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Motorcycle emptiness: Dennis Hopper, RIP

June 2, 2010

Cool runnings: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda ride their hogs into history in Easy Rider

He was a maverick, a one-off, a seemingly indestructible hell-raiser, but on Saturday he proved to be just as fallible as everyone else. Dennis Hopper, an iconic figure who co-created a classic slice of counter-culture cinema and continued to cut his self-styled swathe through Hollywood for a further four decades has died from prostate cancer, aged 74.

He was born on May 17 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, USA, his father having served in the US Government’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Growing up in San Diego, the young Dennis developed an interest in acting and studied at the Old Globe Theatre, then, as a young man, moved to New York City and enrolled at the Actors Studio under the legendary Lee Strasbourg, whom he studied under for five years. While there he befriended British actor Vincent Price, whose interest in art rubbed off on Hopper too.

His acting career took off in the ’50s with appearances in TV dramas – among them Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone – and he successfully moved into film, appearing most notably in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Giant (1956), Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957), The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Hang ‘Em High (1968) and True Grit (1969). Even at this early stage of this career, he had already developed a reputation for being difficult and, in later years, would credit John Wayne for revitilising his career by ensuring he was cast in The Sons Of Katie Elder owing to his mother-in-law being a friend of the Hollywood giant.

In 1967, Hopper starred in cult film The Trip. Directed by low-budget filmmaker supremo Roger Corman, the  lead role was taken by Peter Fonda – son of Henry and brother of Jane – and it was written by relative unknown Jack Nicholson. Featuring a hallucinogenic sequence (hence its title), the movie made great use of psychedelic effects; this and its subject matter and tone made it something of a precursor for what would come next for Hopper. It was, of course, Easy Rider.

Co-scripted by Hopper, Fonda and legendary ’60s writer Terry Southern, and directed by Hopper and produced by Fonda, the production was beset by disagreements between the latter two, but somehow they managed to make a film that had a staggering effect on moviegoers of the time and is rightly considered an all-time classic and an era-defining piece of US and Western culture. Its disenfanchised, confusing and ultimately undefined representation of American youth rang a chord with – and rang true about – a generation that was unhappy with the Vietnam War, experimenting with drugs and looking for something more than their country seemed to be offering them. The two lead characters – played by Hopper and Fonda – go looking for America, but in the end find nothing.

The film was also notable for giving Nicholson his big break, as he played a disillusioned lawyer who shares pot with the two protagonists around a campfire (a scene in which the three actors famously smoked real marijuana) and travels with them someway. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for his acting; Hopper, meanwhile was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, along with Fonda and Southern, and was nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or award for his direction.

Hopper followed up Easy Rider by making The Last Movie, in which he starred alongside Fonda again. Released in 1971, the film won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, but its heavily existential plot proved too much for audiences and it bombed at the box-office. This perceived failure helped bring about an exile from Hollywood, which was aided by Hopper’s growing drug addiction problems. Around this time too he divorced his first wife, actress Brooke Hayward, and married Michelle Phillips, singer with the folk-rock group The Mamas And The Papas. It was not a successful second marriage – lasting only nine days, as it did.

By the end of the ’70s, Hopper’s film career hadn’t recovered, even though he’d reminded the filmgoing public of his charismatic, individual presence by playing the manic, perhaps insane, ‘American Photojournalist’ in Francis Ford Coppola’s outstanding comment on the Vietnam War Apocalypse Now (1979). Indeed, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind alleges that during this period Hopper was consuming up to three grams of cocaine and 30 beers, as well as marijuana and Cuba Libre cigars, everyday. He even staged a truly surreal stunt – supposedly an effort at performance art – that saw him lie in a coffin hooked up to dynamite, which was followed by him disappearing into the Mexican desert while on a bender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this episode led to him entering drug rehabilitation. Nonetheless, at this time he also managed to turn in well-recieved performances in Coppola’s gritty urban drama Rumble Fish (1983)  and Sam Peckinpah’s thriller The Osterman Weekend (1983).

Into the heart of darkness: Hopper with Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now – the former claimed making this film (difficult and traumatic for many) was one of the great experiences of his life

It was thanks to eccentric genius or bizarro (depending on your viewpoint) director David Lynch, though, that Hopper’s career finally turned around, as the former cast him in the dark psychological thriller Blue Velvet (1986), opposite Isabella Rosselini and Kyle Maclachan. Hopper played the mentally unhinged Frank Booth, whose gas-mask wearing, unabated swearing and generally frightening demeanour made for an unforgettable, if disturbing, cinematic creation. A highly acclaimed performance, he followed it up with an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Hoosiers (1987), a basketball drama starring Gene Hackman, and his career turnaround seemed complete. Indeed, he then directed the noted police drama Colors (1988), starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

In the ’90s, Hopper made hay out of playing colourful cartoonish villains in high-profile action and adventure movies, first the ill-conceived Super Mario Brothers (1993), then the hugely popular Speed (1994) and finally the notorious, but ultimately successful, Waterworld (1995). Then in the ’00s he memorably played villain Victor Drazen in the first season of hit espionage TV drama 24. His final film was 2008’s Elegy, in which he starred opposite Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and former Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 26 this year.

Less well known about Hopper is that his interest in art saw him dabble in painting, poetry writing and photography. His efforts at the latter saw him establish himself as a respected photographer; in fact, his work included the cover art for the Ike and Tina Turner single River Deep, Mountain High, released in 1966. Also, at one stage in the ’60s, he owned an early print of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans – he’d bought it for just $75.

In an ironic twist, the once counter-culture outsider publically supported the Republican Party in his later years, donating money to the Republican National Committee. In spite of this, he supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election, apparently owing to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as running-mate. Just goes to show then that, even prety much at the end, the five-times-married, rebellious anti-hero of Hollywood truly was as unpredictably non-conformist as he ever was. As Easy Rider’s Billy said: “What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about”…

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