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Dennis Hopper: A Wild Life of Art, Success and Sorrow
by Doniphan Blair
Monument Valley, Arizona Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda race the light so cinematographer Laszlo Kovaks can capture a pushed-two-stops 360-degree sunset shot from the top of the mesa. photo: courtesy digilander.libreto.it
Famously drug-addled, Hopper was also literally a high artist: painting, photographing, collecting, trying and sometimes succeeding in making serious art films
Dennis Hopper was such a mystery man, hidden behind sunglasses, bushy moustache, and goofy sidekick character in the '60s-icon "Easy Rider" (1969), that few recall he actually directed the movie as well as co-authored it with Peter Fonda (who also produced) and Terry Southern. Even fewer knew that he was a talented painter and photographer, with photos in New York's Museum of Modern Art and on the covers of some '60s records; and an avid art collector and arts supporter, even ferrying the equally eccentric alt-filmmaker Bruce Conner by private jet to be honored at CineVegas, a festival Hopper helped direct. Hopper cited as inspiration for "Easy Rider" Satyajit Ray and Louis Buñuel.
Hopper died on May 29, 2010, at 74, not bad for a man who spent "half his life running at the track," as was said of William Burroughs. He had a strong constitution. Arguably Hollywood's most notorious drug user, his habit reached three grams of cocaine a day, offset by thirty beers or Cuba libres, according to Peter Biskind in "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" (1998) - not to mention the weed. He finally gave up the booze and hard drugs in the 1980s but, true to hippie traditionalism, continued puffing the "boo," or "gauge," as they called it when he was a kid - up to $700 a week at the end, completely legal, of course, since California had medical marijuana by then and Hopper was dying from prostate cancer.
Hopper on the Set of Night Tide, 1960, a poetic suspense story in which a sailor meets a mermaid. Set in Venice, California, it is another example in his surprisingly large oeuvre of art films. photo: courtesy Associated Press
Hopper's bad boy rap is hardly exaggerated. He was such a pain in the arse, he was blacklisted from Hollywood after forcing director Henry Hathaway to do eighty takes on "From Hell To Texas" (1958) before taking direction. If he had been directing his younger self, Hopper told "Fresh Air"'s Terry Gross in 2007, he would have integrated his improvisation while also making him toe the line. Hopper advocated improv, which gave him many of "Easy Rider"'s laconic scenes. He wasn't accepted back into the film family until John Wayne, of all people, took pity on him - Hopper was the son-in-law of Wayne's friend, actress Margaret Sullivan - with a small role in "The Sons of Katie Elder." He also appeared in Wayne's "True Grit" (1969).
Hopper was intensely sensitive. After his friend James Dean died in 1955, he descended into a deep depression. After his follow up to "Easy Rider" - called "The Last Movie," ominously enough - bombed, he embarked on a 12-year bender. Nominally about stunt men staying on in Peru after a Hollywood film wrapped, "Last Movie" was Hopper's response to Jean-Luc Godard, replete with "Scene Missing" titles and a theater-of-the-absurd plot, not to mention off-screen orgies and coke insanity. "Last Movie" finished first at the Venice Film Festival, ironically, but was eviscerated by American critics and viewers, who were expecting another colorful road movie. Hopper descended into a drug-induced, paranoia-plagued inferno, replete with much carrying of guns and surrealistic activity, both inadvertent and straight-up performance art (notably a staged suicide, using a coffin and dynamite), and much alienation of friends, particularly his five wives. His marriage to Michelle Phillips, of the pop folk band The Mamas and the Papas, lasted for only one week.
Although CineSource's brief is Northern California, Hopper must be considered one of our wayward sons, and Venice, the Los Angeles beach town where he lived, one of our southern suburbs. Hopper's epic struggle with drugs, art and the search for redemption makes him the tragic hipster, despite or perhaps because of his late-life veer into Republicanism. Things didn't have to be so hard. We could have saved him. If he had just moved to Marin County, along with the other art filmmakers, and gotten weekly massages and cranio-sacral therapy, say, perhaps he could have found that sweet spot between good art and good life.
He did, in his own way, maintaining long friendships with other outsiders and outsizers, like Jack Nicholson, and many film and music figures. As the symbolic king of the hippie bikers, he was an automatic member of the Guggenhiem Motorcycle Club, which included Lauren Hutton, Jeremy Irons, Larry Fishburne, Keanu Reeves, and some IT billionaires, although he remarked on occasion that he didn't like biking that much.
Mostly he loved, collected and promoted art, and stuffed his enormous ball of emotions into small roles. Hopper had early promise as a leading man but became famous for his small roles, first in the '50s, when he appeared in two of James Dean's three movies, and then in the '90s, when he often stole the movie. Some years, he did almost a dozen films, since his policy was to never turn down work. He was also a prolific television and commercial actor - obligatory considering the four kids, five wives, and taste for fine art, not to mention the drugs.
Hopper never moved north because, most of all, he was addicted to Hollywood and the dream of injecting some of his artistic values. In "Easy," he employs experimental cutting, inserting a two quick flash forwards as you approach an edit, a bit like Godard's jump cutting in "Breathless"(1961). Neither caught on, but both were effective. It must have felt damn good when "Easy" took "First Picture" at Cannes and multiple Oscar nominations. It went on to earn almost $60 million, unbelievable for a budget of $350,000, and join "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" (both 1967) in starting the American indie film movement.
Hopper was determined to artify Hollywood (hence his harangue with Hathaway) even if it killed him - and it nearly did. According to the Rolling Stone obit, Hopper felt like a failure because he never played a really great part or made a really great movie, admitting, "I can't say it was anyone's fault but my own." Nevertheless, Hoppy, as Jack Nicholson called him, made some damn good flicks and had some epic roles.
I just watched "Easy Rider" again [first time at 13 at a drive-in in North Carolina, making the drive back to New York a tad spooky] and it still stands at the top of the "hippie oeuvre." The beginning is masterful, from the Spanish-only dialogue when copping the drugs, to their delivery to the dandy kingpin, played by Phil Spector, and then setting out across America. Despite the occasional "hippie speak," the film stands as a picaresque love letter to, and critique of, America - Fonda is emblazoned with an American flag, after all.
The film is a virtual anthropological survey, from the Anglo-latino farm family to the hippie commune to small town hicks to Mardi Gras, replete with many close-ups of the people on the road, as well as of the lush landscapes. Indeed, it reinvented the Western - Hopper is named Billy (as in the Kid), while Fonda is Wyatt (as in Earp). The cowboys are on bikes not horses but they reclaim the freedom for which America is supposed to stand, the discussion of which is the best-written dialogue in the flick - beautifully delivered by Nicholson.
Hopper scouted locations on his own cross country journey and incorporated what he experienced directly into the script. Evidently, this inspired some self-criticism because there is plenty of satirizing of hippies - astrology, UFOs, acting troupes and such - not the least the character played by Hopper himself, who is constantly being rejected, even at the commune.
The Mardi Gras-graveyard-acid trip is straight-up avant-garde filmmaking, shot in grainy 16mm, largely by Berkeley documentarian Les Blank, and punctuated with a moving moment of Fonda crying. The New Orleans whores are actually angels, who turn down the boys' blandishments of drugs and drink, and help ferry them across the forbidden mystical frontier. Fonda, the wistful romantic, and Hopper, the outcast from even the hippies, never get that deep, even in the end, but Nicholson, as the small town alcoholic lawyer, is a strong character, richly rendered. Although Nicholson had done small films for years, "Easy" was his first star turn. He soon went on to "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) and to become one of Hollywood's great leading men.
As with almost all great films, the production was plagued with great problems: Hopper fought with the first crew of indie filmmakers in New Orleans. They were jettisoned for a union crew after the studio deemed the scenes passable. He argued with Peter Fonda over everything - "He resisted but I insisted," Hopper said. Rip Torn was supposed to play Nicholson's part, but the Texan balked at Hopper's extreme redneck critique. They fought with knives - albeit only in Hopper's imagination, as Torn proved in a court of law when he won $450,000 a defamation of character suit (there were some fisticuffs, however). But most of all, Hopper duked it out with the film itself.
Editing "Easy," at Hopper's compound in Taos, where he eventually lived for 15 years, was an epic struggle of narratives and film theories as well as drugs, sex and delirium. After a year, he had only wrestled it down to an incomprehensible and uncommercial three-and-a-half hours. Henry Jaglom was brought in by the studio to chop it to a reasonably tight 94 minutes, leaving the scenes of a drug smuggling 'copter chase and the boys working a carnival on the cutting room floor. The edit credit went to Donn Cambern, naming Jaglom only as a consultant.
Hopper can be credited, however, with bottling the greased lightning of '60s iconography - motorcycles, buckskin, communes, naked in the hot springs, the quest for freedom - without excessive pandering or pretension. Music design by the Byrds' Roger McGuinn - who does a monster version of Dylan's "It's Alright Ma," right before the final apocalypse - and lensing by Hungarian cinematographer-supreme Laszlo Kovacs didn't hurt either.
After Hopper's twelve-year internal walkabout - and some external, including staggering through the streets of Cuernavaca, Mexico, stark naked - he entered rehab in 1983. He did some of his best work clean that year in Coppola's "Rumblefish," although he'd already "comeback" with his appearance in "Apocalypse Now" (1978) as the crazed photo-journalist who greets Martin Sheen and his commandos, including the young Larry Fishburne, as they motor into "The Horror" hideaway of Commander Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, Hopper's idol.
Hopper clinched his bona fides three years later in "Blue Velvet," after David Lynch - despite severe trepidations - he let him play the drug-crazed gang leader Frank. Hopper had lobbied Lynch incessantly, insisting over and over, crazed even: "I am Frank!"
Hopper, looking good at 70, in a toney LA condo where he curated famous artists for each floor. photo: courtesy Business Week
Another critically acclaimed achievement was directing "Colors" (1988), starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as cops in the bad barrios of LA. Hopper also starred in the applauded "Flashback" (1989), and then in "Speed" (1994), where he played a criminal mastermind, a role he locked down for the next fifteen years.
Ironically, Hopper honored John Wayne, not only for saving his career but by becoming a Republican and voting for Bush - twice - although he went Obama-nation in '08. He even put a white picket fence around his ramshackle multimillion-dollar Venice warehouse-home. Hopper must have creamed his jeans when a house by abstract architect Frank Gehry was built next door, the owner put it up for sale, and he was able to buy it - a perfect addition to his massive art collection, which ran from Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures to Roy Lichtensteins and Andy Warhols (Hopper bought an early "Campbell's Soup Can" for $75).
Estimated to be worth over $200 million, the art and buildings Hopper loved so much triggered a "King Lear"-like fight amongst his loved ones: the first three kids and the last wife, Victoria Duffy, six years younger than his eldest daughter Marin [as in the county, oddly enough]. In the end, the children turned against Duffy, mother to his youngest daughter Galen, who wasn't even able to attend her father's funeral because he was divorcing her mother when he died. Other old friends and associates were also excluded from the last big bash. To say he had intimacy problems and wasn't the greatest dad is to belabor the obvious, but he did invite his kids back and open up in the end.
Friends advised Hopper against collecting pop and avant art, as they advised against much of what he did, but he started in earnest, in the early '60s, after a fire destroyed his own extensive painterly work. He was already showing talent as a kid in Kansas when he was singled out at an art class by the American great Thomas Hart Benton. Hopper could do Impressionism and Photo-realism with equal facility, but decided to focus on acting, filmmaking and mass media.
Hopper studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg in New York in 1959, which is where he befriended Dean. Together, they journeyed west. Hopper was already Hollywood savvy, having moved to San Diego with his family when he was 13, following his father, who Hopper claimed was in the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA) - true or not, a possible source of his rebellion as well as his later-day Republicanism. Voted most likely to succeed by his high school class, he had already turned to acting, studying at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where he fell in with Hollywood/horror actor Vincent Price, whose passion for fine art influenced him deeply.
Hopper played an epileptic in his television debut on an episode in "Medic" in 1955, a role that seemed to set a tone. He went on to hundreds of shows, from "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" to "Petticoat Junction," "The Twilight Zone," and "Combat!" He also acted in many European films, notably Wim Wenders' "The American Friend" (1977), and received France's Order of Arts and Letters. His final feature role was a film presciently titled "Elegy" (2008).
Hopper was a great talent but emblematic of the double-edged sword of freedom and art. He seems to foresee that in "Easy," after the acid trip, when Fonda says, "We blew it." Despite being a flawed promethean who was singed by trying to steal media's fire, Hopper led a long -it's amazing he never killed anyone or himself, with all that gun-toting, rich, and artistically imbued life. Yes, he was tortured and his demons will probably continue to haunt his children. But music, art and movies do tame the wild beast, as he irrefutably proved. "The paintings are your friends," he explained to the museum-intimidated Larry Fishburne.
We must reach for the stars, Hopper's life and work seem to say. The trick is to take the Buddha's middle path, and slowly work your way up, which Hopper might have learned through some yoga lessons in Berkeley, or something. But, either way, we have to keep reaching, without losing our lust for life and its all too fleeting beauty, a problem that can beset those bored by too-beautiful California. That trick we can learn from Hopper through his art.
Posted on Aug 13, 2010 - 01:23 PM