For Dennis Hopper the extreme was only halfway. He didn’t just raise hell he lowered heaven too.
A formidable character actor, director and artist, Dennis Hopper, was above all else, a grafter. He learnt his craft acting in a plethora of TV shows, before going onto work with some of the most legendary film directors during a prolific hundred movie career.
At the forefront of independent-minded cinematic mavericks Hopper’s excessive habits and ‘difficult’ behaviour meant his Hollywood career was like a perpetual spinning door – some years in, many years out. But he never stopped working. Here in no particular order are some of Hopper’s most memorable on-screen roles.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece (from a John Milius’ screenplay) is in my view one of the greatest films of all time. The insanity of the Vietnam War on the screen was reflected by the insanity off it.
The film went wildly over budget; Harvey Keitel walked off set; his replacement Martin Sheen had a heart attack; sets were destroyed by a typhoon; and major star Marlon Brando’s mind was ill-prepared and body over-inflated.
Adding to the chaos was Dennis Hopper’s appearance as a maniacal, incoherent Photographer who babbles T.S. Eliot and Kipling poems to Willard (Sheen) when he finally reaches Kurtz’ hideaway. Hopper’s Photographer acts as a verbal extension of Kurtz’ madness and who better to play the role. Fellow cast member Sam Bottoms was reported to be on speed, LSD and marijuana during the shoot so lord only knows what Hopper was on.
MAD DOG MORGAN (1976)
I haven’t actually seen this movie but I love the title. It really sums Hopper up.
Ostracized by Hollywood and reportedly at the peak of excess in terms of drug use, he took work where he could get it and with Mad Dog Morgan it was the Australian outback. The only clip I’ve seen of this movie was on the excellent documentary about Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and while I cannot vouch for the quality of the film Hopper plays a manic, over-the-top Ned Kelly type to a tee.
It remains a lost Hopper ‘film’ for me and I look forward to tracking it down.
RED ROCK WEST (1993)
Film Noir had a mini-revival in the 80s and early 90s with films such as: Blood Simple (1984), The Last Seduction (1994) and The Grifters (1990). Red Rock West was a worthy addition to that slew of dark stories from the American underbelly brimming with con-artists, assassins, losers and femme fatales.
Hopper plays a hit-man with low self-esteem whose position is accidentally usurped by drifter Nicolas Cage. Gut-rot characters, serpentine plot and Hopper’s scenes with terrific character actor JT Walsh make this film well worth checking out.
Hopper had a purple patch in 1986 featuring in three very different yet prominent roles: Blue Velvet (1986), Hoosiers (1986) and River’s Edge (1986). In Hoosiers he starred alongside the formidable Gene Hackman, as a town drunk turned coaching assistant, trying to reform and find redemption. One might even see this role as emblematic of Hopper’s Hollywood career; the outsider searching for acceptance amongst his peers. Although, I very much doubt Hopper cared either way.
Anyway, Hoosiers, as inspirational sports movies go, was a critical success and Hopper’s subtler-than-usual performance was rewarded with his one and only Oscar nomination.
Like many of the independent movies of the 1970s the spectre of Vietnam fuelled their narratives and Tracks is no different. It tells the story of a soldier who escorts his best friend’s body home from Vietnam. While the narrative jars at times Hopper plays the burnt out veteran with a steely pain and determination.
I recall seeing it on Alex Cox’s Moviedrome (a brilliant series of late-night cult movie presentations shown on BBC2) and don’t remember that much about it other than Hopper looked like he was about to internally combust. Cox, himself an independent filmmaker of some repute, championed quirky, low budget, yet accessible movies as well as the works of some of Europe’s finest auteurs including Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.
THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977)
Wender’s pitch black noir gave us Hopper as Tom Ripley (subsequently portrayed by John Malkovich and Matt Damon) in an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s tightly-plotted Ripley’s Game.
Hopper’s Ripley is an older rendition and played like an enigmatic cowboy, slyly manipulating Bruno Ganz’ picture framer into committing murder. Wenders’ movie bleeds atmosphere and mood and the story wanders down into dark tunnels of deceit. It’s a slow-burner but a rewarding movie nonetheless, brilliantly directed by Wender and containing sterling performances from Ganz and Hopper.
EASY RIDER (1969)
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s road movie was stunning triumph of improvisatory filmmaking that alerted Hollywood studios to the power of American counter-culture movement. There was no script; just a loose idea of two outsiders going native across America on motorcycles.
Originally called ‘The Loners’, Easy Rider didn’t even utilise a traditional crew as Fonda and Hopper would ask people they met on the road to film them. Hopper’s and Fonda’ ‘performances’ were drug-fuelled to say the least, and the film didn’t so much break the rules but actually invent its’ own. Indeed, the use of rock music on the soundtrack – as opposed to a composed score – was groundbreaking at the time.
While the high speed thrills and spills took centre-stage in Jan DeBont’s cracking high-concept popcorn movie the Dutch director also cast the movie really well with established Hollywood actors (Jeff Daniels, Keanu Reeves, and Hopper) and actors whose star was rising (Sandra Bullock).
In what is effect a rent-a-villain role Hopper’s angry ex-bomb squad member Howard Payne adds to the films’ glorious fun chewing up and literally blowing up the scenery in a parodic pantomime performance. He could pretty much play the role in his sleep but he revels in it, delivering some fantastic zingers. When Traven (Reeves) accuses him of being crazy he responds, “NO! Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.” That’s certainly one word to describe Hopper’s performance and career for that matter.
BLUE VELVET (1986)
David Lynch’s classic oedipal neo-noir is a disturbing watch from the start as the Bobby Vinton’s eponymous classic plays over a man suffering from a stroke in his garden. Things just get weirder and weirder when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) then finds a severed ear turns detective and gets completely out of his depth in the criminal underbelly of small-town America.
So far, so strange; and you’re thinking where can the movie go from here? But Lynch has a very big and evil card up his sleeve: namely Frank Booth. Booth is one of the most insane, evil, uncompromising psychopaths in cinematic history.
Like a Tasmanian devil with Tourettes, Booth’s sole aim is to wreak havoc and destroy the lives he comes across. He’s a dealer, pimp, kidnapper, sexual deviant, murderer, drug-addicted rapist. Not surprisingly many actors turned the role down flat. “I’ve got to play Frank. Because I am Frank?” was Hopper’s plea to director David Lynch. Now, if you get THAT kind of phone call you’re not likely to turn the man down, are you?
TRUE ROMANCE (1993)
I actually think this is – in what really amounts to a cameo – Dennis Hopper’s finest ever acting performance. His scene with Christopher Walken’s mob boss Vincenzo Coccotti is electric. You can almost feel the tension as two Hollywood heavyweight actors dual for the higher status.
With Hopper’s Clifford Worley tied up Coccotti towers over him, trying to discover the whereabouts of Worley’s son Clarence (Christian Slater). The verbal sparring begins. Tarantino’s almost Shakespearean dialogue delivered by these two actors is jaw-dropping. Coccotti really has the upper hand from the start. But Worley, who must know he hasn’t got long, refuses to go down without a fight.
After taking a beating he then delivers one of the most blisteringly offensive retorts in film history to Mafia boss Coccotti. This not only seals his fate but also redeems him in the eyes of the audience (and subtextually with his wayward son, Clarence). Frank Booth will never ever be forgotten but this is the scene I’ll always remember Hopper for most.