Monday, May 31, 2010
"Somewhere in my strange career, someone has liked something." - Dennis Hopper
Sadly, iconic actor/director Dennis Hopper lost his battle with prostate cancer Saturday morning. Every obituary will understandably point to his breakthrough milestone EASY RIDER (1969), but I'm sure most people who would read this blog know he had a ginormous crazy career spanning almost 6 decades.
Impressively IMDb lists over 200 film and television appearances in nearly every genre. In 1986 alone he appeared in HOOSIERS, BLUE VELVET, RIVER'S EDGE, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and from the looks of it that was a typical year for the man as he worked constantly until his illness got the best of him - 6 movies in 2008, 26 episodes of Crash 2008-09, and a couple of upcoming projects (THE LAST FILM FESTIVAL, ALPHA AND OMEGA) set for later this year. A career so vast is difficult to cherry pick from, especially since he had so many bit parts in major movies - his roles in friend James Dean's movies REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) for example - and also because a few films he directed are unavailable on DVD these days - THE LAST MOVIE (1971) and OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). That said these are my picks for:
10 Essential (And Available) Dennis Hopper Performances
1. EASY RIDER (Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)
When I said every obit would highlight this as Hopper's most acclaimed achievement I wasn't saying I wouldn't also. It's inescapable as a classic counterculture event of a movie that helped kick off the "New Hollywood" movement of the late '60s/early '70s. It also solidified the long-haired mustached hippie wiseacre persona that Hopper would return to a number of times throughout his acting career.
Concerning a couple of drug dealers (Hopper and Peter Fonda) who make a huge score and set out on their motorcycles to go, in the words of the film's tagline, "looking for America", EASY RIDER is very dated with clumsy artistic cuts, redneck stereotypes, and a cringe-inducing psychedelic trip sequence, but Hopper's glee while riding through Monument Valley out over the sunset on his chopper is infectious. In those moments, which were innovative in their use of rock song scoring, the film's theme of freedom lets its freak flag fly the highest.
2. BLUE VELVET (Dir. David Lynch, 1986)
Frank Booth, a Nitrous Oxide inhaling sexual deviant, was considered a comeback role for Hopper who had gone through more than one wilderness period in the years since EASY RIDER and the failure of its follow-up THE LAST MOVIE. Booth was scary and a bit funny at the same time; the manner in which he menaces nice boy Kyle MacLachlan being a twisted yet beautiful example: "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" The part won Hopper a few Critics' Association awards and in 2008 was voted #54 in Premiere Magazine's list of "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time."
3. APOCALYPSE NOW (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) Credited as "Photojournalist" and only given a small amount of screen-time in the final reel, Hopper is one of the most memorable elements of Coppola's seminal sprawling Vietnam epic. His cryptic speeches like this one still resonate 30 years later: "This is dialectics. It's very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space, you can't go out in space without, like, you know, with fractions - what are you gonna land on, one quarter, three eighths - what are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus or something? That's dialectic physics, okay? Dialectic logic is there's only love or hate, you either love somebody or you hate them." Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz then angrily hurls a book at Hopper in a moment that doesn't feel scripted.
4. HOOSIERS (Dir. David Anspaugh, 1986) As I mentioned earlier, 1986 was a banner year for Hopper. His roles in BLUE VELVET, RIVER'S EDGE, and this Oscar nominated turn as the basketball supporting town drunk had him unstoppably on the comeback trail. It's a folksy formulaic sports film about underdogs triumphing against all odds, but Hopper's gutsy edge is no small part of the film's abundant charms.
5. TRUE ROMANCE (Dir. Tony Scott, 1993)
Another small but juicy part as the ex cop father of Christian Slater who has a scene stealing showdown with mobster Christopher Walken. You can watch the scene, scripted by Quentin Tarantino, in all its almost 10 minute glory entitled "Sicilians" here on YouTube.
6. CARRIED AWAY (Dir. Bruno Barreto, 1996) It's a LOLITA-ish tale of forbidden love in which timeworn clichés litter the landscape, but Hopper's layered performance as a bored small town schoolteacher who has an extended fling with one of his students (Amy Locane) is one of his finest. His measured thoughtful presence comes through in scene after scene facing off with Locane, Amy Irving, Hal Holbrook, and Gary Busey. Maybe not an overlooked gem, but Hopper's solid work makes it well worth watching. Be warned though, it may contain more Hopper than you want to see - mind you, I'm talking full frontal nudity.
7. RIVER'S EDGE (Dir. Tim Hunter, 1986)
Another from 1986, this harrowing teen drama had Hopper as Feck, a drug-dealing one-legged hermit who, like many of his characters, hijacks the movie from its stars every time he appears. For Hopper though, it wasn't hard with lines like: "I killed a girl, it was no accident. Put a gun to the back of her head and blew her brains right out the front. I was in love."
8. FLASHBACK (Dir. Franco Amurri, 1990) Some may scoff at Hopper's self mocking role in a fairly lightweight comedy being given a spot on this list, but I've had a soft spot in my heart for his work here since I saw the film in the theaters 20 years ago. As a once famous aging hippie radical who turns the tables on a Federal Agent played by Keifer Sutherland, Hopper seems to be having a lot of fun with the familiar material that heavily references EASY RIDER.
The pair would square off a decade later on the popular TV series 24 with Sutherland playing a very different kind of FBI agent and Hopper as a Ukrainian mastermind behind the deadly scenes of season 1. Flashing back to FLASHBACK - Hopper tells Sutherland that: "The 90's are going to make the '60s look like the '50s." Of course, that didn't turn out to be the case, but as an idealistic art student at a theater in Atlanta back in 1990 I remember believing, or at least wishing, it would be. Watch the trailer here.
9. The Twilight Zone - "He's Alive" (Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1963) In an hour long episode of the classic sci fi/fantasy anthology that isn't rerun as much as the half hour ones, Hopper plays a street corner neo Nazi who starts to get winning advice from a mysterious stranger in the shadows. We can guess a long time before the reveal (one of the main minuses of the hour long format) that this stranger is Hitler, but it still displays that the young Hopper had talent to burn. And burn it up he did. Here's a 10 minute edit of the episode somebody made and put up on YouTube.
10. SPEED (Dir. Jan de Bont, 1994) I figured this list wouldn't be complete without one of Hopper's late period makeover roles as a mainstream action movie villain. As the evil extortionist that rigs a bus to explode if it drops below 50 MPH, Hopper's scenery chewing is a thing of unhinged bug-eyed beauty. He played very similar bad guy roles in SUPER MARIO BROS. and WATERWORLD, but SPEED wins out simply because a lot more people have seen it. Hardly a definitive list, but a solid one that I stand by. Even with his large filmography that will take a lifetime to catch up with, Hopper will be sorely missed.
R.I.P. Dennis Hopper.