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.