It’s almost two years since the passing of one of cinema’s true wild men, Dennis Hopper. The actor, writer and director was a maverick titan of cinema, a man who starred in some of the most pictures of American cinema, from “Rebel Without A Cause” to “Blue Velvet,” while also writing and directing a film that arguably changed the movies forever, “Easy Rider,” while maintaining a personal life that was decidedly colorful (for full details, read Peter Biskind‘s modern classic “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
The actor was born 76 years ago today, and to pay tribute, we’re republishing our look at the actor’s ten greatest roles, which we originally ran shortly after his passing. Everyone has a favorite Hopper role, but some of his best performances came away from the beaten track: hopefully you’ll find a little of both below. And let us know your own favorite turn from the actor in the comments section.
With a new mentor in James Dean, who he met on the set of Nicholas Ray‘s “Rebel Without A Cause,” and directed by the legendary George Stevens, in a cast that also included Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, it’s hard to imagine how Hopper’s career might’ve ended up without the opportunity to learn his craft on the set of “Giant.” As he’s recounted in countless interviews, Hopper and Dean spent a lot of time together and Dean would advise and critique Hopper between the multitude of takes Stevens liked to get in the can. The Hopper we see in the film — playing the son of ranch magnate Bick Benedict (Hudson) — is a far cry from the wilder, more iconic roles he would later become famous for. But nonetheless, the dashingly handsome, clean cut youth of 18 who appears in the film fits wonderfully in the epic sprawl of Stevens’ soap opera about the changing values and shifting landscape of the great Texas outback.
“Easy Rider” (1969)
We all fade away, even if we want to go out in a burst of flames. Eventually, with the life of Dennis Hopper distant in the rear-view mirror, some generations will consider him a character actor who did a number of movies no one really recalls. But they’ll all remember his signature stamp, “Easy Rider,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in. As a film, “Rider” is a trippy, dazed but altogether pessimistic piercing of the American hippie myth, a final word amongst final words in regards to the era’s counterculture, buoyed by Hopper’s tortured, self-loathing turn as a young man defeated by the fact that he simply can’t turn back. But as a document, “Easy Rider” will survive long after all of us, a testament to it’s fermenting of celluloid rage and defiance, combined with the stylistic flourishes that helped make a certain live-cannon style of moviemaking thrive during what would end up being the most exciting time for American filmmaking. Eventually, the storytelling of “Easy Rider” became forgotten by the likes of “Star Wars” and “Jaws” as we moved into films as a business first, second and last. In the end, perhaps Peter Fonda‘s laconic loner Wyatt was right — “We blew it.”
“The American Friend” (1977)
Long before there was “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — though after René Clément‘s 1960 “Purple Noon” — there was Wim Wenders‘ “The American Friend,” which was a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s third novel in the Ripley series, “Ripley’s Game.” A moody, slow-burning neo-noir, the picture starred Hopper as career criminal Tom Ripley, now working in the field of forged art and Bruno Ganz as a terminally ill picture framer whom Ripley coerces into becoming an assassin. While more atmospheric than plot driven and Hopper doesn’t actually say that much, it’s the absence of dialogue, and emotion for that matter, that makes the actor look inward and implicitly project forward the idea of the quiet and soulless mind of a killer (and film snobs will appreciate the appearances by the then-grizzled Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller).
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
“One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions — what are you going to land on — one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics.” A textbook case of art imitating life, Hopper captures the heart of darkness perfectly as a manically brainwashed photojournalist who dances on a tightrope of poetry and psychosis in Francis Ford Coppola‘s epic, out-of-control and meditative descent into madness cum war film. The photojournalist offers the perfect introduction for Colonel Kurtz, the barbaric war icon he idolizes. His performance, along with Martin Sheen‘s epic breakdown in the film’s opening moments, capture two of the most memorable performances inspired by mental decay.
“Blue Velvet” (1986)
David Lynch‘s strange, surreal work has always been known more for its visuals than its dialogue, but the director’s most quotable character is certainly Hopper’s Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet.” Part of the credit goes to Lynch for creating such an insane, indelible villain, but Frank is all Hopper. The actor infamously said, “I’ve got to play Frank. Because I am Frank!” to get the part, and he brings a frightening authenticity to one of the most disturbing characters in all of cinema, a man who would send Freddy, Jason, and Jigsaw a-running. His character’s dialogue might have sounded silly coming from any other actor, but from his opening line (“Shut up! It’s ‘Daddy,’ you shithead! Where’s my bourbon? Can’t you fucking remember anything?”), Frank is an undeniably evil, infinitely watchable character. We’ll certainly raise a glass in honor of Hopper and Frank, and it’d be an insult if it were filled with anything other than Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“River’s Edge” (1987)
Picking up where his cameo as a fallen-from-grace, alcoholic bum of a father in “Rumble Fish” left off, this dark tale of a group of teens’ passive reaction to the aftermath of a friend committing cold-blooded murder features Hopper once again playing a vaguely possessed ghost of a man. Hopper is Feck, a blow-up doll loving, hermitic drug-dealer and friend to the teens. Hopper’s character stands in stark contrast to the disconnected, desensitized teens — an emotional man, Feck is still disturbed by a similar incident that occurred years earlier in his own life. While the film’s message may seem a bit overwrought twenty years later (the kids aren’t just not alright, they’re seriously fucked up), Hopper provides a performance as heartbreaking as it is disturbing, and lends a gravity to the proceedings that grounds the story and characters in an uncompromising reality.
“True Romance” (1993)
Quentin Tarantino recently said that up until the opening of “Inglourious Basterds” the best scene he had ever written was the “Sicilian” scene in “True Romance.” While Tarantino is arguably correct in assessing his work, where he’s wrong is in the execution. Sure, ‘Basterds’ opening sequence has the great Christoph Waltz, but “True Romance” tops that with two all-time heavyweights going toe to toe: Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. And no disrespect to Waltz, but there’s really no competition; the Sicilian scene in “True Romance,” is brilliant, doesn’t go on for an overwrought 25 minutes, and Hopper is at his best. In the scene, Walken, a professional gangster, tries to extract the whereabouts of Hopper’s son Clarence (Christian Slater) who has ran off with his boss’s cocaine. Beaten, bloody and knowing he won’t survive this ordeal, Hopper’s character makes a choice; asks for a (last) cigarette, and begins to regale the Italian-American gangsters with the tales about the Moors, who conquered Sicily and raped and pillaged its women. “They changed the whole blood line forever…Sicilians still carry that nigger gene.” The comment is said in a state of grace, and it is tantamount to defecating on their mother’s dining table. Their whole show and tell game in this Hail Mary part of the conversation is unforgettable and Hopper’s final line, “Now you tell me, am I lying?” is just breathlessly delivered. It’s really one of the most beautiful tête-à-têtes in contemporary cinema, wonderfully written and made utterly iconic by the two virtuoso actors.
It goes without saying that Jan De Bont‘s lean action flick “Speed” isn’t Dennis Hopper’s most illustrious role, but it’s one of his most well-known, and it’s what he does with what could have been a forgettable and cheesy villain that really shows what Hopper’s made of. The often imitated, never duplicated, sarcastic, psychotic disgruntled ex-cop Howard Payne is Dennis Hopper at his Hopper-ist; practically parodying himself. Delivering his cliché action movie one liners as if tearing into a juicy steak, Hopper is the perfect foil for Keanu Reeves‘ languid SWAT cop. He lets himself be as hammy as the role calls for, but imbues it with his trademark live wire energy. The actor doesn’t have to be as great as he is in this, but that’s Hopper for you — always fully committed, embracing the edge of insanity, and brilliant.
“Land of the Dead” (2005)
George Romero’s fourth zombie movie (and his first since 1985’s lackluster “Day of the Dead“) was an ungainly, gore-splattered critique of Bush-era politics and the post-9/11 culture, where a few privileged (white) Americans, led by Hopper, live in a walled-off utopia while outside, a zombie apocalypse rages on. This certainly wasn’t one of the actor’s classier roles and it probably paid slightly above some of those awful made-for-cable action flicks he regularly appeared in, but it is still an undeniably captivating performance. Watch as the man with everything loses it all, as his kingdom quite literally comes tumbling down around him, both from the zombie threat outside and internally from his own ambition and greed. It’s also strangely ironic to see Hopper, a very outspoken Republican, play a character so obviously modeled on Donald Rumsfeld.
In a sea of terrible late career choices half necessitated by finance, and half dictated by his unfortunate late-career politics, it was hard to find a genuine Hopper performance. The noted live-wire not known for his subtlety seemed to have faded away with age, an overworked elderly actor now confusing sleepiness with understatement. He wasn’t even the main focus of “Elegy,” a film where Ben Kingsley plays an aging lothario addicted to his younger mistress. But as the quiet, dedicated best friend George O’Hearn, Hopper is both touching and sweet. Somehow, even in a glacial film like “Elegy,” the wild man of “The Last Movie” was the voice of reason, his character delicately condemning his friend’s promiscuity without denigrating their friendship. Sadly, it’s O’Hearn’s mind that starts to go, and in his final days, his grasp on reality becomes tenuous, his union with his wife (a heartbreaking Deborah Harry) becoming a distant memory behind a paid of half-opened, defeated eyes. It’s unquestionably Kingsley’s film, but there are no stronger moments than his taciturn friendship with Hopper’s slowly dissipating character.
Special Mention: Hopper’s Greatest Disaster
“The Last Movie” (1971)
No amount of hidden-treasure curiosity or revisionism can change the critical perspective on this film. While Hopper was an actor first and foremost, they tend to forget he made his name by writing and directing the landmark counter-culture film, “Easy Riders.” His sophomore directorial effort however — something about American Imperialism via a story about a film shoot in Peru that goes wrong killing a man and a Kansas unit wrangler who decides to stay on in the village, shacking up with a local prostitute — would be undone by ill-conceived hubris in the editing room.
While it is an odd curio, probably not coming to DVD anytime soon (unless someone dumps it), “The Last Movie” is a mostly mirthless and masturbatory exercise. It would be one thing if the film was eccentrically fragmented, perhaps even deconstructing its narrative a la the temporal shifting hinted at in say, John Boorman‘s 1967 film, “Point Blank,” only with counter-culture abandon, but that is sadly not the case as the picture is a dull collection of non-sequiturs and bad cuts as if trimmed by an editor on heavy narcotics. And sadly, there’s no trainwreck value either — Hopper’s egoistic, wandering picture is an insensible jumble and a bit of a waste of time. But hey, it was the hangover from the ’60s, what led to Hopper’s lost weekend years — bluntly evinced in the 1971 documentary, “Dennis Hopper: The American Dreamer” (7 minutes of it can be seen here) — and probably an experience the actor/director just had to go through. The actor was so eviscerated by critics — it was so poorly received the film was pulled early from theaters — he would not direct a film until seventeen nine years later, 1980’s “Out Of the Blue,” followed by 1998’s much more cool and mature film, “Colors” (shit, we forgot all about that one). The picture would also mark a type of soft exit from Hollywood instead choosing to appear in B-Movies that only exacerbated his loose cannon tendencies (see “Mad Dog Morgan“) or appearances in German-made films (see Wim Wenders’ aforementioned pic).
Remember these are our personal faves and while they may not be revelatory or groundbreaking (who doesn’t love Frank Booth?) they are our picks. That said if you want to champion another film or role, feel free to sound off in our comments.
— Kevin Jagernauth, Stephen Belden, Kimber Meyers, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Adam Sweeney.