I’ve been kinda sitting on my hands about this. I mean, far more eloquent and informed writers and sources have draft eulogies to the man. And movie stars pass away all the time, yet I’ve never paused to acknowledge them here. I don’t know, I guess I should probably write something, if only for my own reflection in years to come. This isn’t a well-informed article. These are just my memories and associations of Dennise Hopper.
I’m young. I wasn’t born when Hopper was doing the bulk of his not-too-shaby work. Of course, in the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of catching Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now. This was iconic Hopper, a man of his time and place. The man who took great pride in being one of the first in California to own an Andy Warhol piece. This was a man with interesting and progressive (and sometimes confrontational) ideas – the version of himself he would parody during Flashback, a cheap piece of drivel produced during one of his many periods in the wilderness.
There’s a tendency to look back over an actor’s work after their passing and declare each performance a masterstroke or a work of genius. We fear we may somehow be unkind to their memory by suggesting that they had their less than perfect days. Sometimes we ignore them. I can imagine a lot of people ignoring a lot of Hopper films, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Waterworld or Super Mario Brothers. The alternative is to suggest that Hopper was the best the thing about these films, a veteran actor slumming it to pay the bills or due to some inscrutible artistic desire beyond our understanding. Neither approach is really fair.
It is true that Hopper was the best thing about many of those films, but that is little comfort to anyone trapped watching them – his performances are usually entertaining (in any number of ways – you were never ambivalent about his role). And to state that he was the best thing in any number of trashy, waste-of-time diversions ignores the fact that he was also the best thing (or among the best things) in any number of stone cold classics.
I first encountered Hopper flicking through channels one night. A nineties action movie was on, this movie about a bus that had to SPEED around a city, keeping its SPEED over fifty, and if its SPEED dropped, it would explode! I think it was called “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down”. Of course, it was Speed. The good one. I remember watching it and thinking, “this is really good… but I wish they’d show us more of that psychopath”. Hopper was great as the villain – though I should confess I’ve always had a thing for over-the-top, scenery-chewing villainry. To this day, phrases like “Pop quiz, hotshot!” and “Poor people are crazy, Jack – I’m eccentric!” have entered my personal lexicon. You’d be surprised how often you use them, especially if you know a guy called Jack.
Speed isn’t classic Hopper. It isn’t a movie that will be vastly important to biographers or film historians. It was, however, my first exposure to the actor. It was one of those moments where my eleven-year-old self noted the name next to a character in a credit and made a mental note to keep an eye out for that guy in future.
And so I was guided to films like Blue Velvet and Red Rock West, both recommended by my teenage film bible, The RTE Guide. Both were – as with so many classics – relegated to the midnight hours on godforsaken channels, punctuated with seedy sex line adverts. It was a trashy, almost creepy vibe which suited them, to be honest. It was there that I began to get a sense that I knew the actor – as an actor, rather than a pantomime performer. Hopper was one of those old school talents who wasn’t afraid to swing for the fences and to take chances with his performances. I remember reading years later that he lobbied David Lynch for the part of sadist Frank, claiming that he was Frank. That shocked me then, perhaps as much as it saddened me now.
Of course, the classic performances came later, as I soaked in the greats cinema. I came to recognise what a fantastic young actor he had been in the seventies, and everything seemed to be placed in context. I’ve found that Hopper is a memorable actor. Unlike the slew of famous and soon-to-be-famous supporting performers in Apocalypse Now, you never omit Hopper’s name from any cast summary.
I’ll leave the grand philosophising and eulogising to better men. I don’t know if the Hopper who came out in support of Reagan and Bush and starred as an esteemed right-wing judge in the poorly-considered An American Carol is an afront to the legacy of the carefree liberal of times past, or whether the image of Hopper overtaking his Easy Rider persona for a Ford advertisement is a fitting metaphor for his later career path. These are questions that should be asked to those who might dare hazard an answer. I cannot.
I can only speak to my own small experience of his talents. And for me, the defining Dennis Hopper moment occurs in the wonderful ensemble film True Romance. Directed by Tony Scott, it can’t help but give off the vibe of a Tarantino film (not surprising since he wrote it). It features an absolutely astounding cast. However, my favourite scene from the movie features Dennis Hopper as a down-on-his-luck father attempting to protect his son from some very bad men, led by Christopher Walken. As the father is brutally tortured, the two men share a brief conversation about nothing in particular that ends with… well, you should watch it yourself. Parental advisory.
It’s an astounding scene and one that stayed with me as perhaps the best of the movie. I must watch it this weekend. And, I think when all is said and done, this will be how I remember Dennis Hopper.
May he rest in peace.