Decades before Shia LeBeouf transformed from blockbuster actor into head-scratching performance-art weirdo and Joaquin Phoenix grew a beard for a mockumentary about his career as a rapper, Dennis Hopper explored his own mythos in a unique documentary that is now getting a new life.
Fresh off the breakout success of his 1969 directorial debut Easy Rider, the filmmaker attempted to repeat the feat with The Last Movie – a picture about a film crew member who stays in a Peruvian village after a shoot and attempts to prevent locals from reenacting the movie's dangerous stunts. It was ultimately a bomb, but a fascinating documentary made during the shoot, The American Dreamer, which will be re-released this week digitally and on Blu-ray and DVD, shows Hopper enjoying himself on set and in the editing room while playing a dramatically amplified version of himself. It's so contrived, he even got a writing credit.
"This is Dennis Hopper playing Dennis Hopper in a documentary," filmmaker and photojournalist Lawrence Schiller, who co-directed The American Dreamer with L.M. Kit Carson, says. "Everybody else in the film is real, so it's a documentary about them. Dennis knows what he's doing in every scene."
"The sexual parts of the film made it very popular."
Schiller got the idea for the film after directing Paul Newman in the photomontage in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The doc, as he originally intended, would star Newman. Knowing that the actor was "quite different than the Newman out there on the street racing cars and playing Cool Hand Luke," the filmmaker suggested meta-doc about an actor submerged in his own legend. The actor wasn't interested.
Carson, who died in 2014, had an in with Hopper and pitched him and, according to Schiller, "within five minutes" Hopper refocused the film to be about a filmmaker (Hopper) obsessed with whether or not he'd have a commercially successful follow-up to his previous hit (Easy Rider). The team would agree on what subplots would begin and end a day of shooting, and they'd figure out how to get there with the camera rolling. Hopper stayed in character throughout the entire shoot.
The actor was in his mid-thirties by the time of the doc's release, and for the purposes of The American Dreamer he'd settled comfortably into the role of pontificating counterculture demagogue. In one scene, he sits in a field in New Mexico, stroking his wild beard and recalls a political uprising he'd witnessed at a college where he was speaking, and how it made him reflect on his work. "When I made Easy Rider, I made a movie that I thought was showing the criminal element of our society, because I consider our society a society full of criminals," he says in a husky, self-satisfied voice. "I don't see any difference between the young guys that we portrayed smuggling cocaine into the country … and examples their fathers set for them by having munition plants and smuggling frozen funds out of the country and putting it in banks in Switzerland. I'm not sure which is a bigger criminal act." It's a shot of a man putting forth his ideal image of himself.
One of the more fascinating facets of The American Dreamer is the Dennis Hopper character's relationship with sexuality. He ogles a woman as she describes a painting, embarrasses another by having her talk about insecurities on camera and speaks in voice-over about his quest to find the perfect "virgin-whore." Schiller says scenes like these represented an integral part of the character of "Dennis Hopper."
An exclusive clip from early in the film, above, shows the actor on the phone asking the crew, "Have we got broads coming?" with a smile and a glint in his eye. "They're making this documentary called The American Dreamer, and I said, 'How can I be [the] 'American Dreamer' without broads?" It then cuts between scenes of Hopper rolling a joint and undressing women, three of whom get into a tub together.
"We sent his brother [David] to the airport and when single girls came off the plane," Schiller says. "If they were what he thought was good, he would come up to them and say, 'How would you like to be in a film with Dennis Hopper?' Do you think three was a girl that would say no? That's how we got the girls."
Schiller says he's still mad at Hopper for the way the tub scene went. "He plays Charles Manson in that scene," the documentarian says. "He's got full frontal female nudity, but he won't do frontal nudity. I told him that wasn't fair. He didn't answer me." (Aside: Schiller knew one of the Manson Family women's lawyers and arranged for Hopper to meet Charles Manson during the shoot. When he returned, Hopper preferred to stay in character and would not discuss the meeting.)
At one point in the doc, Hopper claims that he believes The Last Movie would be accepted and offhandedly says that if it is ultimately compared to Orson Welles' ill-fated follow-up to Citizen Kane, 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons – infamous for how Welles lost control of the editing process – he'd be happy. "I could become Orson Welles, poor bastard," he says. It would become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as it failed financially after little critical acclaim. Hopper wouldn't direct another feature until 1980's Out of the Blue.
"He realized it was going down the tubes when we were shooting," Schiller says. "Dennis ruined it in the cutting. Sometimes you can become your worst enemy. He didn’t cut it from the standpoint of objectivity and was very confused. Whether it was a little too much grass or a little too much acid, I don't know. Everybody realized the film was not going to reach an audience."
Unlike The Last Movie, however, The American Dreamer found a perfect audience. The doc got screenings on college campus at the time of its release – "The sexual parts of the film made it very popular," Schiller says – and the director says it "grossed a lot of money," the figure of which he's not allowed to disclose. Hopper liked the doc and in the years leading up to his death in 2010, he'd insist that The American Dreamer be included with screenings of The Last Movie.
Schiller and Carson donated the doc to the Walker Art Center, a Minneapolis organization that preserves film, and it in turn restored it. Schiller and the organization decided to re-release it as a means to finance other restorations. "We owe it to history," he says.
When he looks back on The American Dreamer now, Schiller feels pride. He accomplished what he set forth to do. "I think it's a wonderful way to look at somebody being so self-indulgent," he says.