Mastodon A Tribute to Dennis Hopper by Bernard Meisler

Dennis Hopper – Outlaw Artist

I’ve wanted to pay tribute to the great Dennis Hopper, one of my all-time outlaw artist heroes, since he passed May 29th. I’m not gonna say much, but I’ll pass along a few tidbits of info that perhaps you weren’t familiar with, along with some choice clips and examples of his work and amazing career as one of the foremost actors and directors of his generation.

Hopper got his first film role at the tender age of 17, in Rebel Without a Cause. He became James Dean’s real-life sidekick. Dean mentored him on drug use and debauchery. They planned on a menage-a-trois with Natalie Wood, got her naked in a tub filled with champagne, but the booze burned her cooze (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and she had to go to the ER. Ah, the glory days of Hollywood! Hopper’s not even in the trailer, but Mr. Howell/Magoo is, so what the hell.

Hopper had steady work through the 50’s and appeared in Giant and Gunfight at the O.K. Coral. But he was an insolent little prick (before he became a middle-aged and finally a senior citizen prick) and Henry Hathaway, disgusted by his behavior during the film From Hell To Texas, made him do 60 takes of one scene. By the time it was over, Hopper nearly had a nervous breakdown and was persona-non-grata for the first – but hardly the last – time in Hollywood.

Exiled from the movie business, Hopper turned to photography, at which he turned out to be quite gifted. Having a great eye, he also became a highly-accomplished art collector, picking up original Warhol soup cans, Rothko’s, Lichtensteins, before anybody knew what they were. His collection is the root of the horrific legal battle between his ex and his kids after his death. Anyway, if you’ve never seen them, here’s some of his classic photos from the early 60’s, from the book Dennis Hopper: Photographs, 1961-1967.

It was John Wayne, of all people, who was friends with Dennis’ mom, who got him work in pictures again, after a seven-year banishment, in the Sons of Katie Elder. Dennis also appeared in the Duke’s classic True Grit. (He’s the nervous young outlaw in the shack whose fingers are gruesomely chopped off in the remake.)

Dennis barely has any lines in Cool Hand Luke, another seminal ’60s counterculture film, but I love the way he fills up the frame with his presence, even when he’s in the background, subtly acting like hell, proving the old chestnut, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Bonus genius character actor: Harry Dean Stanton.

But Dennis and his hippie actor friends were busy making their own films, such as the 1967 classic “The Trip,” which, as Peter Fonda tells you, “deals with the most talked-about subject of the day – LSD.” Fellow acidheads Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern also make appearances.

Dennis and his pal Peter Fonda decided they’d had enough of making crappy youth exploitations and biker movies, and wanted to do something serious and make an art movie. They figured they could get away with it if they disguised it as a hippie biker youth exploitation movie. By now you’ve probably noted the preponderance of Westerns in Hopper’s resume – and that’s what Easy Rider really was, a Western. Hopper’s character, Billy, was Billy the Kid, and they rode choppers instead of horses. Terry Southern (Candy, Dr. Strangelove) helped write it, and the great Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Shampoo) held the camera. Among other things, believe it or not, Hopper was the first director to use current “pop” songs as the soundtrack for his movie. He said he just used the music he was listening to while cutting the film, including Hendrix, The Band, The Byrds, etc. Apparently nobody had ever thought to do this previously. Ladies and gentlemen, throw away your wrist watches and witness, in all it’s glory, the birth of the “new” America cinema. I still get chills every time I watch this, when Born to Be Wild kicks in…

Rip Torn was supposed to play the alcoholic lawyer, but Hopper got pissed off and pulled a knife on him (years later, on the Tonight Show, Hopper claimed it was Torn who pulled the knife on him; Torn successfully sued for libel), and Jack Nicholson got the part and, after 10 years of knocking around Hollywood making B-movies, Jack’s career finally took off (he was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor). While on the subject of Hopper being a pain in the ass, he also later claimed to have written Easy Rider all by himself. Fonda recalled, “He was a hard guy to be friends with.” Watch Peter and Dennis school Jack on the proper usage of marijuana…to return the favor, Jack schools them on the UFO problem…This scene is hilarious, and it’s still IMHO the best thing Nicholson’s ever done…

So somebody figured, “Hey, if we can give these guys $375k and a few ounces of blow and they make a movie that grosses 50 million bucks, think of what would happen if we gave him $1 million and unlimited blow! We can’t miss!” Hopper went down to Peru (he claimed Mexico was too difficult to shoot in; I can’t help but thinking the $1/gram Peruvian flake had something to do with it), brought all his pals and made another brilliant, unfairly-maligned film, The Last Movie and got yet another chance to wear a cowboy hat. It won some major awards, but the studio gave it no support. It disappeared after playing a week or so in NY and LA. Still not available on DVD. One of the top-ten films of the 1970’s.

You can’t even find it on YouTube. But here’s the next best thing, Dennis flogging The Last Movie on the Merv Griffin show, October 8, 1971, looking like he hasn’t slept in 2 or 3 weeks. “Oh yeah, I’m straight now, really straight…”

Here’s an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, reading a poem by Rudyard Kipling, still wearing that cowboy hat. Imagine a “liberal” movie star coming on a network TV variety show today, with a country tilt yet, and reading a poem by an Englishman? Damn, Johnny Cash was the coolest.

After The Last Movie tanked (or was tanked), Hopper, disgusted with Hollywood and the movie world, retreated to his ranch in Taos where he apparently did a TON of drugs and had quite a bit of fun. Sometime during this period, he had an 8-day marriage with the beautiful Michelle Phillips, and L.M. Kit Carson made a documentary about him, American Dreamer. I wonder if the orgy shown in this seriously NSFW scene (1:03:45) took place before, during or after the nuptials…

You can see what kind of toll “retirement” had taken by the time Dennis showed up for his cameo in Apocalypse Now. From one of the biggest stars on the planet to a complete disappearing act for seven years (the second banishment). Here he is in all his glory, the first time most folks have seen him since Easy Rider, 10 years earlier (remember it took 3 years for Coppola to get Apocalypse out the door). After a long, harrowing, psychedelic trip up river, who else to greet you when you get to Colonel Kurtz’s spooky death camp? Love the line, “I’m an American!”

Apparently Brando couldn’t stand him so all of their scenes together were shot separately, then just edited to make it look like they were in different parts of the same chamber. Brando just mumbled his way through T.S. Elliot, while most of Hopper’s lines were ad-libbed. “This is dialectics, it’s very simple dialectics.” Supposedly, he just wandered around the film set speaking like this all the time, they could turn the camera on whenever they wanted and get genius lines like this out of him.

So whaddya do when even Coppola at his most crazed can’t deal with you? The great American tradition – escape to Europe! Here’s a brief scene from another fantastic, under-seen film, Wim Wender’s The American Friend, also starring the brilliant Bruno Ganz (perhaps best known for his role as Hitler in the eminently mashable Downfall). Check out the famous Hopper eye shift. You know he practiced the hell out of that…

Somehow, Hopper got his act together, for 15 minutes or so, and got a chance to direct another film, arguably the first punk rock movie ever (a friend once said that about Pulp Fiction, but this is almost 15 years earlier). Lasted about a week in theaters (is this starting to sound familiar?), here’s a clip from the still-shocking Out Of The Blue.

Coppola gave Dennis another shot in Rumble Fish. I always thought of this scene as three generations of James Deans. Too bad two out of the three fizzled out…

After a few more years in the wilderness and running crazed naked through Mexican jungles, Hopper again resurfaced in Blue Velvet. The story is, he called up David Lynch and said, “I have to play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth!” Michelle Phillips said this was pretty much the way he acted during their 8-day marriage. Nice to see him alongside another member of the Hollywood underground brat pack, Dean Stockwell.

I think I’ll stop here. Some say Hopper’s greatest role was as the drunk assistant coach in Hoosiers, but I never really cared for that film. He was also good as Christian Slater’s dad in True Romance, with his funny genealogical explication of Sicilians. He returned to directing in 1990 with Colors, starring Sean Penn, a major disappointment as far as I was concerned. Then he played the villain in Speed. I remember enjoying him in that guilty pleasure film – wow, they got Dennis Hopper to play the bad guy! How cool is that? Then he did it again, and again, over and over and over. By the time he appeared as super-villain Victor Drazen in the first season of 24, he was firmly established as the go-to bad guy for hack writers with no original ideas. Dennis sunk to an all-time low with the execrable Waterworld. (Though it is pretty great to hear him call Kevin Costner a “freaking retard” – another ad-lib? – and it’s actually a fun movie to watch, in a Plan 9 From Outer Space sort of way.)

Supposedly, the last 20 years of his life, Dennis never turned down a role – he took everything that came his way so he could live the high life and collect art. Maybe the problem wasn’t really Hopper’s – movies just don’t matter anymore, for a lot of reasons. How many truly great films can you name from the last 25 years? Not “good” movies, but great films that didn’t just reflect the zeitgeist but influenced it for years to come. Films like Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet – they just don’t make ’em anymore. And Hopper made a bunch of ’em. Anyway, here’s Dennis enjoying a gallery opening with some old friends you might recognize.

I can’t hold his descent into under hack-dom against him, he sure paid his dues the first 50 years of his life, working on some of the greatest films, with some of the greatest actors and directors (among which he must be numbered) of the 2nd half of the 20th century. RIP Dennis, wherever you are…

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4 thoughts on “Dennis Hopper – Outlaw Artist

  1. Good tribute. I’ve been videotaping some interviews with Gail Gerber who has just published her very funny memoir “Tripping with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember” (Terry, of course, wrote “Easy Rider”). And she has not a single good thing to say about Dennis. At some point, I will upload some of the footage I’ve shot for Sensitive Skin readers.

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