What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? That he had wisdom? Bullshit, man! –Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now
So what to say about Dennis Hopper, dead just 12 days after his 74th birthday of complications from prostate cancer? A wise man? A kind man? That would be bullshit, man. Hopper was too crazily complicated for that. But he did have plans. And from puberty till his mid-1980s rehab, Hopper fueled those plans with booze and cocaine. In 1969, the release of Easy Rider, directed and co-written by Hopper on the fumes of his innate talent and paranoia, he and costar Peter Fonda rode their hogs across America and turned the youth-and-drug culture into the hottest commercial ticket in Hollywood. He shot himself in the foot two years later as the auteur of the incomprehensible Last Movie. Typical Hopper. At the start of the new century, he commented: “I was drinking a half-gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, in case I ran out, 28 beers a day, and three grams of cocaine just to keep me moving around. And I thought I was doing fine because I wasn’t crawling around drunk on the floor.”
Over his sober years, Hopper —father of four and grandfather of two—honed his talent as an actor, photographer, painter and art collector. But this middle-class farm boy from Dodge City, Kansas, having left five failed marriages in his wake, was still a mass of contradictions. He publicly accused actor Rip Torn of trying to stab him, but it was Torn who won damages for claiming the reverse was true. A Republican since the Reagan era—Dubya and father won his support—Hopper nonetheless voted for Obama. Don’t try to figure him out.
On March 26, a frail Hopper was honored with a star, the 2,403rd, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Such pals as Jack Nicholson, Viggo Mortensen and David Lynch attended with other friends and family to cheer him on. Yet Hopper had told me once that he never had a truly great role as an actor. “Moments,” he said. “Only moments.” To honor the career of Dennis Hopper, and to prove him wrong, I’d like to remember a few of his truly great roles. Feel free to add your own.
Easy Rider (1969). As Billy, the iconic biker modeled after western outlaw Billy the Kid, Hopper found the dark side of America and Hollywood. Lawyer George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson, tells him: “They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.” Says Billy, “All we represent to them is somebody who needs a haircut.” Hanson knows it’s something bigger—freedom. Watching Billy give the finger to the redneck with a rifle at the film’s close is that freedom made manifest. And for a few glorious years, artistic freedom held sway in movies. Hopper led that defiant charge.
Apocalypse Now (1979). Hopper’s photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal war epic is Billy’s brother under the skin. Talking about Marlon Brando’s crazed Col. Kurtz, Hopper is also talking of himself: “‘Sometimes he goes too far. He’s the first one to admit it.” Hopper’s acting here is performance art. He’s talking about himself when he says, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.” That he did.
Hoosiers (1986) Hopper won his first and only Oscar nomination for acting as the town drunk in David Anspaugh’s film about a high school basketball team in Indiana. This film, a precursor to Friday Night Lights, flirts with the sentimental. But Hopper never does. It’s his best performance ever as a good guy.
Blue Velvet (1986) For my money, this is the best movie Hopper ever appeared in, and his scariest, truest acting. Hopper’s Frank Booth is a sexual psychopath who kidnaps the husband and son of a singer (Isabella Rossellini) to make her his sexual slave while he inhales nitrous oxide. Hopper reportedly told director David Lynch that he had to play the role because he was Frank Booth. A frightening thought. In Hopper’s hands, a line like, “fuck you, you fucking fuck,” becomes perverse poetry.
Red Rock West (1993). Hopper offered many juicy bad-guy turns in his later period—Speed, True Romance, even the much-trashed Waterworld—but he is the malevolent shine that lights up John Dahl’s lushly decadent film noir. His Lyle from Dallas, a hit man with a sense of mischief, is pure Hopper, meaning an impure pleasure.
Dennis will be much missed. Now it’s your chance to remember and say why.