Sometimes, I have to remind myself that Dennis Hopper is no longer with us.
Seriously, he’s one of those iconic screen figures who remains as much of a pop cultural presence in death as he was in life. For an actor who spent a good deal of his career under an unofficial blacklist, Hopper appeared in a number of classic films. Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, Night Tide, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Speed, True Romance, The Trip, The Other Side of the Wind, Queen of Blood, Land of the Dead, Hoosiers, Out of The Blue …. one of the things that they all share in common is the eccentric presence of Dennis Hopper. Even Hopper’s bad films, like Waterworld, are more popular than the bad films of other actors. And while Hopper will probably always be best-known as an actor, he’s received some posthumous recognition for his work as a director. It’s been 12 years since Dennis Hopper passed but he’s still very much a part of the American cultural landscape.
How did this happen? How did Dennis Hopper go from being a kid from Kansas to being a disciple of James Dean? How did Hopper go from appearing in big budget films like Giant to working as a member of Roger Corman’s stock company? How did Hopper come to revolutionize American film with Easy Rider, just to lose the next few years of his life to his legendary addictions? Remarkably, Dennis Hopper not only inspired the “New Hollywood” with Easy Rider but he nearly destroyed it with The Last Movie. In the 70s and the first half of the 80s, he was still capable of giving a good performance but the key was to find him when he wasn’t dealing with a fit of drug-induced paranoia. And yet, even with his addictions and demons, he still directed one of the most important films of the 80s, Out of the Blue.
Remarkably, Hopper did eventually conquer his addictions. Starting with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Hopper remade himself as one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors and, to many, he became an almost lovable relic of the 60s. The former self-described communist became a Republican. And, even if he never could quite restart his directing career, Hopper stayed busy for the rest of his life. It was a remarkable transformation. The rebel who once ran a cult-like commune in New Mexico became a beloved member of the establishment that he once swore he would destroy.
Peter L. Winkler’s 2011 biography, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, takes a look at how this happened. The Dennis Hopper that emerges from this detailed biography is a natural born rebel who was also canny enough to keep one foot in the system that he was trying to destroy. As such, Hopper could shares James Dean’s dismissive attitude towards Hollywood while also remaining a favorite of John Wayne’s. Hopper could make the ultimate hippie film without actually becoming a hippie himself. Hopper had the talent necessary to keep getting roles even when he had a reputation for not being quite sane. Indeed, the book argues that Hopper’s best performances were given when he had something to prove and that Hopper’s work and his films became significantly less interesting once he was fully welcome back into the establishment.
And while I do think that Winkler is a bit too dismissive of some of Hopper’s later work, he does have a point. Dennis Hopper thrived on being a rebel, which is one reason why he came to define the late 60s and the early 70s. One reason why Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet remains so powerful is because he’s rage is so palpable. Booth is trying to destroy the world, just as surely as Hopper once tried to destroy Hollywood. But, eventually, Hopper’s style of rebellion fell out of fashion and then resurfaced as the subject of nostalgia. The rebels always eventually become the establishment.
Winkler’s biography not only takes a look at some of Hopper’s best films but it also puts him and his work in a proper historical and cultural context. The book is as much about what Hopper represented to a generation as how Hopper lived his life. And while Hopper himself is not always a sympathetic figure (like many actors, he could be more than a little self-absorbed), he does come across as being a fascinating talent. Hopper often referred to himself as being the epitome of the “American Dreamer” and this biography leaves no doubt that he was correct.