To be specific: at least three times in his career, Hopper was involved with projects that caught the zeitgeist of unrest and instability square on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Granted, he was just a bit player in Rebel Without a Cause. Still, it’s the most famous depiction of youthful angst in the midst of American postwar prosperity, and he’s there in the thick of it, hanging chickens and rattling chains. Then he directed Easy Rider, which gave us the crumbling of an old social order and the uncertain vision of those who would craft its replacement.
That film, of course, was a social phenomenon, much bigger than Out of the Blue, which he also wound up directing. But if Easy Rider gave us an anthropology of hippies, Out of the Blue did the same for punks. Young Linda Manz flails about all over the place, full of rage at her parents’ failure to stop indulging their various demons and start being parents. She reveres Elvis and Sid Vicious — two guys who knew something about longing for love — and disdains the woozy pleasure-vibe of disco. It’s brutal and ugly and right on target.
In every case, youth must be served, and age either doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how to serve it. And Hopper is there at the cinematic point of fracture between the two. (Mind you, this was before he started playing scary nutjobs.) Now he’s up there on the wall of a public institution.
David Elliott: And he’s got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It reminds you of John Huston’s great line in Chinatown about politicians, whores, and ugly old buildings finally becoming respectable. Survival pays.
Matthew Lickona: Nice. Now, you were saying about Hopper and James Dean?
David Elliott: Actually, the useful comparison is not with Dean because Hopper was never an actor at that level, even in his best psycho parts. (Though I bet Dean would have loved Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.) The more valid comparison is with the other “kids” in Rebel Without a Cause. Nick Adams, another gang member, had a desperately ambitious career that found only brief success on TV. Natalie Wood was already a Hollywood star child who had once bounced on Orson Welles’s knee. She had major roles without ever quite matching the fresh vulnerability of Judy in Rebel, though she came close in Splendor in the Grass. Corey Allen, who went over the “chickie run” cliff as Buzz, had a certain Brando vibe but faded out as an actor and became a respected acting teacher. (Interestingly, Allen died just a month or so after Hopper.) Sal Mineo’s vivid little career is too sad to linger over. Apart from Dean, he probably had the most talent. Hopper carried on as the great ricochet artist, a sort of Son of Rebel Redux.
Matthew Lickona: Granted that Hopper was no match for Dean, but your use of the word “vulnerability” got me thinking. It’s what Dean has in spades in Rebel — the boy who desperately wants his father to show him how to be a man, who cannot bear to be called a chicken. The guy that every girl wants to cradle in her arms and comfort.
Then, when Hopper delivers his first line in Rebel, he asks Buzz, “What are we going to do with him?” And when he says it, his eyes are wide and worried, his tone nervous and hesitant. To me, it looked as if he was trying to play just what Dean was playing — especially in light of the stories he told later about being dazzled by Dean and trying to act the way Dean acted. But of course, it didn’t quite come off. He’s not vulnerable, just lame. I saw one Hopper interview where he talked about his early Westerns and how he was often cast as the weakling son of the villain. Damaged goods — no triumph in adversity, just brokenness leading to evil. Rough casting but smart.
It’s there in the very beginning: Hopper the young gang member, nervous and servile, but already tinged with the vicious madness that would make him famous (again) in Blue Velvet, 30 years later. When Plato wakes up in the abandoned mansion, there’s Hopper standing over him with a chain. Suddenly, Hopper’s face crinkles and splits into a huge, mirthless grin. His eyes go hard and sparkly, and it’s crazy time. But it’s a certain sort of crazy, tinged with pathos — or maybe just pathetic. The weakling son of the villain, after all, is not the bad guy, but the sorry spawn of the bad guy. A poor copy of the bad guy. It’s a status that makes for meanness, and you can see it right there in that grin: the whipping boy is going to do some whipping of his own. It’s a part he would play again and again.
David Elliott: You’re right about that slightly fevered stare Hopper has in his little role as Goon and then again in Giant. He had arrived in Hollywood as a rising talent after working at the Old Globe, and he was cocky. But he was clobbered by Dean’s far more developed and versatile intensity. With his chiseled good looks, Dennis was in line to become another John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy), but suddenly he had to act with this intuitive powerhouse from Indiana and New York theater. Being handsome and saying your lines well just didn’t cut it anymore, if you wanted to be more than studio lumber.
I think Hopper was awed by Dean and then got scared, realizing he might become the new Richard Davalos — the hunky, gifted actor who played Dean’s brother in East of Eden but was completely eclipsed. Lacking Dean’s sure instincts, Hopper amped up the intensity and played the wild man, on set and off — he was like a zoned William F. Buckley Jr. trying to escape his preppy shell. He stayed handsome but got hairy, sometimes crazy.