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Dennis Hopper: An appreciation

Posted by Elizabeth Comeau  May 29, 2010 06:40 PM

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Dennis Hopper had the craziest eyes in show business, but he came by them honestly.

Some movie stars seem to arrive on the scene fully formed: John Wayne born on the half-saddle in 1939's "Stagecoach," for instance. Hopper, who died yesterday at 74 after a long battle with cancer, acquired his meaning by living it hard and full-out, the one actor of the '60s generation who went the chemical distance and almost never came back. He did return, though, retreating from the brink of self-immolation to turn in a run of performances in the 1980s that are frightening in their working knowledge of human extremes.

Hopper straddled the rise and fall of the counterculture, and over the years he came to mean many different things: Hollywood contract player, studio rebel, radical priest of the New Cinema, LSD-addled burnout, bum, nightmare, actor. That he ended his days as one of the film industry's more vocal Republicans was only the last kink of the tale, and Hopper undoubtedly appreciated the perversity more than anyone else.

Anything to go against the grain. The young Hopper worshipped at two altars, one labeled James Dean -- he acted alongside the star in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" -- and the other the New York Actors Studio. Acting teacher Lee Strasberg taught him that emotional truth was all that mattered and Dean's death in a 1955 car crash only proved that genius couldn't last in Hollywood. Hopper subsequently developed a reputation as the most difficult kid in town, and the story of his obdurately screwing up more than 80 takes of a scene in 1958's "From Hell to Texas" just to show director Henry Hathaway who was boss is legendary.

With 1969's "Easy Rider," which Hopper co-wrote, directed, and starred in, he showed the entire industry who was boss: the half of the country under 30. "Easy Rider" was shot for under a half-million dollars and grossed 40 times that; what the studio heads dismissed as a biker B-flick won a prize at Cannes and became a genuine pop touchstone that drew repeat crowds and ushered in a new era of filmmaking. More than that, the film spoke blearily to a mass discontent in a way that, for a pop moment, made incredible sense.

Seen today, without the aid of rhetoric or pharmaceuticals, "Easy Rider" is without question one of the worst important movies ever made, and Hopper's approach to filmmaking -- consume as many drugs as possible, get seriously paranoid, alienate your crew, burn your bridges -- doomed his follow-up, 1971's "The Last Movie." By the time he popped up as a photographer in 1979's "Apocalypse Now," playing Fool to Marlon Brando's Lear, Dennis Hopper was a cultural joke.

That makes his comeback in the 1980s all the more stunning. Starting with Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumblefish," Hopper worked hard and with gonzo intent, no more so than in the three films he made in 1986, his peak year as an actor. In "River's Edge," as a drug-dealing biker amputee, he's the amoral death of the hippie dream guiding the next generation to their ruin. In "Hoosiers," Hopper plays a town drunk who finds redemption as an assistant high school basketball coach, and he puts so much pain and hope into the part that your heart breaks.

And as Frank Booth in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" Hopper is simply the most evil man in the history of the cinema. Sucking nitrous from an oxygen mask, beating his lover (Isabella Rossellini) and calling her Mommy, terrorizing the film's teenage hero (Kyle MacLachlan), Frank seems capable of truly anything, and Hopper's performance is so mesmerizing, so unfathomably scary, that he turns a pro forma defense of his favorite beer -- "Pabst Blue RIBBON!!" -- into a howl from hell.

In the 25 years that followed, Hopper slowly evolved into a journeyman character actor, capable of enlivening good movies (1991's "Paris Trout" and bad ones (1995's "Waterworld"), taking jobs for the money and directing a few for the love or the fun of it. (1980's "Out of the Blue" may be his best and truest as a filmmaker, and 1988's "Colors" isn't shabby either.) Yet as younger and younger audiences appeared on the scene and the revolution faded in the rearview mirror, the anarchic glow in his eyes never dimmed.

If anything, it grew more insistent. In the end, Hopper was proof, if you wanted it, that the '60s really happened and that they were far more dangerous than you know.

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