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?
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.
Matthew Lickona: Okay, so that’s the thesis. Let’s dive into the nine films for a portrait of the artist as damaged goods. It’s a funny list because, as you note, he had tremendous perseverance — coming back from two exiles from mainstream Hollywood (one after tangling with the director Henry Hathaway in From Hell to Texas, the other after the failure of The Last Movie). That takes strength, or at least drive. A lot of folks would have just folded up, especially under the added weight of all those drugs. And there’s a kind of strength in cozying up to one’s demons. The famous story is that he called Blue Velvet director David Lynch and said, “I have to play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth.” Frank Booth is a monster, and playing a monster with whom you identify can’t be an easy thing. Neither can playing so many parts in which your character’s demons — which are also your own — lead to his destruction. Onward.
Rebel Without a Cause
Matthew Lickona: As we’ve noted, he’s very much a weakling here — obeying the lead dog in the pack (even when he’d rather not) and bullying those even weaker than himself.
David Elliott: The movie was released just weeks after Dean died, and his role was consciously shaped as a noble teen myth — even though Dean was rather old to play a teen. Nobody could ever fill that flame-red jacket again, and I think because Hopper knew he couldn’t do it in film, he tried to do it in life. The drug and drink binges were not just poses, though. They were symptoms of an angry man who couldn’t figure how to connect his talent with his acting ideals. Another contradiction was that he hated Hollywood — the system — and said he would destroy it (and almost did). But he loved L.A.
David Elliott: The burial in hippie outlaw hair was a way of escaping the chisel-cut-looks-of-the-’50s Hopper, and by becoming a director he finally did something Dean only aspired to. The film’s huge cultural impact and profit ratio overshadowed its flaws. Nicholson effortlessly takes over the movie from its stars; much of Jack’s work as the lawyer seems self-directed. What Hopper best showed was a keen visual feeling for American places, and the ending is such a knockout you almost forget the stupid cemetery scene shortly before it.
The problem was that Dennis now thought of himself as an auteur in a European sense. There’s a rather embarrassing photo taken two years later. It shows John Ford propped up in a hospital bed, looking almost dead, while John Huston smiles baronially, holding a drink and cigar. Hopper, still in hippie mode, looks stoned and uneasy. Briefly, he was the heir apparent. More like the hair self-evident.
Matthew Lickona: That’s fun about the long hair being a double rebellion — onscreen, it played against the conventions of the Southern hicks who feared for their women. Offscreen, it played against the conventions of the Hollywood bigwigs who feared for their box offices. What I hadn’t considered, and what you seem to understand, is how much of what Hopper did was intentional — part of a managed career trajectory. I keep thinking of him as some kind of purely responsive thing, a live wire full of juice, flopping around dangerously, and every now and then exploding in a shower of sparks. My impression explains his willingness to play awful, awful characters — some of them even protagonists (who therefore need humanizing). But your version explains how he hit pay dirt as often as he did, even in the midst of serious substance abuse.
I agree that Nicholson owns the film, if only because he’s clearly a character — a person, complete with history, home, flaws, and virtues. Fonda is a seeker, and while it’s fun to identify with the seeker, it doesn’t make the seeker interesting. He hasn’t found what he’s looking for, and so he doesn’t register all that much. You see him with the American flag on his jacket, and you think, Yeah, I get it, he’s a symbol. But he’s not much more than that. Hopper just comes off goofy and dumb. When Fonda says at the end, “We blew it” — i.e., we’re just part of the system, looking to make money and feel good like everybody else — Hopper can only look on in sad confusion.
David Elliott: Nicholson escapes the easy rebel branding because his cagier rebellion as George has roots and a context, along with his funny twang and charisma. And so he says the remarks that are truly subversive and memorable. Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas) had hoped to get the role of George and would have been very good, though not likely with the same impact. Bruce Dern (Coming Home) might have come close.
Matthew Lickona: As a director, I think Hopper was wa-a-ay too in love with shots of dudes on bikes. My wife kept exclaiming, “Oh, look — they’re riding motorcycles again!” Maybe we were supposed to be paying attention to the scenery and the music, but too much of what you see from the highway looks vaguely the same, and a song like “Don’t Bogart Me” gets old fast. But agreed — he did understand place. I really think Fonda realizes that the freedom they sought was right there at the beginning — the rancher living life on his own terms, eating his bread from the sweat of his brow, raising up a family to follow after him. The dreamy dropouts throwing seeds into the sand didn’t get it. And better living through chemistry came back to bite our heroes on the behind in the cemetery.
David Elliott: About those cycle shots: Don’t forget that Easy Rider was a spin-off of the chopper movies that the three actors had made for Roger Corman. During production, that audience was the target. Nobody knew the film would resonate so widely beyond the drive-in circuit, though I suspect that Hopper had the ambition. He was never a shrinking violet. He and Fonda certainly wanted to upgrade the quality of the pulp goods. Also (small point), the film was supposed to be a landscape portrait of America, a reverse Western, so the cycle images were obligatory.
Matthew Lickona: Fair enough. I’ve seen that strange photo you mention of Ford, Huston, and Hopper. I wonder what the old men thought of him at the time. Your mention of Europe and auteurs reminds me that, supposedly, Hopper’s next film (The Last Movie) originally had a fairly straightforward narrative. But then his buddy Alejandro Jodorowsky made fun of him for being conventional, and so he went and completely reworked his footage. It’s a little bit heartbreaking, especially when you hear him on YouTube in The American Dreamer, comparing himself to Orson Welles making The Magnificent Ambersons, talking about how there will be an audience for his film, and if not, then fuck them. Though maybe not so heartbreaking when you consider, once again, his endurance. Easy Rider is no Citizen Kane. But like Welles, Hopper fought the system and lost. Unlike Welles, he really came back from defeat. Not to detract from Welles’s career, but he seemed haunted by the studio beatdown ever after.
David Elliott: Easy Rider had more seismic but less lasting impact than Citizen Kane, which was way ahead of its audience in 1941 and had to slowly marinate into the culture. Easy Rider found that there was a young audience waiting for it. In no way was Hopper a creative force like Welles, or, in a very ’70s way, Robert Altman. But like M∗A∗S∗H, Easy Rider had meteor-impact resonance. Neither director repeated that level of commercial impact.
The Last Movie
Matthew Lickona: This one struck me as most clearly a work of art, as opposed to Hopper working something out. He got self-conscious on just his second outing as a director and made a film about the dangers of moviemaking. It’s something of a mess. The whole thing is on YouTube in ten-minute segments, and each segment has a smaller number of views than the one before. But there are some amazing moments, maybe especially the very last scene, where Hopper learns that he’s just given his nest egg to a guy who learned everything he knows about looking for gold from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
David Elliott: Hopper’s ego was engorged when this labor of love and drugs won the Venice festival prize, and then Pauline Kael wrote a rather mournfully supportive review. It has the fascination of a road kill that keeps twitching, and the feeling for Peruvian landscapes and the Indians is quite acute. But too much of it feels like a shapeless inflation of the cemetery drug trip in Easy Rider. There are elements akin to Peckinpah’s great, doomed Mexican noir of the same time, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but that one had dynamism and Warren Oates. And Werner Herzog went into South America and filmed the truly hallucinatory Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which made The Last Movie seem even more woebegone. Maybe it’s a great, wrecked student movie that should have been kept in the can for 20 years.
Out of the Blue
Matthew Lickona: Now this feels like Hopper working something out onscreen. He plays a ruined man responsible for the deaths of a busload of children. Also, a violent drunk. And, hey, on top of that, a guy who molested his own daughter. I kept thinking, “Well, this can’t get much darker.” And I kept being wrong. I also kept thinking, “Did people pay to go see this on a Saturday night?” Nothing but damage as far as the eye can see.
David Elliott: Hopper took over the direction and did not protect himself as a star. He is very effective in a raw way as the father, though you suspect that much of the script came from whatever he took that day. And he is often overshadowed by little Linda Manz as the daughter. Commercially, it was hopeless, like Bertolucci’s incest movie of the same time, La Luna. This is the same Hopper who staged his own suicide as performance art, using sticks of dynamite at Rice University.
Matthew Lickona: “Did not protect himself” is a nice way to put it. “Crucified himself onscreen” might not be too far off. When your opening scene is you getting into a fatal crash, it’s hard not to read it as the director coming clean about himself (and his career). It’s a tough scene to watch in 2010, when we’re not so used to our protagonists being real sinners. And then it gets tougher.
David Elliott: Agreed — Hopper played a radically confused, selfish jerk without completely demonizing him. Nicholson had done something similar in Five Easy Pieces, but the role was smothered in his sly, au courant charisma, and he had easy targets for his sarcastic bile (the obnoxious waitress, the pompous musical family, the ridiculous hitchhikers). Still, it’s a great performance. Hopper’s is just a gutsy one. Jack advanced his career, while Dennis dug another crater for his. And yet Out of the Blue is a bolder film, a fringe foretaste of David Lynch (who would stage Hopper’s comeback).
Matthew Lickona: I’ll argue a bit on the script — the picnic scene seems too spot-on and artful to be the product of that day’s high. Dad taking his daughter for an outing, and, oh yeah, let’s get your mother. Pulling Mom out of work over the protests of her boss (who is also the man who really loves her). It’s happy family time, but then Mom says one thing about his driving, and bam, he’s done with her — she’s the enemy, just like all those jerks who are still mad that he drove a truck into their kids five years back. Next thing we see, he’s playing catch with his daughter while mom sits and shivers in the wind — it’s pretty clear where his heart lies.
The scene is a twisted attempt to return to family normalcy after trauma, but of course, things weren’t actually normal before the trauma, and that comes through in spades. Though it still doesn’t brace you for Dad suggesting that his friend bang his daughter. Or mom’s fearful acquiescence to the notion. It’s a rare film in which clubbing a guy to death with a tire iron barely registers amid the horror.
Matthew Lickona: Speaking of horror…here, instead of a child abuser, Hopper plays Frank Booth, an abused (and abusive) child. In “the scene,” where he snorts amyl nitrate and rapes Dorothy, he begins by staring between her spread legs and repeating, “Baby wants blue velvet.” It’s only after playing a child trying to crawl back into the womb (an effort that is of course doomed to failure) that he seeks re-entry of another sort, screaming, “Daddy wants to fuck!” as he does just that.
David Elliott: You see this David Lynch vision, and you never feel the same again about velvet, gas inhalers, or Pabst Blue Ribbon. Hopper fits perfectly into the style jacket created by Lynch. It’s a showy, wallowing role but also a consummation. Frank Booth is, of course, the living god of the creepy bugs seen early in the film…
Matthew Lickona: …the horror just under the town’s perfect surface…
David Elliott: …and his brutal, erotic fascination with Isabella Rossellini invites us to be sadistic voyeurs. By becoming Lynch’s most famous movie gargoyle, Hopper found a new template for success: as a stylized lunatic for a more cynical era in films. He is a seedpod for the nuts in Quentin Tarantino’s work. Frank is the rebel whose only cause is being a creep.
Matthew Lickona: Hey, nice James Dean reference!
Matthew Lickona: The same year he plays Frank Booth, Hopper also goes mainstream to play Shooter, a drunk who cannot bear to face the way he’s failed as a father. When Gene Hackman tells him, “You’re embarrassing your son,” the pain in Hopper’s eyes is enough to make you want to look away. (It’s worth noting, however, that it’s one of his rare roles that allows for redemption.)
David Elliott: You are right about the failed-father aspect being the key to this very good work. In Rebel, Dean found his father (Jim Backus) an embarrassment, and Hopper had felt embarrassed by his Texas macho father (Rock Hudson) in Giant. Like Brando and Dean, Hopper had a tormented relationship with his dad. “I very seldom saw my father,” he once said, “which I resented tremendously.”
Matthew Lickona: Partly because his dad traveled for work, partly because his dad had his death faked during WWII so that he could do undercover work for the government in Asia.
David Elliott: Playing the most obvious drunkard in his career, he gives one of his most lucid performances. Hopper said he preferred drink to drugs.
Matthew Lickona: “Preferred drink to drugs.” You’re good at understatement, aren’t you? The famous line I keep running across is “Honestly, I only used to do cocaine so I could sober up and drink more.” But if druggie Frank Booth was the terrifying, angry side of the wounded Hopper, drunk Shooter was the pathetic, needy side, the side that wound up in a mental institution and eventually dried out. He may have wanted to play Frank Booth because he identified with the character, but Shooter was perhaps the purer biography.
David Elliott: I completely agree with you on the Hoosiers role vs. Blue Velvet. But remember: we nearly all recall Frank in Blue Velvet, whereas only some basketball buffs and maybe reformed alcoholics remember Hoosiers. And it was really Gene Hackman’s film. The truth is that major leading men didn’t feel threatened by Hopper. I don’t consider Kyle MacLachlan a major leading man.
Matthew Lickona: Maybe Hopper’s most affecting villain. Paris Trout is a bad man who cannot bear to admit his own badness, even when the rest of the world declares it. His suffering is monumental — his last word to his wife before he shoots himself is “You never felt sorry for me.” This to a woman he raped with an open bottle of soda. As a result, he is utterly alone — it comes through beautifully as he sits by his comatose mother’s bedside, asking her if she’s there.
David Elliott: That bedside scene with the mom echoes Dean’s famous closing scene with his stricken father in East of Eden, the Dean movie in which Hopper did not appear. (Another inspiration could have been Brando’s famous monologue to his dead wife in Last Tango in Paris.) This is an unusually well made TV movie that broke out into theaters, and Hopper is fascinating because he makes a sick, sadistic racist and rapist oddly pitiful. He seems to know he is deranged, but his crazy bull pride won’t let him face it, so he bunkers into it.
Matthew Lickona: Wow, you’re still getting echoes of Dean even at this late stage of Hopper’s career? Maybe I was wrong in saying that Welles was haunted and Hopper wasn’t.
David Elliott: I think Hopper was haunted by Dean his whole adult life and career. He basically admitted it.
Matthew Lickona: Well, things got a little shallower in the ’90s, so along with the cute kill-phrase at the opening (“Nothing personal”) and the silly speech at the end, we get a character with more obvious damage: a bomb cop who got his hand blown up in the line of duty.
Matthew Lickona: Did I say things got shallower in the ’90s? I should be more careful. True, Hopper’s character is again damaged in an obvious, physical sense — a mutilated foot that sentences him to life as a stay-at-home also-ran in a tepid affair with his best friend’s widow. But in Speed, the blown-up hand caused Hopper to go nuts and start killing people. Here, it takes a quieter toll: it contributes to a suffocating, immobile life. So when Hopper sees a chance to get carried away, he takes it. Smaller scale but more dramatic.
David Elliott: With Carried Away, Bruno Barreto made a film full of observed truth. Hopper gives a subtle but deeply pressurized performance as the bored schoolteacher who tries to break free erotically. He doesn’t bluster the role or soap it sentimentally. Of course, Hopper fans mostly avoided this one, but I suspect Dennis was happy not to be jamming a screwdriver into a security guard’s ear, like he did in Speed, or again upstaging Christopher Walken with his infamous “Sicilian nigger” speech in True Romance. This role is like a handwritten note that says, “Hey, I am Dennis Hopper, but I am also still an actor.”
The guy was a great sidewinder. He could dominate Water World as a screaming skull from hell but also play Frank Sinatra in The Night We Called It a Day. And as a director, he could take a TV-generic cop script like Colors and give it some real force of style, using cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It was a fairly dangerous movie to make, but Hopper caught the L.A. streets and gang life. And he was not overawed by the two heroes, Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. I interviewed him for Colors and he was a total charmer, but he had that crazy light in the eyes that seemed both a wink and a threat. By then, his own mystique was so developed that he could have fun with it, which is a kind of stardom. His cackle laugh was a classic.
Finally, there is an image of Hopper to put alongside all the staring madman portraits. It is a William Claxton photo taken in the early ’60s of Hopper as the happy host of an art-world party in his sleek, modern house. The look of joy on his face, surrounded by his art friends, is fervent — but sincere, not obsessive. In that world, he didn’t have to compete with Dean or Brando or Nicholson; he held his own as a respected collector and photographer and shaper of the scene. The movie Hopper was often something of a joke and at that point was in exile, and yet in art he found his soul niche.