As an actor-director-lone horseman of the apocalypse, Dennis Hopper’s career suggests some druggy Dylan ballad with Marcel Duchamp and James Dean riding their motorcycles up Boot Hill to steal the carnations off John Wayne’s grave. Hopper was born, in Dodge City no less, to be wild; he lived to cause “the gray flannel dwarf to scream.”
This multi-talented over-reacher was a maverick who ran afoul of the Hollywood establishment. Hopper was cast out and compelled to work his way back … twice!
Double has-been (and thus true legend), Hopper was blacklisted (for bad behavior on the set of the western From Hell to Texas) practically before his career had started; a decade later he came out of biker-flick obscurity to direct one of the great commercial triumphs of postwar Hollywood. Then, executing a breathtaking swan dive from the pinnacle of success back into the abyss, Hopper followed Easy Rider with the ultimate film maudit and most blatantly experimental movie ever bankrolled by a major studio: The Last Movie.
“The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad!” So Hopper described Marlon Brando toward the end of Apocalypse Now in a no-doubt improvised line that basically referred to himself. Hopper took Method Acting to the far side of the moon and turned Hollywood on to Pop Art, he appeared in Andy Warhol’s first narrative movie (Tarzan and Jane Regain… Sort of) in support of Taylor Mead, and he pioneered the naturalistic use of marijuana on the screen. He never won an Oscar or a lifetime achievement award, but there are lines like “Hey man, I’m just a motherfuckin’ asshole, man!” (delivered while pouring a bottle of bourbon over his head in Out of the Blue) to which no other actor could possibly do justice. Blue Velvet is unthinkable without him.
As an actor, the young Hopper combined the image of the Cowboy with that of the Juvenile Delinquent; later, he was pleased to incarnate the chaos of the Sixties (and not just as a Ronald Reagan supporter). Eighteen years after Easy Rider, Hopper enlivened the youth film River’s Edge as a one-legged ex-biker living alone with an inflated sex doll called Ellie, selling loose joints to the local punks, and reminiscing about his colorful past: “I ate so much pussy in those days, my beard looked like a glazed donut.” Last seen, he was in heavy rotation on TV as a clean-shaven but acid-ripped investment services pitchman proposing to redefine his generation’s notion of retirement. (See his villainous turn in fellow Sixties-man George Romero’s Land of the Dead to see how.)
Not long ago I made a pilgrimage to Chinchero, the Indian town 14,000 feet up in the Andes where The Last Movie was shot — sacred ground for the Incas, man, even before Hopper re-sanctified it! There was no monument to, or even a memory of his antics, just the realization that this crazy gringo had somehow taken over the whole town as the set for his masterpiece. The Last Movie is the one Hollywood production since Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons that deserves a place in Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema. It used to be that Hopper had the only decent 35mm print in existence. What will happen to it now, I wonder?
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