Actor-writer-director-photographer-hellion Dennis Hopper has passed away at the age of seventy-four. He made his big-screen debut In Nicholas Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, incited a cinematic revolution with EASY RIDER, burned out, rose from the ashes, and generally kicked life's ass until his body gave out.
Where do you start with a man like Dennis Hopper?
His influence on American movie culture cannot be overstated: with EASY RIDER, he exploded conventional notions of what kinds of films audiences will pay to see. The picture connected with young people at a time when they were beginning to expand their minds with a variety of substances, and its success was so baffling to the studios that they essentially threw their hands up and let a new generation of directors do their thing.
But there was no replicating EASY RIDER. No film - fiction or documentary - has more perfectly captured the tenor of its time; it's a visceral, pissed-off reaction to a fractious and confused moment in American history. And it was written, shot and edited to appeal to a specific type of viewer - one that would adjust their perspective accordingly pre-film, and let the peculiar editorial rhythms carry them along. It's a different experience every time, but, to my mind at least, it's always speaking specifically to 1969 and the possibility of a groovy new world.
Then the '70s happened.
Hopper's second directorial effort was THE LAST MOVIE, an utter disaster of a picture that, at the time, made EASY RIDER look like more of a random mistake than a work of untamed genius (it's a mess, but impossible to dismiss). As a filmmaker, Hopper appeared to be finished. With his drug use out of control, this was the wilderness period - and the derangement of this era is on full, frightening display in Philippe Mora's MAD DOG MORGAN, in which Hopper's madness seems to overwhelm that of the outlaw he's playing. He was equally errant in Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW. And yet Hopper had it in him to pull off a comparatively quiet and nuanced performance as Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders's 1977 triumph, THE AMERICAN FRIEND; whatever was going on in his life while he shot this movie (and he was reportedly far from well-behaved on set), it's not really evident on screen.
Hopper returned to directing in 1980 with OUT OF THE BLUE, which at least got him back in the good graces of film critics (I've only seen it once, and, having read a couple of fascinating reviews today, feel the need to revisit it immediately). But it wasn't until his magical 1986 - when he delivered four of his greatest performances in BLUE VELVET, RIVER'S EDGE, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 and HOOSIERS (for which he was received his first and only Best Supporting Actor nomination) - that Hollywood finally forgave his past transgressions. From this point forward, Hopper the actor was deluged with offers, and it feels like he took most of them. Hopper also briefly reignited his filmmaking career when COLORS became a surprise box office hit in 1988, but that momentum ground to a halt when THE HOT SPOT failed to catch on critically or commercially (though it later found a hormonally-charged following on cable). His last feature was 1994's CHASERS, which felt like work.
And so the rest of his film career was dedicated to acting, and while he took many roles in many less-than-stellar movies, there was no shortage of classic Hopper performances. He was deliciously menacing in RED ROCK WEST, entertainingly unhinged in SPEED and WATERWORLD, and hugely sympathetic in his ballsy "Sicilian" showdown with Christopher Walken in TRUE ROMANCE. He even lampooned his "crazy" persona in a series of Nike ads. Hopper was having fun, and we were relieved that he was away from the brink - even though teetering over it was what made him a legend.
And so Dennis Hopper has earned his rest. Thanks for the last forty-one years of cinema, man. Ride easy.