Dennis Hopper, 1936 - 2010

David Hudson

"Dennis Hopper, the maverick director and costar of the landmark 1969 counterculture film classic Easy Rider whose drug- and alcohol-fueled reputation as a Hollywood bad boy preceded his return to sobriety and a career resurgence in the films Hoosiers and Blue Velvet, died Saturday," reports Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. "He was 74. A longtime resident of Venice who also was known as a photographer, artist and collector of modern art, Hopper died at his home of complications from prostate cancer, said Alex Hitz, a friend of the family."

Back in April, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that this "actor, filmmaker, photographer, art collector, world-class burnout, first-rate survivor... never blew it. Unlike the villains and freaks he has played over the decades — the psycho with the mommy complex in Blue Velvet, the mad bomber with the grudge in Speed — he has made it through the good, the bad and some spectacularly terrible times.... He hung out with James Dean, played Elizabeth Taylor's son, acted for Quentin Tarantino. He has been rich and infamous, lost and found, the next big thing, the last man standing."

"[O]ne hopes descriptions of Hopper's directorial career don't start and end with Easy Rider," wrote Matt Zoller Seitz just a few weeks ago at "Hopper's 1969 debut is notable for its alternately ecstatic and lacerating portrait of the counterculture, the then-unusual use of pre-existing pop songs for its soundtrack, adventurous editing and its status as the first independently financed feature to become a mainstream smash. But there's more to his directorial résumé than philosophical bikers. Although he directed just seven features (Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Colors, Backtrack, The Hot Spot and Chasers), his style is quite distinctive. It's ragged and intuitive, more sensual than logical, intoxicated by drugs, sex and music. And to greater or lesser degrees, all of his films address the individual's struggle to survive within a machine without becoming a cog — the central narrative of Hopper's long and strange career, with its youthful promise, adult madness and autumnal wisdom."

A week earlier, Matt presented a video essay at Moving Image Source, Dennis Hopper: The Middle Word in Life, "an attempt to capture the essence of what we think about when we think about Dennis Hopper. This video essay isn't trying to be a comprehensive biography because the prospect of capturing Hopper in a relatively short running time is too daunting to consider. The piece offers glimpses of Hopper the method actor, Hopper the monologue master and word-jazz babbler, Hopper the scenery-gnawing villain, Hopper the substance abuser and ex-substance abuser, and Hopper the filmmaker."

"The year of his 19th birthday, 1955, was extraordinary," notes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. "Not only did Hopper have substantial parts in three television dramas, but he was cast in supporting roles in James Dean's last two films: Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant (released in 1956). The two actors became friends over the few months before Dean, whom Hopper idolised, was killed in a car accident aged 24.... Although Hopper appeared only briefly with Dean in both movies, the latter had a huge influence on him. Hopper brought some moody Method mannerisms to bear on his following roles, mostly as callow, trigger-happy villains in westerns, such as Billy Clanton in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1956) — 'I don't know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely' — and From Hell to Texas (1958), on which he got into a confrontation with director Henry Hathaway, refusing to take direction for several days."

NPR: "At James Dean's urging, he'd taken up photography in his teens, and with his camera he documented everything from Berkeley hippie love-ins to the 1963 March on Washington. In his later years, he transformed vintage photos of his friends and colleagues — Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, pop artists and politicians — into billboard-size oil-on-vinyl paintings. Making pictures was a real passion for Hopper; when he played a crazed photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Peter Fonda noted that the character was remarkably similar to Hopper's real-life persona."

"One of the most telling stories I've ever heard about Dennis Hopper involves a film few have seen, Mad Dog Morgan, a 1976 Australian production about one of that country's famed outlaw folk heroes," writes Keith Phipps at the AV Club. On the DVD, "director Philippe Mora reveals that Hopper reined in none of his habits during the shoot, but still had an uncanny gift for hitting every mark and remembering every line thanks to his training in the 1950s studio system as a young man. His performance in the movie is remarkable. Even when he lost it, he still had it.... If you're like me, you got a bit tired of seeing Hopper show up as the villain in movie after movie. He played the part well, but how could he not? He'd played it so many times. He had more in him too, as occasional performances in films like Elegy and his gentle, cutting role in True Romance confirmed. But he animated even his most rote baddie with the spark of genius and the testimony of someone who'd stepped outside the bounds of order and sanity and returned to tell us a bit about what he'd seen."

At Cargo, Simon Rothöhler posts a clip from Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1961).

Alex Simon interviewed Hopper in November 2008 and runs the full conversation at the Hollywood Interview: "What I found while smoking cigars with Hopper in his Venice home-studio, was a thoughtful man with a gentle demeanor, who spoke in measured tones and loved telling stories. Gone was the wild-eyed 'enfant terrible' that Hopper had made his name playing, and sometimes living. What I saw instead was a man who seemed to be at peace with himself and his life, who loved his children, art, film and new ideas. Sometimes when you have seen life at its ugliest, as Hopper surely had, you're able to come out the other side and drink in its beauty. I hope this was true."

"After Dean's death, Hopper abandoned Hollywood for Manhattan and spent five years studying under [Lee] Strasberg," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Viewed narrowly, the Stanislavski-Strasberg Method is a means to an end: An actor employs his own emotions, memories and sensations in order to portray a character in more lifelike and convincing fashion. Hopper seemed to develop his own expanded, synthetic interpretation, probably shaped by his appetite for consciousness-altering substances, avant-garde art and thorny philosophy. Every Hopper performance was just a facet of his lifelong, overarching performance as Dennis Hopper, and the professional separation most actors maintain between themselves and their characters evaporated entirely. Apocryphal or not, the story of Hopper's phone call to David Lynch after he had read the script for Blue Velvet is on point: 'You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!'"

"A true iconoclast, brilliant and terrible," writes Robert Cashill.

"Despite his late turn toward the GOP, Hopper did admit, as did many Republicans, that in the 2008 election that after voting for Bush twice, he was voting for Obama," notes Edward Copeland. "During the long final months of his illness, Hopper did manage to make a public appearance March 26 looking very frail to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame."

"Hopper's movie work is both a cautionary tale and an exemplary one," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "He brought a tortured authenticity to many of his acting roles, an almost surreal intensity to the films he directed. He was wed five times, including an 8-day whirlwind with the Mamas and the Papas' Michelle Phillips ('The first seven,' he said, 'were pretty good'), and he filed for divorce early this year from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, alleging she was 'insane' and 'volatile.' She countersued, making similar claims about Hopper. Yet with myriad self-inflicted notches on his pelt, the self-described middle-class kid from Dodge City, Kansas, somehow survived, and thrived, until he was something of a Hollywood elder statesman."

Ray Pride's collected clips and a few of Hopper's photographs.

A Guardian gallery: "Dennis Hopper: a life in pictures."

"Last month, [Jeffrey] Deitch revealed his first major undertaking at his new digs would be an exhibition of Dennis Hopper's art curated by Julian Schnabel," noted the Civic Beacon a few days ago. "Not too shabby for an inaugural thrust into the LA art scene.... The exhibition [Dennis Hopper Double Standard] opens on July 11 and will showcase a sweeping collection of 200 of Hopper's works from over 60 years in a wide range of media including photography, sculpture, painting, and film installations."

Browse through some of Hopper's paintings at Ace Gallery.

"As a director, he practiced a classic style," writes Roger Ebert. "'I'm back with John Ford and Huston and Hawks — and Hathaway,' he told me. 'I learned a lot from Henry Hathaway when I was acting in The Sons of Katie Elder.' That would have been gratifying for Hathaway to hear."

In December 2008, Noel Murray spoke with Hopper for the AV Club about several of his roles and, right at the end, about his politics.

Viewing. David Poland spent half an hour with Hopper when Elegy came out.


Updates, 5/30: Quite a piece in the Los Angeles Times. Richard Stayton spent a decade working with Hopper on a biography, a project Hopper put a stop to, then revived, then called off again. "He deathly feared opening a Pandora's past that might include deeds he'd literally forgotten. Was he holding on to his sobriety? Or afraid of facts I'd dug up?"

Jonathan Rosenbaum revisits Out of the Blue (1980): "Here was proof, if any is needed, that a celebrated burnt-out case came back to establish himself as the legitimate American heir to the cinema of Nicholas Ray — a cinema of tortured lyricism and passionate rebellion that reached its fullest flower in the 50s, as if to match the action painting that was roughly contemporary with it. Hopper managed to remake Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (the film in which Hopper made his acting debut) in terms of a working-class punk (Linda Manz), an androgynous heroine whose grim fate suggested an Americanized version of Robert Bresson's Mouchette. Casting himself, moreover, as her dissolute father, Hopper gave himself a disturbing part that seemed to update his role as Billy in Easy Rider."

For Glenn Kenny, "the Hopper performance I find more resonant every years — 'A little older, a little more confused,' man, ain't that the truth! — is his Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders's The American Friend. What a stroke of genius, to play Highsmith's master sociopath as genuinely, thoroughly, poignantly, sad... to his very bone. But not pathetic or pathetique; still utterly lethal. The look in his eye after Bruno Ganz's Jonathan Zimmermann brushes him off with an 'I've heard of you,' and how that offhand remark seals poor Zimmermann's fate... that's both film acting at its best, and most nuanced, and directorial sensibility/sensitivity that knows just how to use such performing genius."

"[O]f all the terrific, weird films made around the edges of Hollywood in that magic moment of the early 1970s, I think The Last Movie may be the best one I know," writes Zach Campbell.

"He was against his times and himself," recalls Mark Cousins. "As we walked around his 'Art Barn,' Frank Gehry house in Venice, California, he told me with real pride that he was one of the first people in California to buy an Andy Warhol. His eyes burned as he quoted from his favourite book, The Gospel According to Thomas — if you could not create would you die? Yes, was his answer, as if directing and acting was what kept him alive."

Also in the Observer: "Hopper's wild-eyed, scenery-chewing performances often lifted the quality of any B-movie, reminding viewers that he was one of the most watchable of Hollywood stars," writes Paul Harris. "'There are moments that I've had some real brilliance, you know,' he reflected recently. 'But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough.'"

And Paul Joyce: "Dennis's work as an artist and photographer has, in my opinion at least, been overlooked disgracefully in the UK. It was to be the Hermitage in St Petersburg that offered Dennis, two years ago, a one-man show – something unheard of even for a Soviet artist. His pride in this aspect of his work was deeply felt, but privately held, attended to and enjoyed. My abiding memory of him is someone who always saw the humour, even in the blackest of moments. He was also a fantastic friend."

Joe Leydon: "You can read my 1990 interview with Hopper here, my Houston Culture Map obituary here — and an essay about Easy Rider I wrote just last April here. And if you would like to see him near the start of a career that spanned six decades, here is Hopper in the 1958 pilot episode — scripted by Sam Peckinpah! — of The Rifleman." (Update, 6/1: R Emmet Sweeney reviews this episode for TCM.)

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman remembers the press conference following the first American screening of Apocalypse Now: "His rambling declarations on everything from filmmaking to the state of America made it sound as if he had never quite stopped playing the jittery, blitzed-out-of-his-noggin, war-fragged photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Or, just maybe, that his performance in the movie wasn't really a performance at all. There's no denying that Dennis Hopper made himself a bit of a joke that day. Listening to him was like looking at the last joint ash of the 60s, hanging in the air and ready to fall. At the same time, you couldn't take your eyes off him. He was a court jester and a train wreck, and he was also every inch a star. In his very dissolution, he played his own legend like a bad-trip virtuoso."

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr on the mid-80s comeback: "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."


In the Daily Beast, Caroline Graham, former West Coast editor for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, recalls a decades-long friendship.

The AP collects tributes from many who worked with him; Anne Thompson gathers more obits and clips.

"He is credited with inventing 'lens flare,'" according to the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "the phenomenon in which globule-streams of light float woozily around as the lens is swung into the sun. This used to be a simple technical mistake, to be cut; Hopper kept it in [in Easy Rider], and it became a groovy signature of the 70s movie scene, now even used in animations.... In Britain, we had a phenomenon called 'hellraisers': boomy-voiced act-ors who would consume too much booze and start declaiming Shakespeare and then be asked to leave the pub. In America, they had Dennis Hopper, who once attempted suicide by lying down in a coffin near a highway in Texas, surrounding himself with sticks of dynamite, challenging allcomers to blow him up, and finally leaving, reportedly shooting up cocaine and heroin, succumbing to delirious hallucinations, and taking off for Mexico, where he tried to venture into the jungle without clothes and was arrested for punching a cop. Did all that really happen? Or was Hopper his own gleefully self-created myth: the man who shot up with Liberty Valance?"

keelsetter for TCM: "He was his own-kind of ramshackle Renaissance Man for quick-changing and mutating times, becoming part of our DNA in the mix."

Catherine Grant collects "Blue Velvet Studies in Memory of Dennis Hopper."

One of the most passed around photos of the past day or so is a shot of Hopper, John Ford and John Huston — in bed together. You can see it at the Houndblog, for example, where Paul Duane leaves a comment to tell the story behind it.

CineVegas pays its respects.

The New York Review of Books is running Ellen Willis's 1970 piece on Easy Rider. An "Exchange on Women's Liberation & the Movies" followed — the old-fashioned way, of course, via letters to the editor.

Updates, 5/31: "I have no problem with people enjoying the stories; I enjoyed them myself, the first four or five times I heard them." Phil Nugent: "But at the risk of sounding like an AA sponsor, I'd like to get more of a sense that the people relaying them and toasting Hopper for his wildness understand that the wildness was something he had to learn to channel and control before he actually began doing work that mattered, and that the messianic young madman they (and he) retain so much affection for was the person he had to outgrow. Watching Blue Velvet again Friday night, I was knocked cold, yet again, by Hopper's performance, but this time my admiration had a dimension to it that it hadn't had when I first saw it, because now I know had hard-won that level of control was for him."

"When he was a classically trained upstart Hopper took a meeting in 1955 with Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn, who suggested that an aide take Hopper away for six months in order to 'take all the Shakespeare out of him,'" writes the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. "Hopper told Cohn to scram. What got him noticed by Cohn in the first place? A seizure. On an early '55 episode of the NBC series Medic Hopper played an epileptic. Convincingly. Scarily."

From Anne Thompson: "Tim Appelo dug into his Dennis Hooper files and found the late actor talking about Natalie Wood's orgy error, Elvis Presley's sex and acting lesson, Michelle Phillips's DH Lawrence collaboration, and the lost Apocalypse Now scene he'd most like to see."

Mike Everleth looks back on Hopper's work with Warhol.

Updates, 6/1: Brandon Soderberg for the Voice: "Dennis Hopper, Soundtrack Savant: The Unacknowledged Music Savvy Behind Easy Rider, Out of the Blue, and Colors."

Listening. Hopper on Fresh Air in 1990 and 1996.

At the Playlist: "10 Roles: Remembering Dennis Hopper."

The L Magazine's Mark Asch: "[I]n art and in life, Hopper embodied the best and worst of a generation of solo acts: excess-risking, convention-confronting seeker of truth and beauty on the one hand; burnout self-parody and a late turn to I-got-mine 'libertarian' conservatism on the other. I'm honestly not sure which side of the ledger the druggy self-destructive self-mythologizing belongs on, but the world is now a far more streamlined place without it, green and unblemished as a Heineken bottle under target-marketed neon light. Fuck that shit."

"It was one thing my writing lurid sex scenes; quite another finding out they took place in real life. My God, I was young, but bear in mind that Dennis was even younger." For Vanity Fair, Gwen Davis, author, playwright, "longtime Hollywood fixture," remembers Hopper from way, way back.

Charlie Finch at artnet: "Even when he was wrong, Hopper was always in the right place at the right time, ready to take advantage of any situation. Dignity and desperation were his divas, sirens which sing for us all in the body of his work."

Updates, 6/2: Michael E Ross in PopMatters: "The promotional copy for Easy Rider boils down the film's essence: A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere. Is that sense of drift, that anomic emptiness of the 60s any less a part of the American experience today?"

"A Dennis Hopper role that's always stayed with me was his small part as Christian Slater's father in Tony Scott's True Romance (1993)," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "After his son is implicated in a drug-related murder, Hopper, a recovering alcoholic cop, gives him money to get out of town with his young bride (Patricia Arquette). The father is captured by a mob lawyer (Christopher Walken) who urges him, as only Christopher Walken can urge, to reveal the whereabouts of his son. Hopper must find a way to get Walken to kill him before he can be tortured into giving up the information. So he goes on a diatribe — scripted by Quentin Tarantino — about the presence of black blood in the veins of Sicilians, relishing Walken's slow-boiling fury as he explains the 'historical fact' that the mobsters' ancestral 'wops' mixed with 'eggplants' back in the day. Hopper's speech is wildly racist, explosively obscene, offensive six ways from Sunday — and, in the scene's context, the most generous, self-sacrificial gesture a father could make."

For IFC, Brandon Kim looks back to "the height of late Reagan-era gang violence. Bloods and Crips were all the rage. Hip hop was exploding and people still called rappers, rappers. Along came Colors and just nailed it, shit had cred. Real gangsters, real rappers, fools getting shot and Sean Penn beating the shit out of people on set. The music was awesome then, and I think the use of Ice-T's song, 'Colors' during the prison scene where Crips pour in one end and Bloods pour in the other, will forever sum up the absurd reality of inner city urban decay from the period."

Updates, 6/3: FX Feeney in the LA Weekly: "Apart from his astonishing turn in Blue Velvet (1986) and films in which he directed himself (especially his love-struck hit man in 1989's Backtrack), a proper Hopper fest would include Night Tide (1961), his sweetest role, as a vulnerable sailor in love with a mermaid; Henry Jaglom's Tracks (1975), as a Vietnam vet disintegrating over the course of a homeward train ride; Wim Wenders's The American Friend, in which he plays Patricia Highsmith's 'talented Mr Ripley' as a fallen angel attempting to right his own wrongdoings against a defenseless man; and Boiling Point (1993), a little-known gem directed by James B Harris, in which Hopper gives tragic weight to a petty crook grown too gentle for his profession. Add your favorite, but capping the lot would be Elegy (2007), based on The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth. There, in a supporting role opposite Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz, Hopper is particularly moving, persuasive in his erudite arguments regarding women, art, poetry and mortality. It is a fitting and memorable conclusion to his career."

"He was of a loose generation of crazies, including Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates, and Bruce Dern, lacking any anchor to earth and normality and whose madness was matched only by their acting talent," writes Louis Black. The Austin Chronicle also reproduces the CinemaTexas program notes, written in the late 70s, for Easy Rider and The Last Movie.

The AP reports on Wednesday's memorial service. Jack Nicholson: "It was a very singular relationship I had with him, like nobody else. We were soul mates in a way. I really miss him."

"The Cinematheque Francaise's Costa Gavras and Serge Toubiana pay tribute to Dennis Hopper, who was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Cinematheque — which besides its archives and screening program, boasts a must-see cinema museum in Paris." Anne Thompson has an English translation of the tribute.

Updates, 6/4: Alex Cox (Repo Man, Straight to Hell) recalls being Hopper's "No 4: the writing henchman, called upon when Dennis needed a quick wash-and-rinse on a script. I attempted to fix a terrible screenplay called Easy Rider 2; that didn't pan out. I studied a draft of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas he'd received; it convinced me the book was unfilmable. We had more success with a script called Backtrack, which I rewrote with Tod [Cox's wife]. Dennis was a tremendous boss: unlike the financiers and studio executives, he actually read the script and gave us comprehensible notes on it. And he stuck up for the writers when the money people asked for stupid, contradictory, anti-dramatic things.... Dennis is a great director, but his greatest creation is probably that character we all think we know called Fucking Dennis Hopper. Fucking Dennis Hopper is known to both those who sleep in alleys and to princesses at Parisian fashion shows.... To me and Tod, he was a great boss. If Dennis went to his reward in a hubbub of battling exes, lawsuits and controversy, well, perhaps he wanted it that way."

Tony Dayoub recalls meeting Hopper in 2008.

Update, 6/5: "Perhaps the real conflict of irreconcilable viewpoints upon which The Last Movie was constructed is that between old and new Hollywood," writes Brad Stevens for Sight & Sound. "But it is striking how Hopper's film contains none of that gleeful joy in the destruction of conventions one finds in similar works by European filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard's Le vent d'est (1970) or Marco Ferreri's Touchez pas a la femme blanche (1974). Seen from this perspective, Hopper's return to more traditional forms of storytelling in Colors (1988), Backtrack (1989), The Hot Spot (1990) and Chasers (1994) makes perfect sense. This child of the the studio system — who acted for Henry Hathaway, George Stevens and Nicholas Ray — may have been both that system's greatest enemy and its most passionate champion."

Updates, 6/9: In a 1996 Paris Review interview, Terry Southern told his version of the story of how Easy Rider got written.

The NYT's Tom Kuntz looks back to 2007 when JFX Gillis argued that conservatives who "hated almost everything" about Easy Rider were missing out on the morality tale at the heart of it.

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