Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dennis Hopper

dennis hopper

I met Dennis Hopper once --- for all of 15 seconds. But it’s a quarter minute that will forever stick in my mind.

I don’t know if I was really aware of him when he was one of Hollywood’s young studs in the 1950’s and 60’s. Back then, he was interchangeable with Nick Adams, Jeremy Slate, Adam Roarke or the guy with whom he’d be forever linked in the first movie he directed, Peter Fonda.

They were all blond Hollywood actors relegated to bit-parts in big films while carving out a cult following in biker movies and low-budget westerns rarely seen beyond the drive-in circuit.

A buncha rebellious James Dean clones in a town already lousy with them.

Hopper came by the image more honestly than most, however, having been a close friend of Dean and working with him in both “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”.

That generation was full of actors with wild streaks, hard-partying reputations and defiant attitudes that cemented bad-boy personas as they collided hard with a Hollywood establishment reluctant to embrace the social changes rolling in around them.

One night on the set of “From Hell to Texas”, veteran director Henry Hathaway decided to break Hopper of his “Method” approach to his role, forcing him to do repeated retakes of an emotionally difficult scene.

The creative clash went on for 15 hours, leaving both men exhausted and Hopper close to a nervous breakdown when Hathaway finally called “Print” on Take 80.

You didn’t even question a director’s vision back then and 24 hours later Hopper was blacklisted by every studio in LA.

But he still refused to dial back his talent and take the bit others wanted to force between his teeth. He waited them out, studied photography and with Marlon Brando’s help got into The Actor’s Studio, perfecting his grasp of The Method.

He returned to California, working steadily in episodic television and in 1969 managed to pool $350,000 together with friends Terry Southern, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson to make a little movie called “Easy Rider”.

It’s hard to describe the revelation that film was when it exploded onto the scene in the Summer of 1969. But it completely captured the spirit of the time while opening the creative floodgates of what would become “The New Hollywood”.

It also made “Old” Hollywood’s Boys Club take notice when its initial theatrical run finally ended in early 1972 with a box-office gross over $60 Million.

Hopper was suddenly a white hot Hollywood property, wealthy beyond imagination and with his pick of any studio project.

Instead, he chose to go to Peru to shoot a small and profoundly personal film, “The Last Movie”. Sixteen months after it wrapped, Studio execs turned up at his Taos, New Mexico home to find out why the edit was taking so damn long.

They were appalled by the finished product Hopper screened for them. And although the film took first prize at the Venice Film Festival, it got only a limited release by his studio before he was once again exiled.

I saw “The Last Movie” in a Toronto grindhouse at a midnight screening attended by myself and three drunks sleeping in the last row. It was a difficult piece to be sure. But it was also an inspired and challenging work.

Over the years that followed, Hopper became an actor of jarring intensity, wholeheartedly embracing the “crazed outcast” persona he and the studios had mutually created. His roles in “Apocalypse Now”, “Blue Velvet”, “Speed”  and “Waterworld” firmly cemented that image.

But along the way there were also small gems of awesome originality like “Kid Blue”, “The American Friend”, “Rumble Fish” and “Hoosiers” --- not to mention a scene shared with Christopher Walken in “True Romance” that is an acting lesson for the ages.

He also directed films of rare imagination like “Out of the Blue”, “The Hot Spot” and “Colors”.

It was shortly after the release of “Colors” that the encounter between he and I occurred, in the midst of some overcrowded post movie premiere party, with everyone (including the two of us) in tuxedos.

The crush of bodies suddenly parted in front of me and there he stood, slight and a little lost looking, maybe even scared. He trailed in the grip of a determined starlet who was dragging him somewhere. Our eyes met and I said, “I loved ‘Colors’”.

He nodded graciously. “We’re a small contingent,” he said as she pulled him past.

“I loved ‘The Last Movie’ too”, I responded. He tugged the starlet to a halt, turned back, studying me.

“Now, that’s seriously narrowing the field”. Then he gave me a warmly appreciative smile as the crowd closed back in between us. And he was gone.

What makes you remember moments like that?

He wasn’t the biggest star I’d ever met, nor somebody with whose lifework I’d formed a close connection.

It wasn’t that momentary grasping of a touchstone of my youth either. By that point in my life I’d done a movie with Nicholson and spent a night on a beachfront patio trading stories with Fonda ( the true icon of my teen years after “The Wild Angels”).

No, I think it was that feeling an artist sometimes conveys that you have understood him. Not understood the work he was best known for but one of the unsung pieces that truly came from his heart and represented what he wanted to bring into the world. And what’s more, such appreciation has been rare and therefore is equally appreciated.

As I write this, Dennis Hopper is dying, his time shortened and his fire dimmed by Prostate Cancer. His legacy, meanwhile, suffers further indignity from the talons of the Gossip Vultures, endlessly reporting his deathbed divorce and the struggle to retain control of his assets.

It should surprise no one that a man of Hopper’s passion rages at the dying of the light. Nor is there anything unusual in one, whose output was so diminished by those who controlled his time in the industry, seeking what rewards he did earn will go to those who most matter to him.

But that’s not the bite-sized fast food version of entertainment news that sells these days. Sold, for the most part, by conglomerates whose provenance includes the same studios and players who demonized Hopper throughout his career.

In their edit suites and databases, Hopper’s obituary is already ready to run, no doubt reminding those who encounter them that another Hollywood “Bad Boy” or “Mad Man” has finally been brought to heel.

So while others may remember catch phrases like “Mommy!” from “Blue Velvet”, “Boys, boys, boys!” from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” or the endlessly quoted “I ate so much pussy in those days my beard looked like a glazed donut.”

I choose to remember the Dennis Hopper who wasn’t crazy but simply cared deeply about “The Work” and possessed the world’s gentlest eyes, the softest smile and the heart of a lion.


Peter Mohan said...

Wow! Great post and great video! Thanks, Jim.

Bill Dakota said...

For a person who casually saw Dennis at a screening, you did a marvelous job here. Yes, I too was in Taos as his brother David was finishing editing THE LAST MOVIE. I was also one of the few theater owners who screened the film, that he was able to do for me. It was the same time as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and the few who came to see the movie, thought that is what they were going to see. Others saw the marquee and asked if the theater was closing?
I don't know how I got his phone number in Taos but we became phone friends. Like we had known one another for many years. Please Henry Lee be an actor. He would have wanted that for you.