Monday, June 7, 2010

RIP Dennis Hopper, the Madman of Movies (1936-2010)

If you laid all the "crazy Dennis Hopper" stories end to end... well, you'd still be at it next year.

Like the time he got all method actorish on old Hollywood hand Henry Hathaway on From Hell to Texas and Hathaway made him do 80 takes until he goddamned well got exactlywhat he wanted and the 22-year-old actor had been reduced to tears. Or the time John Wayne chased him around the set of True Grit with a gun, apparently because black radical Stokely Carmichael had used the word "f**k" in a speech at UCLA, where Wayne's daughter was a student, and as far as Wayne was concerned, Hopper was to blame for the 60s, period end of report. Of course, Wayne also got Hopper movie work when no one else would (the fallout from that little tiff with Hathaway); what little career he had left was in episodic TV (from Twilight Zone and Naked City to Bonanza, Wagon Train and Petticoat Junction). Granted, Wayne did it at least in part because his old pal, golden-age Hollywood star Margaret Sullivan (then Hopper's mother-in-law), asked him as a personal favor; but he did it, and Hopper always gave the Duke props for resuscitating his moribund career... even if the first movie in which Wayne got him cast was the western The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), directed by, yes, that old bastard Hathaway. Or maybe that made it better... who knows?

Hopper's most regular employer for the next seveal years remains Roger Corman, who put him in sci-fi/horror movies like Queen of Blood (1966), drug movies like The Trip (1967) and biker pictures like The Glory Stompers (1968). But he was back in the game, and in 1969 he drew the card that got him a seat at the heavy hitters' table: Easy Rider

Best Hopper performances:

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
It's a small part and Hopper's pal James Dean blows him out of the water (of course, Dean blew everyone out of the water), but seeing him in Rebel is nothing short of fascinating because it's all already there -- everything that made Hopper so mesmerizing, in fledgling form.

Night Tide (1961)
Beach bum who falls in love with a carnival mermaid who might just be the real thing in this eerie, atmospheric, low-budget variation on Cat People, directed by Curtis Harrington, one-time protege of avant-garde film pioneer Maya Deren.

Easy Rider (1969)
Not much to say that hasn't been said; Hopper's Billy is the distilled embodiment of the 1960s...

The American Friend (1977)
Wim Wenders' eccentric version of Ripley's Game stars Hopper as Patricia Highsmith's handsome, amoral con artist, and Hopper nails the role -- his Ripley is charming, duplicitous, offhandedly sexy, dangerous, self-centered and in the end, oddly principled, though his principles are purely self serving.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
As the fever-addled photographer mesmerized by Mr. Kurtz, Hopper damned near steals the show from Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen, his blue eyes a blaze as he waxes rhapsodic about Kurtz's keen insights into the deepest nature of the universe. "Do you know," he says to Sheen's exhausted, beyond burnt-out Willard, "that 'if' is the middle word in life?" Simultaneously hilarious and chilling.

Rumble Fish (1983)
Repeat after me: No small roles, just small actors. The proof: Hopper as Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke's defeated, alcoholic dad in Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory adaptation of S.E. Hinton's much-loved young adult novel.

Blue Velvet (1986)
Frank Booth: what is there to say? The friend with whom I saw Blue Velvet said it was like two hours of doing bad drugs with people you don't like, and Hopper is a big part of the reason why.

True Romance (1993)
Ex-cop Hopper vs. Mafia lawyer Christopher Walken, who's "in a vendetta kind of mood:" Imagine the possibilities. Or just take a look.

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