Of course, he didn’t stay here. Most likely, you wouldn’t either, not if you were young and ambitious and living a two-hour drive up the freeway to get to Hollywood. Not if you’d grown up mostly fatherless on your grandparents’ farm outside Dodge City, Kansas, cherishing your Saturday visits to the movie house and the glimpses they provided of a world more magical than your own.
Most likely, if you had just finished four years of high school and had a note of introduction from an actress like Dorothy Maguire, you’d hightail it out of
San Diego, just the way Dennis Hopper did.
Even if he didn’t stay, he started here. He attended Helix High from 1950 to ’54, got himself voted most likely to succeed. And he began acting here — slipping under the shadow of Dorothy Maguire’s wing at the La Jolla Playhouse for The Postman Always Rings Twice, then moving on to Shakespeare at the Old Globe. So, in our small way, we get to claim him.
Just now, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is finishing up a major exhibition of Hopper’s paintings and photography. But in June and July, we had our own tribute to the man, a collection of Hopperbilia spread across two walls of the Edgeware Gallery in Kensington. Sectioned-up photos of Hopper, plus a poster from Easy Rider — the first film he directed, and the one that made him famous. A plaster life mask hanging below a Warhol video of the actor putting his face through its paces. A mug shot, a photo from the Old Globe days, and a book in which you can write a line or two on the topic of “What did Dennis Hopper mean to you?”
That’s pretty much what I asked David Elliott, longtime film critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. (Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and USA Today. After that, for the website San Diego News Network.) He gave me a sampling of Hopper films to watch: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie (1971), Out of the Blue (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Paris Trout (1991), Speed (1994), and Carried Away (1996). Hardly comprehensive — Hopper loved to work and wasn’t overly discriminating — but covering a wide swath, timewise and otherwise. Then we started in discussing the man and his work. (Spoilers abound ahead.)
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Matthew Lickona: On the lobby walls of the Grossmont Healthcare District’s Dr. William C. Herrick Community Healthcare Library in La Mesa, you will find the East County Gallery of Honor. According to the brochure, the gallery serves to remind local residents of “the significant roles that our fellow citizens have played in shaping the world of today.” There are some locally famous names on those walls: Fletcher, Bancroft, etc. You’ve got your famous athletes (Bill Walton, Greg Louganis), your famous personalities (Regis Philbin, Ed Meese), and your innovators (Taylor guitars, Deering banjos). Then you’ve got Helix High graduate Dennis Hopper.
From the write-up under his smiling young face: “Best known for his work as both the director and performer in the 1969 motion picture Easy Rider, Lemon Grove’s Dennis Hopper has enjoyed five decades of stardom.” Enjoyed and stardom are both tricky words, to say nothing about the claim about which film he’s best known for (I sort of suspect that Speed occupies a bigger place than Easy Rider in the popular consciousness today). But maybe we can get into that later.
David Elliott: Why wait? Hopper’s stardom was always an ambiguous commodity, without a lot of market value. People came out of Easy Rider thinking about Jack Nicholson, as they had come out of Rebel Without a Cause thinking about James Dean. Nobody came from Giant thinking, “Wow, that was a great Dennis Hopper picture,” since the late Dean took the honors again and got his second Oscar nomination as a dead actor. John Wayne was a friend of his first wife’s family and later got Dennis back into movies with True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder. But even then, a dozen years after Rebel, he was still a side-player. In Cool Hand Luke, he was overshadowed by Paul Newman, Strother Martin, George Kennedy, and Dean’s old colleague Jo Van Fleet.
Matthew Lickona: Maybe so, but the only names I recognize from that last list are Hopper and Newman. So there’s that.
David Elliott: Right. And in that way Hopper finally did rival Dean, in the sense that he kept coming back from career death. His drive to be associated with quality was lifelong. Did any other actor work with Dean, Brando, and Nicholson? Certainly none that also directed Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Dennis wanted to avoid being stuck in the velvet casket of approved success with studio-tamed actors like Robert Wagner and Tab Hunter. Some were gay and feared exposure. Tony Perkins got so sick of the game that he fled to Broadway and then Europe. Dennis was more extreme: he burned the golden bridge by becoming a human torch, career-wise, and later this created a myth that paid off. He was a celebrity of recycling, and in time that took on luster. The fact that he could seem stoned even when he wasn’t certainly added to his mystique.
Matthew Lickona: We definitely have to get back to Dean, the brief candle to Hopper’s enduring shadow. But you mentioned seeming stoned, which means I need to finish my bit on the East County Gallery of Honor, even though it’s almost too easy a shot: God bless Hopper for getting clean and sober in the mid-’80s, but there’s still a certain deliciousness in seeing a man famous for spending so many years as a world-class abuser of various substances — both legal and illegal — being lauded on the wall of a health library. And there’s something even more delicious in seeing a man famous for films that depict (and sort of celebrate?) social upheaval, civil unrest, and generally deviant behavior being lauded on the wall of a government health library. I’m not sure who wins in such a situation: The Man, for subsuming Hopper into a toothless culture of celebrity? Or Hopper, for getting The Man to praise a guy like Dennis Hopper?