Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?" A tribute to Dennis Hopper

That cowboy quote at the top is said by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders' 1977 film The American Friend, in which Hopper gave one of his best performances.

The death of Dennis Hopper last Saturday at the age of 74, really marked the end of an era in American cinema and Hollywood. His career began towards the end of the studio system in Hollywood when actors were contracted to studios. Hopper entered the movie business as a diminutive and sad faced actor whose presence showed that more was brewing below the surface. When he wore a cowboy hat it wasn't necessarily because he was a clear cut hero or good guy, but a rebel emcompassing all of America and it's confused dreams and nightmares. Many consider his directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969) as a western on motorcycles. Two outlaws roaming the country desiring freedom only to be crushed by the worst the nation had to offer.

Hopper started out in supporting roles alongside actors such as James Dean, sharing the screen with him in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) and John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and even Clint Eastwood in a bizarre cameo as a crazed prisoner in Hang Em' High (1968) He did a substantial amount of television in the 1950s and 60s, appearing on shows like The Rifleman, Naked City, The Twilight Zone, Petticoat Junction, Bonanza and Gunsmoke to name only a few. In addition to this, appearances in low budget B-movies like Roger Corman's LSD expose The Trip and a precursor to Easy Rider, the biker movie The Glory Stompers.

When the golden age of Hollywood came to an end with an uncertain future, Hopper helped define what was next for Hollywood and what the counterculture represented with Easy Rider. He played "Billy" the long haired, free wheeling, pot smoking dude who was the talkative counterpart to Peter Fonda's quiet and introspective Wyatt, a.k.a. "Captain America"

Hopper's directorial career after the critical and financial success of Easy Rider was scattershot. His second film, The Last Movie (1971) was made in a mire of drugs and alcohol while in the age where artists, however far reaching and bizarre, seemed to have free reign in Hollywood, when studio executives were confused as to what made for a successful film. The Last Movie, the story of a film crew in a Peruvian village, was a major flop and hurt Hopper's career. His years of drug and alcohol abuse along with his difficult behavior are exhaustively recounted in many books and documentaries (such as the excellent doc on 70s cinema, A Decade Under The Influence)

He wouldn't direct again until 1980 when he replaced the director of the Canadian drama Out Of The Blue, a film he was starring in, as the convict father of a rebellious teen. After hitting rock bottom and nearly death in the mid 1980s, he quit drugs and saw his career bounce back with great character roles such as the unpredicatable psychotic Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and an alcoholic assistant basketball coach in Hoosiers (1986) which won him an Oscar nomination.

The latter part of his career was as a dependable and hardworking even idiosyncratic character actor. He was never boring to watch, even in a bad movie such as the 2001 direct to video stinker L.A.P.D. To Protect and Serve in which he played an angry police chief. He continued to direct as well, films as varied as Colors (1988) The Hot Spot (1990) and Chasers (1994). He earned his title as American artist when he began to paint, sculpt and take photographs. He wasn't just a man behind and in front of the movie camera, he wore several different hats.

One of the most memorable moments in Hopper's career is a small, but important part in Tony Scott's violent comic book come to life True Romance (1993) scripted by Quentin Tarantino (the first screenplay he wrote) Hopper's big scene, playing Christian Slater's police officer father, being confronted by a fierce mobster (Christopher Walken, also virtuoso in this scene) is most likely studied and mimicked in acting classes. What better way to pay tribute to a cinematic icon than to embed this funny, tense and masterful scene.

Footnote: Please check out Matt Zoller's video essay Dennis Hopper: The Middle Word in Life, an excellent collage of clips from Hopper's 50+ year career. The footage says more about him than anyone else could: