Dennis Hopper, 1936 2010

Dennis Hopper – actor, director, painter, counterculture icon – has lost his battle with prostate cancer. Sadly, this doesn’t come as a surprise anyone who saw him accepting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year knew things weren’t going well.

The last time I saw Hopper was at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. He was playing Death in a terrible Wim Wenders movie called Palermo Shooting. Actually, I saw him again a couple of days after that, when he appeared to present an award at the festival’s closing gala, but I remember him better as Death.

Showing up at the end of Wenders’s long, incomprehensible Europudding to deliver a long, incomprehensible monologue about being a “service provider” to humanity, Hopper found a new spin on an archetypal character his appearance is just about the only reason to see the movie, in fact. The audience of journalists and critics perked up the moment Hopper revealed himself on-screen – partly out of nostalgia for his great collaboration with Wenders in 1977’s The American Friend, but mostly as an expression of love for the guy.

Hopper in Palermo Shooting

Dennis Hopper proved that there were second acts in American cinema. Actually, by the time he roared back into the public eye in 1986 with back-to-back supporting turns in River’s Edge, Hoosiers and Blue Velvet, Hopper had already reinvented himself once before, when he directed and co-starred in Easy Rider and shifted from nondescript studio contract player to Voice Of A Generation (and Discoverer Of Jack Nicholson).

Before Easy Rider, Hopper was probably best known for his role as fourth banana to James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause, or as third banana to Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and John Wayne in Hang ‘Em High, Cool Hand Luke and True Grit, respectively. Just a working actor.

After Easy Rider, he was a self-destructive juggernaut, the director who went from a massive success to squandering millions on the arty incoherence of The Last Movie, which was promptly buried by its studio. That disaster left Hopper scrambling for acting jobs to feed his various demons. By the time Francis Ford Coppola cast him in Apocalypse Now, his frenetic acting style was verging on self-parody. He was undeniably great in the role, though.

Hopper worked sporadically for the next few years – reuniting with Coppola on Rumble Fish, working with Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman on The Osterman Weekend and O.C. And Stiggs, and tweaking his excitable persona in disposable genre pictures like My Science Project and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. But then he hit that trifecta of serious indies – matching intensities with Crispin Glover and Daniel Roebuck in River’s Edge, redeeming himself as Gene Hackman’s alcoholic assistant in Hoosiers, and dominating David Lynch’s Blue Velvet with a jaw-dropping turn as the monster men call Frank Booth – and all was forgiven.

If Dennis Hopper has to be remembered for just one movie, it’s likely to be Blue Velvet. Frank Booth is probably the purest expression of Lynch’s brand of cinematic psychosis – a raging id in a well-tailored suit who uses social niceties as a means to get his victims to let down their guard – and Hopper holds nothing back.

Blue Velvet allowed Hopper to go back to being a working actor, but on his own terms. He even got back into directing, though the pictures – Colors, The Hot Spot, Chasers – weren’t exactly world-beaters. And if he made a lot of forgettable movies – nobody remembers Space Truckers, and with good reason – he also made some memorable ones.

If you want to remember him this weekend, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Sony put out an excellent special edition of Easy Rider a few years back, and Hopper’s audio commentary is terrific. His two scenes in True Romance are the highlight of that film – a master class in understated character acting. Apocalypse Now? Still pretty fantastic, especially if you follow it with its companion documentary Hearts Of Darkness.

Or you could dig a little deeper and revisit his complex work as a racist in the 1991 cable movie Paris Trout … or his giddy liberation as King Koopa in the 1993 bomb Super Mario Bros. … or his wily appearance as an empty-suit Democratic presidential candidate in 2008’s Swing Vote.

Yeah, I mentioned Super Mario Bros. Hopper’d be cool with it, I think. There’s a silly joy in that performance that makes me smile – Hopper knows the movie makes no sense, but he’s being paid well enough to keep him in painting supplies for a couple of years, and there’s no pressure. He can just goof around, and make a real movie later.

There are worse legacies, surely. [rssbreak]

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