Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)
Dennis Hopper's terminal cancer and marital woes had made the local news out here months ago, but while his death isn't a surprise, it is a great loss. He was a prolific man, superb actor and fine, innovative director. He had a talent for playing villains, psychos and oddballs, because he was simultaneously edgy and grounded – as bizarre or quirky as he might behave, he was completely believable. His character might be a madman, but he was clearly enjoying it – and that made him interesting, even riveting, to watch.
I grew up seeing Dennis Hopper mostly in those offbeat and psycho roles, so it was a bit of a shock to see his earlier work, particularly in Giant, where he was so clean-cut. He was, however, extremely good. His performances were always real, and focused. I caught several interviews with him talking about his training, his influences, his process, and his many demons. (The wildest non drug-related Hopper story I've heard is that, supposedly, he went so method for Apocalypse Now he didn't bathe for a month and the rest of the crew refused to ride on the same bus with him.) Like some other actors, including his close pal Jack Nicholson, Hopper could get typecast – nevertheless, he always played the "Dennis Hopper role" very well. If something was weak in a film, it wasn't going to be his performance.
It's hard to underestimate how influential his film Easy Rider was, either, a low budget, counterculture blockbuster. It was interesting seeing Colors and trying to reconcile that this guy with the burnout, crazy image had directed it. Besides Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, the roles I'll always remember him for are in Apocalypse Now, River's Edge, Blue Velvet, Red Rock West and Hoosiers - the last one a role that may have been closer to the real Hopper than many of the psychos he played. Just as the audience roots for his alcoholic character, Shooter, to turn it around, I think many fans were rooting for Hopper to keep it together and do well.
Dennis Hopper was a fine photographer as well, and quite the art aficionado. He was a friend of Andy Warhol's, and when L.A. did a major Warhol retrospective several years back, Hopper recorded the (very good) audio guide. An exhibition of Hopper's art is scheduled for July at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The Wiki entry on Hopper isn't bad, and the Los Angeles Times has both an obituary and appreciation. The New York Times did a good appreciation earlier this year (including a brief video segment), and Roger Ebert has a good piece on him.
The best overview I've seen of Dennis Hopper's career is this lengthy compilation from The Museum of the Moving Image (it has a fair amount of profanity, if that's a concern):
Update: Fresh Air combined two interviews with Hopper for an excellent remembrance.