Dennis Hopper was the most visionary of all Hollywood bad boys

dennis-hopperImage Credit: Everett CollectionIn a world of fake bad boys, he was the true article — a natural-born rule breaker, a Hollywood rebel who took midnight rides on the wild side with James Dean, a scraggly-haired hippie too hip (and too dark) to let the sunshine in. Dennis Hopper, who died Saturday at 74, was an actor and a filmmaker who tore through boundaries not just because he didn’t like them; most often, he didn’t even see them. I’ll never forget the one time I got to be in a room with him. It was August 1979, at the Saturday morning press conference after the very first American showing of Apocalypse Now. The screening had taken place the night before, at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. I was a bratty college journalist who’d squeezed my way in and was still reeling from the movie: its hallucinatory power and majesty and violent strangeness. (The “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence was so indelible that it kept popping back into your mind’s eye, like your very own searing cinematic Vietnam flashback.)

At the press conference, they were mostly all there, the maverick artists who had toiled away on this movie for half a decade: Francis Ford Coppola, who took the opportunity to make his first feverish pronouncements on the brave new world of technology we were all about to enter (he called it “the communications revolution,” and though few knew what he was talking about, 30 years later, it’s clear that he was right); Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen, the latter of whom had priceless tales of working with the elephantine and eccentric Marlon Brando (who, naturally, hadn’t bothered to show up to talk to a bunch of journalists); and Hopper, who instantly took on the role of flaked-out druggie court jester of the press conference. The more stonerish and cosmic, and the less coherent, he was, the more that he ended up dominating the questions and answers, cracking up everyone in the room, though whether we were laughing with him or at him was, by the end, an open question.

To this day, I have no idea if he was actually high, but it almost didn’t matter: His rambling declarations on everything from filmmaking to the state of America made it sound as if he had never quite stopped playing the jittery, blitzed-out-of-his-noggin, war-fragged photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Or, just maybe, that his performance in the movie wasn’t really a performance at all. There’s no denying that Dennis Hopper made himself a bit of a joke that day. Listening to him was like looking at the last joint ash of the ’60s, hanging in the air and ready to fall. At the same time, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was a court jester and a train wreck, and he was also every inch a star. In his very dissolution, he played his own legend like a bad-trip virtuoso.

blue-easy-rider-hopperImage Credit: Luca Ghidoni/Getty ImagesThe thing is, even his drugged-out fall from grace only served, in the end, to set up one of the greatest acting comeback/triumphs in the history of Hollywood. Seven years later, in what would be — in my view, at least — the single greatest film of the 1980s, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Hopper gave a performance that was more than “dark” and “scary” and “creepy” and all the other words that you could appropriately hurl at it. He gave a performance that shocked audiences with its down-to-the-bone knowledge of evil. Hopper’s Frank Booth still showed the actor’s 1950s roots. He was a greaser out of your nightmares, a delinquent all grown up into a dirty old daddy-uncle. But when he pulled out that drug canister, snapped on the gas mask, and began to inhale, we saw what he had curdled into — a man out of period, a true modern monster, not just an addict but the ultimate addict, a guy who got high on things we had no idea of, because somewhere along the way, he had gone that far past being able to get pleasure out of normal pleasure. Frank Booth was a ’50s nightmare meets ’60s nightmare turned very ’80s nightmare: a gothic pervert sadist hooligan whose spirit whispered to the hero, “You’re just like me!” And so, on some level, that’s what Hopper (and Lynch) were whispering to the audience, too.

Those are frightening thoughts, to be sure, but when Dennis Hopper talks in Blue Velvet, with that melodious snarl, he’s not just a walking menace, a guy who’s going to get in your dreams and stay there. He’s a villain with his own bad dreams, a terrifyingly grown-up greaser-psychotic who has become enslaved to his demons — his drug canister — and adores them all the more for that reason. Hopper didn’t just make himself into a small-town underworld bogeyman. He laid himself bare on screen, fusing his own dark side with that of the character, the way Brando did it in Last Tango in Paris. Hopper’s performance is an electric bolt of malevolence shot straight from the soul. It was the catharsis his whole career had been building toward.

Of course, Dennis Hopper really had two careers. He was an actor who became a filmmaker, and what you see when you look at the movies he directed is extraordinary promise, embodied in one fresh blast of organic brilliance, and then a great deal of colorful fallout. Easy Rider, the two-hippies-on-a-ride-to-find-the-real-America chopper odyssey he directed in 1969, is not only, along with Bonnie and Clyde, the formative film of the New Hollywood. It’s a movie that stands the test of time in exactly the way that a drama about two rambling longhairs out to find freedom on the highway should not.

Watch Easy Rider today, and you’ll see that every glinting panoramic shot, every toked-up dialogue rhythm, every situation and jagged dramatic back-alley dovetails as only the work of a born filmmaker can. Hopper, who was in his late teens when he made his screen debut in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), came of age in the outwardly strait-laced, buttoned-down Hollywood of the 1950s, but as a compatriot of the moody, emotionally voluptuous (and bisexual) James Dean, he was already writing the first chapter of the revolution that was to come. When he got the chance to make Easy Rider, he poured a decade’s worth of desire, liberation, nihilism, despair, and hunger into it, and the freedom of the movie is there in every image. It’s there in the air of discovery that the characters breathe. As an artist, Hopper showed the instinctive sophistication to portray himself and Peter Fonda, the two scruffed-out hippie-biker antiheroes, not just as crusaders but as tragicomic fools. I first saw Easy Rider when I was 11 (it was the first adult movie I ever snuck into), and the end of the movie — that falling-away roadside-crash helicopter’s-eye death shot that you realize has already been glimpsed in an acid hallucination — spooked and possessed me like nothing I had ever seen. This wasn’t just a trendy youth-drug-culture movie. It was filmmaking on drugs.

At that point, having kicked the door of the New Hollywood wide open, Dennis Hopper could have written his own ticket. And he did — by quickly flaming out and writing a ticket to oblivion. Hopper had a singular knack for mythologizing himself, and two years after Easy Rider, when he entitled his followup effort The Last Movie (1971), it was an invitation to the counterculture audience to see it as the product of a system that was already breaking down. A hodgepodge of native-chic message mongering, psychodramatic dithering, and apocalypse…wow! indulgence, all shot in Peru, The Last Movie was Hopper, in effect, trashing the Hollywood-meets-the-new-youth-generation alliance that he had helped to bring about.

There’s a whole cachet surrounding The Last Movie — that it’s a flawed “visionary” work, too pure and daring for the system that had allowed it to be (so the system, therefore, couldn’t allow it to be). But I had a rare chance to watch it on the big screen in the late ’80s, and the movie I saw was, frankly, a borderline unwatchable mess: images strung together with haphazard abandon, and Hopper treating himself as an icon who no longer wanted to bother being an actor. The Last Movie is a real messianic-complex disaster, like the films Alex Cox made right after Sid & Nancy. The movie’s “lastness” signifies nothing — except, perhaps, Dennis Hopper’s withdrawal from the world of moviemaking. There’s one moment of oddball fascination, though: Making love under a waterfall (or, at least, that’s my memory of it), Hopper spills forth some of the same queasy noises of horny torment that he does in the sadomasochistic sex scenes of Blue Velvet. Which makes you wonder how much of Frank Booth he really did pull out of himself.

Ultimately rejoining the world, and the system, Hopper directed a couple of pretty good films: the end-of-the-’70s curio Out of the Blue (1980) and, of course, Colors (1988), the L.A. cop drama to which he brought a real grit and flash and tumultuous atmosphere, guiding Sean Penn and Robert Duvall through some of their most likable Method-lite fireworks. He played some pretty cool wily and bug-eyed villains, too, notably in Speed (1994). Overall, though, it’s safe to say that he almost couldn’t help but drift back to playing the role he knew best: that of Dennis Hopper, visionary-turned-casualty-turned-survivor-of -the-’60s. Right to the end, in those Ameriprise boomer-retirement commercials (which are truly ingenious, with a subtext that says: If goddamn Dennis Hopper can plan for his future, than so can you!), he never lost his craggy-ghostly, fine-planed handsomeness, or the playful glee that so often animated his flights of stoner fancy. In Apocalypse Now, he’s actually quite brilliant, using his crackpot jabberiness as knowing, burnout comedy. As in all his best movies, whether behind or in front of the camera, he puts his demons right out there, as if to conquer them by exposing them, and for that, he’ll always be an artist on the side of the angels.

Comments (170 total) Add your comment
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  • Gary J

    Killed by those deadly cigars to which he was addicted. Tobacco pushers kill one more with their ILLEGAL drug!

    • Aunt Kiki

      @Gary J- He died of PROSTATE cancer, not lung cancer. Cigars and tobacco had nothing to do with this at all.

      • deeplip

        The rate of prostate cancer is higher among men who smoke. Just sayin’.

      • renegade98

        Gary J is not going to let facts get in the way of a good story.

      • Jill

        Did you know that the #1 cause for ANY cancer is cigarette smoking? Trust me, I’m a nurse in the ICU. Do your research!

      • solifeaergsr

        he was a cool dude–you couldnt help but like the guy—-he was in his own world man !!!!!!!!
        It’s hard to find a good men in my town ,most of them like my money
        more than like me.Ijust want to find my true love.so i uploaded my hot photos on
        Meet Millionaire~.~ c o m under the name of amanda30.It’s the best club for seeking Millionaires and their admirers ,
        .if you men see
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        i’m looking for!!!

      • Stupidpeoplechouldnotpost

        Aunt Kiki are you an idiot!?!? Tobacco kills period do the research and see the cancer route does not matter basically it’s where it settles and prostate was the one!

      • mayo

        By saying your a nurse doesn’t make your statement true. Im a nurse at St. Judes not the little ICU part but the area with children with cancer. NONE of them have smoked a day in their lives and they have cancer! Smoking ISN’T the leading cause of cancer. Go back to school if this is what you have learned!!! Or you may need to ask them to take your diploma back and ask for a refund! Cause it’s more than just tobacco that can cause cancer! UGH

    • Jaymz

      Every male eventually gets prostate cancer if they live long enough. You don’t get that from smoking. Also, it’s not illegal. I think it’s bad and wish it had more restrictions, but it’s not illegal.

      • Retnan

        “Every male eventually gets prostate cancer if they live long enough”

        That’s absurd.

      • Brave new one

        That’s not in the least absurd, it’s true.

      • froggy

        In my home town, there was an old guy.. 95 yrs old, who was a drinker from hell and chain smoker. He opened the Tavern at 6 in the morning, and was there after midnight most days.
        He ate all his meals there. Bar food. He played shuffle board and flirted outrageously with every female who entered the premises. Casey was his name. He was only about 5’2″ and weight about 100 lbs, but would pick fights with young guys twice his size. He didn’t smoke cigars, just cigarettes. But I never saw him with out a cig in his face. The guy just would not die. No matter how much he abused his body.
        The point is, maybe it isn’t the tobacco, maybe it has more to do with attitude

      • Jester

        I for one think that Mr. Hopper was an artist and think that where we should be focused is on what he did with his life rather than a political/medical discussion. Also as indicated in the story, he was a hollywood bad boy who smoked a lot worse things than cigars and I personally don’t think that he would be concerned in the least what health nazis have to say. I don’t personally smoke but if someone chooses to do so that’s their business. I’ve had family die from lung cancer at around 75 and others die from old age at 94. If I have to choose between the two, I’m going out while I still know what’s going on. RIP Mr. Hopper and please, if you can get a word in with God, ask him to save me from all the stupid people.

      • advocatemarketing

        Amen to that Jester!

    • trakshivardebi

      miserable people live longer… just sayin

      • advocatemarketing

        That’s funny…I think you are right! I have always thought that too!

    • valleri

      I’m not promoting smoking, but just criticizing the snap judgments.
      Does smoking cause cancer? Yes. Does obsessive drinking and other drugs damage our bodies? Hell even the foods we eat that are full of high sodium and sugar will kill us all eventually. It’s easy to finger point at one of our culture’s flaws and judge.

      But if we’re going to blame smoking for Hopper dying? So be it, I think it’s a distracted attempt to devalue his illustrious/memorable career!

      I mean look at George Burns who smoked cigars until he was 100, or damn, look at KEITH RICHARDS! That man has smoked every known drug!

      So get off your self-indulgent soapbox.

      • bernynhel

        My family’s fulla smokers or smokers/drinkers or smokers/drinkers/addicts. The dead ones all lived to be 78-104 yrs old and a couple of them got killed. Did they rest die of tobacco, etc.? Probably. Would they have lived longer had they not had these vises? Makes sense. Did they or any of the rels ever waste a single second worrying or carrying on or even caring, one way or the other, about it? What do YOU think??

      • K.B.

        Not to mention Keith Richards has done every drug available to mankind and he’s still kicking..Even the air we breath is so full of pollutants it’s ridiculous.Has any of these people ever seen Chem trails in the sky?I think there are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to getting cancer.A lot of it is genetics and hereditary.By the way you don’t even inhale cigar smoke.If you got cancer from that I would think it would be in your mouth.You’ll be missed Dennis.You were a very talented man.R.I.P.and my deepest sympathy to your love ones.I think it’s terrible a lot of these people are making a slam fest here…why bother.Be for real

      • advocatemarketing

        Well put Valleri. The article is about his life and his work. His talent and his life are an open book and he was an authentic man. Flawed? Certainly! We all are…he just didn’t hide it. We have lost one of the last remaining real men from the early days of Hollywood. They fought, they drank and they smoked. As Valleri also mentioned, George Burns lived to be 100, smoking no less than 8 cigars a day. It was Dennis’ life to live anyway he wanted…and I think he did just that!

    • ray

      Uuhh OK. He was 74. He was old. It was time. Smoking isn’t even the issue here.

      • Joe

        Are you saying 74 is old and people that age have lived long enough?

    • david T

      like hopper would have given a flying f**k.

    • Bryan

      Last I checked they were lagal……write congress to do something about that…I did

    • advocatemarketing

      “Killed by those cigars…” Really? To live to 74 with all the drugs, alcohol and other “smoking” products he inhaled and you all want to blame cigars and cigarettes? My father lived to 86, smoked cigarettes from the age of 14. My father-in-law died at 80 and never smoked or drank alcohol. Dennis Hopper lived life authentic and real. He was not a hypocrite like the medical profession which pumps drugs into everyone in the name of health! Add that to your “statistics”!

  • Lenanon

    He was a real jerk about smoking around others, too. Glad he’s gone!

    • Jaymz

      Wow, that’s rude. Sometimes people are jerks, but being glad they’re dead is just wrong.

    • bryony

      You should never be glad that someone is dead, regardless if you like them or not!
      Lebanon, you have issues.

    • neoloki

      F*Ck You! Asinine jerk!

      • stepheneg

        HEY! Let’s drop the name calling.

    • Kon

      Come stand in my smoke Lenanon..I bet you wouldn’t be tough enough to say that to a persons face, jerk-off!

    • crymore

      you guys need to take your river of tears and super sensitivity to the psych ward. crymore

    • cigartexan

      That was very rude to say. A brilliant artist dies and you have to lay into him about his cigar smoke. I hope Mr. Hopper blew a big cloud of smoke in your face! You damn smoke nazis. RIP Dennis!

      • stepheneg

        I agree with one exception – I’d blow the smokeup his ass.

    • valleri

      Why do I feel other may feel the same way about you someday? Honestly, that’s greatly disrespectful and horrible. It seems like someone needs a hug.

      • Mike

        I’d be more worried about why stepheneg’s face is so close to his ass…buttbreath

  • Troii

    He was a man stuck in time, but he had a good one

  • Danny

    Never discrace the dead, if you had a negative opinion of the MAN, you should have been one yourself and told him while he was still around to respond. Smack Talkers of the deceased are week minded fools!

    • Barbara

      First of all you spelled discrace wrong. Disgrace the dead? Huh? How do you do that? They’re … dead. If what you say is true, then smack talkers of the living are not weak minded fools? I don’t get it. And by the way, you spelled week wrong too.

    • crymore

      they’re dead. get over it. its too late for whatever the hell you’re telling people to do. you’re weak minded because your logic is bull

  • Jeremy

    Lenanon, the only jerk here is you buddy.

    • crymore

      well now there are two now that you showed up

  • Butters

    Beautiful

  • lenanon h8tr

    Lenanon you give real meaning to the term TRUE A**HOLE

  • Butters

    He was the Timothy Leary of cinema.

  • john

    Reaaly? Smoking? That’s all you have to send this guy off? I’ve never smoked a day, and suffered my Dad for years, but you N*zi’s are pathetic.

    • crymore

      ok glen f**king beck.. nazis? hit the dope some more you drugged out wackjob

  • Sarah D

    After reading this whole article, if all you can say is he sucks for smoking than you missed the point. I’m glad there’s been so much retrospective on Hopper, I had no idea he was a director. My first memories of the man are from Speed and Waterworld. I am looking forward to re-watching Rebel and renting Easy Rider for the first time. Thanks Owen.

    • pdy

      Don’t forget to rent Hoosiers where Dennis Hopper portrayed a pathetic alcoholic yet sympathetic ex-jock who was given a second chance by the coach Gene Hackman. If my memory serves me right, Mr Hopper was nominated for an Oscar Best Supporting Actor for this role.

  • James Blevins

    Well what can I say that won’t be said about the great Dennis Hopper…I enjoyed his art and more importantly his contributions to many charities both in the US and overseas…He used his power and influence for a great many causes not just his own…Flawed or not he was an original and I will miss him each and every day…RIP Dennis…

    • Dignan

      Thanks, James, for bringing us back to the subject. Dennis Hopper; the last true rebel. He will be missed.

  • madsteez

    Tribute Painting i did of Dennis back in 2007….R.I.P. Rest In Power http://vimeo.com/12139008

    • Mike

      madsteez. That was amazing, very cool technique.

  • jesse

    about the smoking comment……he was f**king seventy four….thats called old age and even if he did end up dying of cancer……..he was seventy four. we should all be so lucky to last that long in this world today….at least he was having fun in the 60′s and 70′s doing all the things they tell you not to do to preserve your age and he still made it to 74. f**kin-a right dennis hopper

    • Taharat H7

      My thoughts exactly ! To live a full life, on your own terms and with the swagger that accompanied Dennis Hopper – its pretty obvious that the man had LIVED !!

  • gary greely

    he was a cool dude–you couldnt help but like the guy—-he was in his own world man !!!!!!!!—–its sad that hes gone—-a true free spirit to the end !!!!!!!!

  • Andy

    How about that typo in line 8? Should read ‘tore through’ not ‘tore though’. Sorry, I’m an editor.
    Enjoyed the article, though.

    • Barron

      I don’t think you need a comma between ‘article’ and ‘though.’

      • wow

        LOL!

      • bernynhel

        Yeah, you do need a comma there, idiot. lol (j/k!)

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