There will never be another Dennis Hopper.
It’s actually sort of amazing there ever was a Dennis Hopper in the first place. We work in an industry that loves the image of the rebel, but that rarely rewards the real deal. It’s fine to play a part where you’re a hard-nosed badass who breaks all the rules, but if that’s how you are when dealing with studio heads or money people, you really don’t have much of a career.
Hopper started his career in the movies as a character actor in the ’50s. It’s strange to see a young and pretty Hopper in movies like “Rebel Without A Cause” or “Gunfight At The OK Corral,” or in any of his dozens of TV appearances on shows like “Wagon Train” or “The Rifleman” or “The Twilight Zone.” Hopper became an icon when he stepped outside the studio system to direct and co-star in a movie he co-wrote with Peter Fonda, a movie that turned both of them into counterculture heroes. “Easy Rider” is, in many ways, the movie that best sums up the social tensions of the late ’60s, and there’s something about the movie that feels bigger than just the story it tells. It wasn’t just an important film socially… it was an atomic bomb set off in the middle of an industry that had grown stagnant and bloated, and the independent film industry that we’ve enjoyed for the last 40 years or more is due in no small part to the success of “Easy Rider.”
He never reached the same level of success with his other work as a director. Hell, I’d argue that “The Last Movie” is one of the ten worst things I’ve ever seen. But “Colors” was pretty great, and Hopper influenced so many young filmmakers that even if he only ever made that one great movie, it was enough. It was his energy onscreen that he will be primarily remembered for, and when I think of Hopper, there’s one performance that I think of before any other, his role as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet.”
David Lynch’s masterpiece is my favorite version of the “smiling faces hiding terrible secrets” small town thriller, a movie about the rot at the heart of even the most innocent-looking community. The man pulling the strings on all the darkness in this town is Frank Booth, and Dennis Hopper plays him like a man who is literally addicted to perversion. It doesn’t matter what he’s sucking down from that oxygen mask… the point is that he welcomes derangement, and he celebrates the disgusting. Frank Booth is a vile figure, and from the moment Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) is exposed to him, he’s fascinated.
There’s a great sequence in the middle of the movie where Frank abducts Jeffrey and takes him on a ride to show him just how dark the world can get. It is filled with unforgettable images, amazing dialogue, and moments of profound weirdness. I have spent the last 24 years quoting that movie and those scenes, and I think I’m so fascinated because it’s so funny and so terrifying at the same time. That was Hopper’s gift. He mixed mirth and malice with ease, and in his later years, directors seemed to really enjoy harnessing that.
For years, he was unemployable because he was such a wild man on set. Check out the documentary “Not Quite Hollywood” for a great sequence about the making of “Mad Dog Morgan,” an Australian crime film that damn near killed Hopper. And his director. Or both. There are so many good films of his to track down, though, if you want to celebrate his career on the sad occasion of his passing. The Wim Wenders film “The American Friend,” which was based on one of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels. “Apocalypse Now.” “River’s Edge.” “Hoosiers.” Good god, he’s even great in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.” “Paris Trout.” “Red Rock West.” He really was one of a kind.
He was an artist of some renown. He was a huge personality. He continues to inspire independent filmmakers even today. And at 74, Dennis Hopper is no more. I hope he finds the peace no w that he never seemed to find in life. I hope you enjoy some of his films this weekend to remember him. And if you really want to honor him properly, indulge your favorite vice tonight and dedicate it to his memory. Raise a beer (“Heineken? F**k that s**t! Pabst! Blue Ribbon!”) and offer up the toast he demanded:
Here’s to your f**k, Frank.
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