, perhaps even a subversive one, given that it netted him an Oscar nomination — his only one, for acting — well befitting the sentimental era of Driving Miss Daisy. In the long history of delayed reactions that are the Academy Awards, let us consider that he was really nominated for Blue Velvet, but voters were too scared of the character to admit this.
In the early 1960s, briefly reduced to playing bit TV parts on Bonanza and Petticoat Junction, Hopper was forced to reinvent himself, mostly as a photographer. His portraits of fellow actors are marvels.
One study of a corner gas station, framed by a car's windshield, dashboard and rearview mirror (Double Standard, 1962) has no people in it at all but needs none: The personality is behind the camera.
This quiet period of training his interior vision proved essential to Hopper's formation as a film director. Easy Rider may have revolutionized the film business, but its virtues as art are of a piece with the strength in Hopper's photography, his relentless appetite for this moment, whatever that moment is. This is why Easy Rider so captivated people of all ages in 1969; perhaps this is also why the film now dates so badly, at least in certain parts. He was not only being true to the inchoate dreams and nightmares of the culture but to its bullshit as well. He clearly recognized this because the film culminates in a cryptic, mischievous line of dialogue: “We blew it.”
Hopper supplied his co-star Peter Fonda with that line; it was an intuitive prompt, and generally speaking it is his loyalty to things that are irrational yet true which gives all the films he directed their abiding afterlives. The Last Movie, crazy-quilt jigsaw puzzle that it is, is all the same, uncannily true to the spirituality of the Peruvian natives among whom its hero is marooned. Out of the Blue (1980) took on abused children well ahead of the cultural curve, just as Colors (1986) was the first mainstream American film to wrestle in depth with L.A.'s gang subculture. For all that it was jinxed in postproduction, and still suffers from canned mood music even in the director's cut Hopper restored for DVD, Backtrack succeeds against steep odds in its funny and feverish fantasizing by creating a very tangible empathy for the two radically opposed strangers at its epicenter, and the unexpected love they share for art, and beauty. In my own favorite of Hopper's work as a director, The Hot Spot (1990), intuition is practically the protagonist. The charming drifter who blows into town finds himself at the mercy of any number of hidden agendas, just as we do in watching, and all of us must attempt in tandem to sort them all out before the local Venus flytraps close over his fool head.
It is difficult to communicate in today's terms what a comet-sized blast Easy Rider created in the film industry. Made for $300,000, it grossed $60 million on its first release: That's 180 times its budget — vastly more than Star Wars, E.T. or Titanic earned in proportion to their costs. The entire business model of moviemaking transformed overnight, making Easy Rider one of scant movies this side of Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer to redirect the industry in a single blow. To this day, even as films compete with games, the Internet and pay-TV, wildcatters making their low-budget and no-budget magnum opuses are working a marketplace Hopper cracked open.
That Jack Nicholson became a star because of Easy Rider is no accident of his own charisma, either. He'd been in other movies without making anywhere near this kind of splash. The character he plays is many men rolled into one: a wised-up son of wealth; a drunken lawyer; a motley fool in a football helmet; a stoned sage of the spaceways, apprehending a holy order in UFOs. Terry Southern wrote the dialogue, but it was Hopper's direction that allowed these clashing manifestations of one man to shine, to become unforgettable.
At its depths, behind the camera or in front of it, Hopper's legacy as a filmmaker is defined by a multitude of excellent performances, each alive with the iconic honesty Dean had pressed him to seek in himself. His particular genius as an artist was that he made himself at home within his own contradictions — and was perpetually eager to invite the rest of the world to join him there, laughing at the darkness.