Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

I'm a little late in a post praising the recently deceased Dennis Hopper but wanted to say a few words about his acting style, photography and mention a few of his must-see films. Hopper was most known as an actor but he was a serious and avid photographer as well. His black and white photographs from the 1960s are intimate works by an obvious insider chronicling the counter-culture movement and include many prominent artists, musicians and actors from the era.

Hopper as an actor was one of those wild man actors where his "real" personality onscreen was as visible as the role he was playing. Hopper loved to chew up everything and everyone in a scene. Sometimes this worked, other times it didn't. Hopper has frankly been in a lot of junk over the years but when clicking, Hopper unleashed a series of strange, eccentric characters that are extremely memorable. It's hard to forget a classic Hopper performance in his best films.

Here are a selection of Hopper roles that need to be seen.

Easy Rider. While I don't particularly care for this seminal counter-culture film from 1969, it's connected to Hopper more than any other film he was in due to his involvement in the script and as director. The film, about a couple of biker hippies going on a road trip full of chemicals and stream of conscious conversations has not aged well at all. It did strike a chord with the youth upon its release that made it a beloved picture in the late '60s and '70s. Overtly anti-authoritarian and mildly ridiculous throughout, Easy Rider is a good place to start for a Hopper festival program.

Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola's manic 1979 Vietnam War epic had a lot of craziness attached to it so it makes complete sense that Dennis Hopper was in the cast. There were heart attacks, jungle typhoons, nervous breakdowns, Marlon Brando's giant ego (and shaved skull) and Hopper as a whacked out of his mind photojournalist. Come on, if you haven't already seen this one, get on the ball as this is quintessential American filmmaking.

1986 was THE year for Hopper as an actor: River's Edge, Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. Those first two are classic Hopper "out-there" roles but it was his turn as the drunken father who loves basketball in Hoosiers that really showed Hopper's range at tapping into damaged figures. His role as Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet might be Hopper's most bizarre and deranged character ever. If only he was breathing in helium as Lynch originally intended! And in River's Edge, he provides more scary and weird character support for a host of young actors (Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover and Ione Skye) in a frightening film about the loss of morality among American youth.

Speed. In 1994 Hopper leant his over-the-top personality to a box-office action hit in Jan de Bont's mass transportation bus with explosives film Speed. Hopper re-teams with Reeves (an incredibly different film than River's Edge) and delivers a performance that offers up so much psychotic charisma you almost start rooting for his character to just blow the damn bus up. Especially since Speed broke Sandra Bullock as a star. If he could have killed her off early on in the movie we wouldn't have to endure one of the most annoying stars in Hollywood. That's off topic though.

That's just a few of the good moments in Hopper's career and there were others. Even in some of his lowlights such as Waterworld or Space Truckers, Hopper is so wild and full of the quality of "Hopper" that his performance is entertaining, even if the film is a complete disaster.

***Image #1 is a Dennis Hopper self-portrait taken in 1962***
***Image #2 is a 1964 photograph by Hopper with Bruce Conner, Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Marshall***

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