Hopping Mad: Just who was the ”real” Dennis Hopper?

May 17th is Dennis Hopper’s birthday, if he was still alive today (he passed away in 2010) he would be 82, but it was a surprise to many that he managed to make in out of the 1970s let alone into his seventies. The name Dennis Hopper will forever be cemented to the New Hollywood movement, what with the 1969 film Easy Rider. Hopper always claimed it was his masterpiece, and that he was the genius behind it all. In an interview with Lynn Barber for the Observer,  Hopper was very vocal that he wrote every last word in the Easy Rider’s script, claiming that  ”Terry Southern never wrote one fucking word of Easy Rider. Only the title Easy Rider came from him. He broke his hip; he couldn’t write. I used his office and I dictated the whole fucking thing in 10 days.” When Barber asked about Hopper’s co-star Peter Fonda and whether he made some contribution. Hopper replied back with ”He did. He had a name. He had a credit card. And he loved motorcycles…But Jack Nicholson was the one who put the deal together, he went in and told them there was no way they could lose money on a motorbike picture.”

It was Hopper’s arrogance and narcissism which always left him an outsider in Hollywood, he was truly the rebel without a cause. Hopper did in fact star in Rebel Without a Cause alongside James Dean, who he always idolized. It was Dean’s commitment to the art of acting that influenced Hopper and made him difficult to control. This lack of obedience was something that often caused friction throughout his career and often saw him written off as impossible to work with.

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Hopper was regarded by many as one of the true “enfants terribles” of Hollywood. Born on May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, to Marjorie Mae (Davis) and James Millard Hopper, the young Dennis Hopper expressed interest in acting from a young age and first appeared in several television shows throughout the 1950s. Hopper portrayed a young Napoléon Bonaparte in The Story of Mankind (1957) and regularly appeared on-screen throughout the 1960s, often as a villain in westerns such as True Grit (1969) and Hang ‘Em High (1968), even in the early days of his career, casting directors could see this deranged and unhinged character within his performance.

It was the low-budget Easy Rider (1969), starring Fonda, Hopper and a young Jack Nicholson which changed everything. The film was a phenomenal box-office success, appealing to the anti-establishment youth culture of the times. It changed the Hollywood landscape almost overnight and everyone was eager to jump onto the anti-establishment bandwagon, especially the studios who discovered big bucks could be made from this! It was journalist Ann Hornaday who summed up Easy Rider as ”the cinematic symbol of the 1960s, a celluloid anthem to freedom, macho bravado and anti-establishment rebellion”

However, Hopper’s next directorial effort, The Last Movie (1971), was a critical and financial failure, and he has admitted that during the 1970s he was seriously abusing various substances, both legal and illegal, which led to a downturn in the quality of his work. He appeared in a sparse collection of European-produced films over the next eight years, before cropping up in a memorable performance as a pot-smoking photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979). Off screen, Hopper’s love life was spiralling out of control, in fact his private life was just as variable as his professional one. He married five times and fathered four children. His marriage to his second wife, Michelle Phillips, a singer in the group The Mamas and the Papas, lasted just eight days in 1970.

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The 1980s saw a renaissance of interest by Hollywood in the talents of Dennis Hopper and exorcising the demons of drugs and alcohol via a rehabilitation program meant a return to invigorating and provoking performances. He starred in Rumble Fish (1983),  The Osterman Weekend (1983) but perhaps his most memorable role was as the foul-mouthed Frank Booth in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet (1986) which features the most disturbing ”rape” scene I have ever seen in a film, where Hopper’s Frank declares ”Baby wants to fuck! Baby wants to fuck Blue Velvet!”

Hopper returned to film direction in the late 1980s and was at the helm of the controversial gang film Colors (1988), which was well received by both critics and audiences. However he spent most of the 90s in front of the cameras for roles in Super Mario Bros. (1993),  True Romance (1993),  Speed (1994) and my personal favourite from my childhood, Waterworld (1995). Hopper continued to remain busy through the 1990s and into 2000s with performances in The Night We Called It a Day (2003), The Keeper (2004) and Land of the Dead (2005).

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Hopper’s career spanned more than five decades and 100 films, and in the end it wasn’t drugs or drink that killed him, but prostate cancer. He passed away at his home in Venice, California, at the age of 74, after leading a life that many of us could hardly imagine, let alone live through. Regardless of whenever you are a fan of his work, or consider him to be a vicious, violent, junkie, misogynist, we can’t undermine just how significant his work was, and how it changed the landscape of Hollywood forever. We might never really know the ”real” Dennis Hopper, but he has left behind so many memorable performances and an impact on cinema.

Do you have a favourite performance by Dennis Hopper? Let us know in the comments or @Filmotomy or @thefilmbee on Twitter.

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