Dennis Hopper died today at age 74 after a lengthy and public illness. He was an icon of mid-century rebellion and an always fresh and fascinating character actor throughout a career that spanned the classic era, the American New Wave of the late sixties and early seventies, and his often astonishing later career work in numerous films and television shows after he was finally able to conquer his longstanding issues with substance abuse during the mid-eighties. He didn’t have a lot of starring roles, but that’s show business. (The still above is from one of the very few, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 “Night Tide.” He’s very good in it.)
He was also a photographer, the director of one of the most influential (i.e., copied and later spoofed) single films ever made, “Easy Rider,” as well as a major figure on the Los Angeles art landscape. It’s not often mentioned, but he was also probably the most proudly counter-cultural celebrity to ever openly associate himself with the Republican party, though, as recounted by Edward Copeland in his extremely detailed look at Hopper’s career, he was a true maverick to the end and voted for Obama in 2008.
Mr. Hopper was most certainly the real deal and there’s no way one post can do justice to his legacy. For now, we’ll keep things simple and just offer a few of the most iconic moments from Dennis Hopper’s amazing care, after the flip.
“Easy Rider” was pretty much the American movie of 1969, contained some beautiful moments, and, like I said, was extremely influential. It’s also, in my opinion, not quite good. On the other hand, boy, but it strike a chord with the younger movie going public of its day. I think it grabbed people with its classic opening. It might have all been downhill from there, but it was a pretty high hill.
Hopper never really stopped working, but his drug issues definitely made him a tough choice for directors. On the other hand, those who did often got something special. Francis Coppola’s choice of Hopper for the small but crucial role of the hero-worshiping photographer in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” was certainly a case where things came together.
1986 was the year when substance abuse stopped being an issue and his acting ability really took center stage with two outstanding performances. First, he as an alcoholic getting dry to help manage a college basketball team in the sports favorite “Hoosiers.” Then he became one of screendom’s most id-driven ultra-villains as the absurdly loathsome, yet pitiable and undeniably human, Frank Booth in David Lynch’s brilliant, controversial “Blue Velvet.” (Like many Hopper scenes, this clip and the one following are most very definitely high in the most NSFW language imaginable.)
Hopper was equally believable as rough-hewn good guys. Here, as the ex-cop father of the wayward Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) of “True Romance,” he heroically uses the Mafia’s own racism against them as he struggles to save his son in an N-word laden monologue. (The entire scene is a terrific acting duet between Hopper and Christopher Walken and, yes, it appears that Tony Soprano was working for the Detroit mob in 1993, but Hopper’s monologue actually starts at about 5:30.)
I’m not sure why, but it feels right to end with a more innocent, art-loving Hopper in this nice jazz-club scene from “Night Tide.”
You might also want to take a look at a post from last month featuring a soulful, lengthy homage by Matt Zoeller Seitz.