I came of age as a film lover after the great American cinema renaissance of the 1970s, but as a teenager in the early ’80s, I managed to catch on VHS one of the last films of that amazing era, Apocalypse Now. Needless to say there are a lot of things from that film that were striking, even mesmerizing for a teenage viewer.
But one of Apocalypse Now‘s most memorable elements was Dennis Hopper’s harlequin photographer, speed-talking gibberish about cosmic fractions at Martin Sheen in the jungle. Years later, in the amazing documentary Hearts of Darkness, you can see Hopper on the Apocalypse set, jabbering away at Coppola between takes, and you realize his manic performance in the film wasn’t much of a stretch.
Around that same time I was pouring over “Best of” lists in cinema books and magazines and then heading out to raid the Iowa City Public Library every few days for as many older films on VHS as I could digest. That was how I first saw Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Examining the credits, I was stunned to see that Hopper (a friend of James Dean’s) had small parts in both. (He went on to appear in numerous westerns, including The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit.) How, I wondered, did that clean-cut young studio-system actor from Rebel and Giant end up that grizzled, wild-eyed crazy man in Apocalypse Now? Then I checked out Easy Rider from the library and the missing puzzle piece fell into place.
1969′s Easy Rider was directed and co-written by and co-starred Hopper, and it literally changed everything about American cinema, kicking off what would become one of film’s most creatively rich periods–the same period Hopper helped close ten years later with Apocalypse Now. (Hopper even played Tom Ripley 22 years before Matt Damon did, in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend.)
But by the early ’80s Hopper had become a Hollywood drug-casualty joke. In 1983, following a rambling, hazy lecture at Rice University in Houston, he led the audience out to a nearby speedway where he intended to perform the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act. Hopper sat atop 17 sticks of dynamite carefully arranged in a ring, claiming the explosion would leave a vacuum of safety in the middle.
He ignited the dynamite in what was something between an art happening and a public suicide attempt, and following the massive blast, Dennis Hopper–temporarily deafened but otherwise unharmed–walked out of a literal ring of fire. Having passed through that insane crucible, Hopper entered drug and alcohol rehab soon after the stunt. Later that year he started to work his way back into professional respectability with an impressively essayed role as the father in Coppola’s Rumble Fish.
While I was in college, a cleaned-up Hopper began his comeback in earnest–in 1986 alone he appeared in Hoosiers, River’s Edge, and Blue Velvet. That’s one helluva trilogy for a single year, and suddenly Hopper was back and everywhere. He was nominated for a best-supporting Oscar for Hoosiers (his second nomination after one for writing Easy Rider), but it was the stark horror of his nitrous-huffing, profanity spewing Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and his grimly comic story about losing his leg as River’s Edge‘s burned-out Feck that had all us film-school geeks buzzed.
Soon after, Hopper also moved back into directing with the powerful LA-cop drama Colors, starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and the steamy noir The Hot Spot with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and Jennifer Connelly. The new round of fame in the ’90s brought some goofy stuff (Super Mario Brothers! Waterworld!) but also some great work, like that sad, bravely defiant soliloquy delivered to Christopher Walken in True Romance.
It’s easy with Hopper when focusing on the wild stories and quoting favorite lines from the cool movies (as I’ve always done) to forget the pivotal role he played in film history as his career crossed over from studio player to independent avant-garde flamethrower. Easy Rider paved the way for the ’70s Age of American Film Greatness–Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese and even Lucas and Spielberg followed in its wake.
He was battered and sometimes baffling, maybe a little wrapped up in his own excessive legend, but through the decades, like a mad Prometheus, Dennis Hopper still carried that torch, that belief in the burning power of raw, experimental American cinema.