Local Boy Makes Good, Goes Bad, Makes Good Again
By David Elliott, Matthew Lickona
Oct. 20, 2010
Of course, he didn't stay here. Most likely, you wouldn't either, not
if you were young and ambitious and living a two-hour drive up the
freeway to get to Hollywood. Not if you'd grown up mostly fatherless
on your grandparents' farm outside Dodge City, Kansas, cherishing
your Saturday visits to the movie house and the glimpses they
provided of a world more magical than your own.
Most likely, if you had just finished four years of high school and
had a note of introduction from an actress like Dorothy Maguire,
you'd hightail it out of San Diego, just the way Dennis Hopper did.
Even if he didn't stay, he started here. He attended Helix High from
1950 to '54, got himself voted most likely to succeed. And he began
acting here slipping under the shadow of Dorothy Maguire's wing at
the La Jolla Playhouse for The Postman Always Rings Twice, then
moving on to Shakespeare at the Old Globe. So, in our small way, we
get to claim him.
Just now, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is finishing up
a major exhibition of Hopper's paintings and photography. But in June
and July, we had our own tribute to the man, a collection of
Hopperbilia spread across two walls of the Edgeware Gallery in
Kensington. Sectioned-up photos of Hopper, plus a poster from Easy
Rider the first film he directed, and the one that made him famous.
A plaster life mask hanging below a Warhol video of the actor putting
his face through its paces. A mug shot, a photo from the Old Globe
days, and a book in which you can write a line or two on the topic of
"What did Dennis Hopper mean to you?"
That's pretty much what I asked David Elliott, longtime film critic
for the San Diego Union-Tribune. (Before that, he wrote for the
Chicago Daily News and USA Today. After that, for the website San
Diego News Network.) He gave me a sampling of Hopper films to watch:
Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie
(1971), Out of the Blue (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Hoosiers (1986),
Paris Trout (1991), Speed (1994), and Carried Away (1996). Hardly
comprehensive Hopper loved to work and wasn't overly discriminating
but covering a wide swath, timewise and otherwise. Then we started
in discussing the man and his work. (Spoilers abound ahead.)
Matthew Lickona: On the lobby walls of the Grossmont Healthcare
District's Dr. William C. Herrick Community Healthcare Library in La
Mesa, you will find the East County Gallery of Honor. According to
the brochure, the gallery serves to remind local residents of "the
significant roles that our fellow citizens have played in shaping the
world of today." There are some locally famous names on those walls:
Fletcher, Bancroft, etc. You've got your famous athletes (Bill
Walton, Greg Louganis), your famous personalities (Regis Philbin, Ed
Meese), and your innovators (Taylor guitars, Deering banjos). Then
you've got Helix High graduate Dennis Hopper.
From the write-up under his smiling young face: "Best known for his
work as both the director and performer in the 1969 motion picture
Easy Rider, Lemon Grove's Dennis Hopper has enjoyed five decades of
stardom." Enjoyed and stardom are both tricky words, to say nothing
about the claim about which film he's best known for (I sort of
suspect that Speed occupies a bigger place than Easy Rider in the
popular consciousness today). But maybe we can get into that later.
David Elliott: Why wait? Hopper's stardom was always an ambiguous
commodity, without a lot of market value. People came out of Easy
Rider thinking about Jack Nicholson, as they had come out of Rebel
Without a Cause thinking about James Dean. Nobody came from Giant
thinking, "Wow, that was a great Dennis Hopper picture," since the
late Dean took the honors again and got his second Oscar nomination
as a dead actor. John Wayne was a friend of his first wife's family
and later got Dennis back into movies with True Grit and The Sons of
Katie Elder. But even then, a dozen years after Rebel, he was still a
side-player. In Cool Hand Luke, he was overshadowed by Paul Newman,
Strother Martin, George Kennedy, and Dean's old colleague Jo Van Fleet.
Matthew Lickona: Maybe so, but the only names I recognize from that
last list are Hopper and Newman. So there's that.
David Elliott: Right. And in that way Hopper finally did rival Dean,
in the sense that he kept coming back from career death. His drive to
be associated with quality was lifelong. Did any other actor work
with Dean, Brando, and Nicholson? Certainly none that also directed
Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Dennis wanted to avoid being stuck in
the velvet casket of approved success with studio-tamed actors like
Robert Wagner and Tab Hunter. Some were gay and feared exposure. Tony
Perkins got so sick of the game that he fled to Broadway and then
Europe. Dennis was more extreme: he burned the golden bridge by
becoming a human torch, career-wise, and later this created a myth
that paid off. He was a celebrity of recycling, and in time that took
on luster. The fact that he could seem stoned even when he wasn't
certainly added to his mystique.
Matthew Lickona: We definitely have to get back to Dean, the brief
candle to Hopper's enduring shadow. But you mentioned seeming stoned,
which means I need to finish my bit on the East County Gallery of
Honor, even though it's almost too easy a shot: God bless Hopper for
getting clean and sober in the mid-'80s, but there's still a certain
deliciousness in seeing a man famous for spending so many years as a
world-class abuser of various substances both legal and illegal
being lauded on the wall of a health library. And there's something
even more delicious in seeing a man famous for films that depict (and
sort of celebrate?) social upheaval, civil unrest, and generally
deviant behavior being lauded on the wall of a government health
library. I'm not sure who wins in such a situation: The Man, for
subsuming Hopper into a toothless culture of celebrity? Or Hopper,
for getting The Man to praise a guy like Dennis Hopper?
To be specific: at least three times in his career, Hopper was
involved with projects that caught the zeitgeist of unrest and
instability square on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Granted,
he was just a bit player in Rebel Without a Cause. Still, it's the
most famous depiction of youthful angst in the midst of American
postwar prosperity, and he's there in the thick of it, hanging
chickens and rattling chains. Then he directed Easy Rider, which gave
us the crumbling of an old social order and the uncertain vision of
those who would craft its replacement.
That film, of course, was a social phenomenon, much bigger than Out
of the Blue, which he also wound up directing. But if Easy Rider gave
us an anthropology of hippies, Out of the Blue did the same for
punks. Young Linda Manz flails about all over the place, full of rage
at her parents' failure to stop indulging their various demons and
start being parents. She reveres Elvis and Sid Vicious two guys who
knew something about longing for love and disdains the woozy
pleasure-vibe of disco. It's brutal and ugly and right on target.
In every case, youth must be served, and age either doesn't want to
or doesn't know how to serve it. And Hopper is there at the cinematic
point of fracture between the two. (Mind you, this was before he
started playing scary nutjobs.) Now he's up there on the wall of a
David Elliott: And he's got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It
reminds you of John Huston's great line in Chinatown about
politicians, whores, and ugly old buildings finally becoming
respectable. Survival pays.
Matthew Lickona: Nice. Now, you were saying about Hopper and James Dean?
David Elliott: Actually, the useful comparison is not with Dean
because Hopper was never an actor at that level, even in his best
psycho parts. (Though I bet Dean would have loved Frank Booth in Blue
Velvet.) The more valid comparison is with the other "kids" in Rebel
Without a Cause. Nick Adams, another gang member, had a desperately
ambitious career that found only brief success on TV. Natalie Wood
was already a Hollywood star child who had once bounced on Orson
Welles's knee. She had major roles without ever quite matching the
fresh vulnerability of Judy in Rebel, though she came close in
Splendor in the Grass. Corey Allen, who went over the "chickie run"
cliff as Buzz, had a certain Brando vibe but faded out as an actor
and became a respected acting teacher. (Interestingly, Allen died
just a month or so after Hopper.) Sal Mineo's vivid little career is
too sad to linger over. Apart from Dean, he probably had the most
talent. Hopper carried on as the great ricochet artist, a sort of Son
of Rebel Redux.
Matthew Lickona: Granted that Hopper was no match for Dean, but your
use of the word "vulnerability" got me thinking. It's what Dean has
in spades in Rebel the boy who desperately wants his father to show
him how to be a man, who cannot bear to be called a chicken. The guy
that every girl wants to cradle in her arms and comfort.
Then, when Hopper delivers his first line in Rebel, he asks Buzz,
"What are we going to do with him?" And when he says it, his eyes are
wide and worried, his tone nervous and hesitant. To me, it looked as
if he was trying to play just what Dean was playing especially in
light of the stories he told later about being dazzled by Dean and
trying to act the way Dean acted. But of course, it didn't quite come
off. He's not vulnerable, just lame. I saw one Hopper interview where
he talked about his early Westerns and how he was often cast as the
weakling son of the villain. Damaged goods no triumph in adversity,
just brokenness leading to evil. Rough casting but smart.
It's there in the very beginning: Hopper the young gang member,
nervous and servile, but already tinged with the vicious madness that
would make him famous (again) in Blue Velvet, 30 years later. When
Plato wakes up in the abandoned mansion, there's Hopper standing over
him with a chain. Suddenly, Hopper's face crinkles and splits into a
huge, mirthless grin. His eyes go hard and sparkly, and it's crazy
time. But it's a certain sort of crazy, tinged with pathos or maybe
just pathetic. The weakling son of the villain, after all, is not the
bad guy, but the sorry spawn of the bad guy. A poor copy of the bad
guy. It's a status that makes for meanness, and you can see it right
there in that grin: the whipping boy is going to do some whipping of
his own. It's a part he would play again and again.
David Elliott: You're right about that slightly fevered stare Hopper
has in his little role as Goon and then again in Giant. He had
arrived in Hollywood as a rising talent after working at the Old
Globe, and he was cocky. But he was clobbered by Dean's far more
developed and versatile intensity. With his chiseled good looks,
Dennis was in line to become another John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy),
but suddenly he had to act with this intuitive powerhouse from
Indiana and New York theater. Being handsome and saying your lines
well just didn't cut it anymore, if you wanted to be more than studio lumber.
I think Hopper was awed by Dean and then got scared, realizing he
might become the new Richard Davalos the hunky, gifted actor who
played Dean's brother in East of Eden but was completely eclipsed.
Lacking Dean's sure instincts, Hopper amped up the intensity and
played the wild man, on set and off he was like a zoned William F.
Buckley Jr. trying to escape his preppy shell. He stayed handsome but
got hairy, sometimes crazy.
Matthew Lickona: Okay, so that's the thesis. Let's dive into the nine
films for a portrait of the artist as damaged goods. It's a funny
list because, as you note, he had tremendous perseverance coming
back from two exiles from mainstream Hollywood (one after tangling
with the director Henry Hathaway in From Hell to Texas, the other
after the failure of The Last Movie). That takes strength, or at
least drive. A lot of folks would have just folded up, especially
under the added weight of all those drugs. And there's a kind of
strength in cozying up to one's demons. The famous story is that he
called Blue Velvet director David Lynch and said, "I have to play
Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth." Frank Booth is a monster, and
playing a monster with whom you identify can't be an easy thing.
Neither can playing so many parts in which your character's demons
which are also your own lead to his destruction. Onward.
Rebel Without a Cause
Matthew Lickona: As we've noted, he's very much a weakling here
obeying the lead dog in the pack (even when he'd rather not) and
bullying those even weaker than himself.
David Elliott: The movie was released just weeks after Dean died, and
his role was consciously shaped as a noble teen myth even though
Dean was rather old to play a teen. Nobody could ever fill that
flame-red jacket again, and I think because Hopper knew he couldn't
do it in film, he tried to do it in life. The drug and drink binges
were not just poses, though. They were symptoms of an angry man who
couldn't figure how to connect his talent with his acting ideals.
Another contradiction was that he hated Hollywood the system and
said he would destroy it (and almost did). But he loved L.A.
David Elliott: The burial in hippie outlaw hair was a way of escaping
the chisel-cut-looks-of-the-'50s Hopper, and by becoming a director
he finally did something Dean only aspired to. The film's huge
cultural impact and profit ratio overshadowed its flaws. Nicholson
effortlessly takes over the movie from its stars; much of Jack's work
as the lawyer seems self-directed. What Hopper best showed was a keen
visual feeling for American places, and the ending is such a knockout
you almost forget the stupid cemetery scene shortly before it.
The problem was that Dennis now thought of himself as an auteur in a
European sense. There's a rather embarrassing photo taken two years
later. It shows John Ford propped up in a hospital bed, looking
almost dead, while John Huston smiles baronially, holding a drink and
cigar. Hopper, still in hippie mode, looks stoned and uneasy.
Briefly, he was the heir apparent. More like the hair self-evident.
Matthew Lickona: That's fun about the long hair being a double
rebellion onscreen, it played against the conventions of the
Southern hicks who feared for their women. Offscreen, it played
against the conventions of the Hollywood bigwigs who feared for their
box offices. What I hadn't considered, and what you seem to
understand, is how much of what Hopper did was intentional part of
a managed career trajectory. I keep thinking of him as some kind of
purely responsive thing, a live wire full of juice, flopping around
dangerously, and every now and then exploding in a shower of sparks.
My impression explains his willingness to play awful, awful
characters some of them even protagonists (who therefore need
humanizing). But your version explains how he hit pay dirt as often
as he did, even in the midst of serious substance abuse.
I agree that Nicholson owns the film, if only because he's clearly a
character a person, complete with history, home, flaws, and
virtues. Fonda is a seeker, and while it's fun to identify with the
seeker, it doesn't make the seeker interesting. He hasn't found what
he's looking for, and so he doesn't register all that much. You see
him with the American flag on his jacket, and you think, Yeah, I get
it, he's a symbol. But he's not much more than that. Hopper just
comes off goofy and dumb. When Fonda says at the end, "We blew it"
i.e., we're just part of the system, looking to make money and feel
good like everybody else Hopper can only look on in sad confusion.
David Elliott: Nicholson escapes the easy rebel branding because his
cagier rebellion as George has roots and a context, along with his
funny twang and charisma. And so he says the remarks that are truly
subversive and memorable. Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas) had hoped
to get the role of George and would have been very good, though not
likely with the same impact. Bruce Dern (Coming Home) might have come close.
Matthew Lickona: As a director, I think Hopper was wa-a-ay too in
love with shots of dudes on bikes. My wife kept exclaiming, "Oh, look
they're riding motorcycles again!" Maybe we were supposed to be
paying attention to the scenery and the music, but too much of what
you see from the highway looks vaguely the same, and a song like
"Don't Bogart Me" gets old fast. But agreed he did understand
place. I really think Fonda realizes that the freedom they sought was
right there at the beginning the rancher living life on his own
terms, eating his bread from the sweat of his brow, raising up a
family to follow after him. The dreamy dropouts throwing seeds into
the sand didn't get it. And better living through chemistry came back
to bite our heroes on the behind in the cemetery.
David Elliott: About those cycle shots: Don't forget that Easy Rider
was a spin-off of the chopper movies that the three actors had made
for Roger Corman. During production, that audience was the target.
Nobody knew the film would resonate so widely beyond the drive-in
circuit, though I suspect that Hopper had the ambition. He was never
a shrinking violet. He and Fonda certainly wanted to upgrade the
quality of the pulp goods. Also (small point), the film was supposed
to be a landscape portrait of America, a reverse Western, so the
cycle images were obligatory.
Matthew Lickona: Fair enough. I've seen that strange photo you
mention of Ford, Huston, and Hopper. I wonder what the old men
thought of him at the time. Your mention of Europe and auteurs
reminds me that, supposedly, Hopper's next film (The Last Movie)
originally had a fairly straightforward narrative. But then his buddy
Alejandro Jodorowsky made fun of him for being conventional, and so
he went and completely reworked his footage. It's a little bit
heartbreaking, especially when you hear him on YouTube in The
American Dreamer, comparing himself to Orson Welles making The
Magnificent Ambersons, talking about how there will be an audience
for his film, and if not, then fuck them. Though maybe not so
heartbreaking when you consider, once again, his endurance. Easy
Rider is no Citizen Kane. But like Welles, Hopper fought the system
and lost. Unlike Welles, he really came back from defeat. Not to
detract from Welles's career, but he seemed haunted by the studio
beatdown ever after.
David Elliott: Easy Rider had more seismic but less lasting impact
than Citizen Kane, which was way ahead of its audience in 1941 and
had to slowly marinate into the culture. Easy Rider found that there
was a young audience waiting for it. In no way was Hopper a creative
force like Welles, or, in a very '70s way, Robert Altman. But like M
A S H, Easy Rider had meteor-impact resonance. Neither director
repeated that level of commercial impact.
The Last Movie
Matthew Lickona: This one struck me as most clearly a work of art, as
opposed to Hopper working something out. He got self-conscious on
just his second outing as a director and made a film about the
dangers of moviemaking. It's something of a mess. The whole thing is
on YouTube in ten-minute segments, and each segment has a smaller
number of views than the one before. But there are some amazing
moments, maybe especially the very last scene, where Hopper learns
that he's just given his nest egg to a guy who learned everything he
knows about looking for gold from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
David Elliott: Hopper's ego was engorged when this labor of love and
drugs won the Venice festival prize, and then Pauline Kael wrote a
rather mournfully supportive review. It has the fascination of a road
kill that keeps twitching, and the feeling for Peruvian landscapes
and the Indians is quite acute. But too much of it feels like a
shapeless inflation of the cemetery drug trip in Easy Rider. There
are elements akin to Peckinpah's great, doomed Mexican noir of the
same time, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but that one had
dynamism and Warren Oates. And Werner Herzog went into South America
and filmed the truly hallucinatory Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which
made The Last Movie seem even more woebegone. Maybe it's a great,
wrecked student movie that should have been kept in the can for 20 years.
Out of the Blue
Matthew Lickona: Now this feels like Hopper working something out
onscreen. He plays a ruined man responsible for the deaths of a
busload of children. Also, a violent drunk. And, hey, on top of that,
a guy who molested his own daughter. I kept thinking, "Well, this
can't get much darker." And I kept being wrong. I also kept thinking,
"Did people pay to go see this on a Saturday night?" Nothing but
damage as far as the eye can see.
David Elliott: Hopper took over the direction and did not protect
himself as a star. He is very effective in a raw way as the father,
though you suspect that much of the script came from whatever he took
that day. And he is often overshadowed by little Linda Manz as the
daughter. Commercially, it was hopeless, like Bertolucci's incest
movie of the same time, La Luna. This is the same Hopper who staged
his own suicide as performance art, using sticks of dynamite at Rice
Matthew Lickona: "Did not protect himself" is a nice way to put it.
"Crucified himself onscreen" might not be too far off. When your
opening scene is you getting into a fatal crash, it's hard not to
read it as the director coming clean about himself (and his career).
It's a tough scene to watch in 2010, when we're not so used to our
protagonists being real sinners. And then it gets tougher.
David Elliott: Agreed Hopper played a radically confused, selfish
jerk without completely demonizing him. Nicholson had done something
similar in Five Easy Pieces, but the role was smothered in his sly,
au courant charisma, and he had easy targets for his sarcastic bile
(the obnoxious waitress, the pompous musical family, the ridiculous
hitchhikers). Still, it's a great performance. Hopper's is just a
gutsy one. Jack advanced his career, while Dennis dug another crater
for his. And yet Out of the Blue is a bolder film, a fringe foretaste
of David Lynch (who would stage Hopper's comeback).
Matthew Lickona: I'll argue a bit on the script the picnic scene
seems too spot-on and artful to be the product of that day's high.
Dad taking his daughter for an outing, and, oh yeah, let's get your
mother. Pulling Mom out of work over the protests of her boss (who is
also the man who really loves her). It's happy family time, but then
Mom says one thing about his driving, and bam, he's done with her
she's the enemy, just like all those jerks who are still mad that he
drove a truck into their kids five years back. Next thing we see,
he's playing catch with his daughter while mom sits and shivers in
the wind it's pretty clear where his heart lies.
The scene is a twisted attempt to return to family normalcy after
trauma, but of course, things weren't actually normal before the
trauma, and that comes through in spades. Though it still doesn't
brace you for Dad suggesting that his friend bang his daughter. Or
mom's fearful acquiescence to the notion. It's a rare film in which
clubbing a guy to death with a tire iron barely registers amid the horror.
Matthew Lickona: Speaking of horror…here, instead of a child abuser,
Hopper plays Frank Booth, an abused (and abusive) child. In "the
scene," where he snorts amyl nitrate and rapes Dorothy, he begins by
staring between her spread legs and repeating, "Baby wants blue
velvet." It's only after playing a child trying to crawl back into
the womb (an effort that is of course doomed to failure) that he
seeks re-entry of another sort, screaming, "Daddy wants to fuck!" as
he does just that.
David Elliott: You see this David Lynch vision, and you never feel
the same again about velvet, gas inhalers, or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Hopper fits perfectly into the style jacket created by Lynch. It's a
showy, wallowing role but also a consummation. Frank Booth is, of
course, the living god of the creepy bugs seen early in the film…
Matthew Lickona: …the horror just under the town's perfect surface…
David Elliott: …and his brutal, erotic fascination with Isabella
Rossellini invites us to be sadistic voyeurs. By becoming Lynch's
most famous movie gargoyle, Hopper found a new template for success:
as a stylized lunatic for a more cynical era in films. He is a
seedpod for the nuts in Quentin Tarantino's work. Frank is the rebel
whose only cause is being a creep.
Matthew Lickona: Hey, nice James Dean reference!
Matthew Lickona: The same year he plays Frank Booth, Hopper also goes
mainstream to play Shooter, a drunk who cannot bear to face the way
he's failed as a father. When Gene Hackman tells him, "You're
embarrassing your son," the pain in Hopper's eyes is enough to make
you want to look away. (It's worth noting, however, that it's one of
his rare roles that allows for redemption.)
David Elliott: You are right about the failed-father aspect being the
key to this very good work. In Rebel, Dean found his father (Jim
Backus) an embarrassment, and Hopper had felt embarrassed by his
Texas macho father (Rock Hudson) in Giant. Like Brando and Dean,
Hopper had a tormented relationship with his dad. "I very seldom saw
my father," he once said, "which I resented tremendously."
Matthew Lickona: Partly because his dad traveled for work, partly
because his dad had his death faked during WWII so that he could do
undercover work for the government in Asia.
David Elliott: Playing the most obvious drunkard in his career, he
gives one of his most lucid performances. Hopper said he preferred
drink to drugs.
Matthew Lickona: "Preferred drink to drugs." You're good at
understatement, aren't you? The famous line I keep running across is
"Honestly, I only used to do cocaine so I could sober up and drink
more." But if druggie Frank Booth was the terrifying, angry side of
the wounded Hopper, drunk Shooter was the pathetic, needy side, the
side that wound up in a mental institution and eventually dried out.
He may have wanted to play Frank Booth because he identified with the
character, but Shooter was perhaps the purer biography.
David Elliott: I completely agree with you on the Hoosiers role vs.
Blue Velvet. But remember: we nearly all recall Frank in Blue Velvet,
whereas only some basketball buffs and maybe reformed alcoholics
remember Hoosiers. And it was really Gene Hackman's film. The truth
is that major leading men didn't feel threatened by Hopper. I don't
consider Kyle MacLachlan a major leading man.
Matthew Lickona: Maybe Hopper's most affecting villain. Paris Trout
is a bad man who cannot bear to admit his own badness, even when the
rest of the world declares it. His suffering is monumental his last
word to his wife before he shoots himself is "You never felt sorry
for me." This to a woman he raped with an open bottle of soda. As a
result, he is utterly alone it comes through beautifully as he sits
by his comatose mother's bedside, asking her if she's there.
David Elliott: That bedside scene with the mom echoes Dean's famous
closing scene with his stricken father in East of Eden, the Dean
movie in which Hopper did not appear. (Another inspiration could have
been Brando's famous monologue to his dead wife in Last Tango in
Paris.) This is an unusually well made TV movie that broke out into
theaters, and Hopper is fascinating because he makes a sick, sadistic
racist and rapist oddly pitiful. He seems to know he is deranged, but
his crazy bull pride won't let him face it, so he bunkers into it.
Matthew Lickona: Wow, you're still getting echoes of Dean even at
this late stage of Hopper's career? Maybe I was wrong in saying that
Welles was haunted and Hopper wasn't.
David Elliott: I think Hopper was haunted by Dean his whole adult
life and career. He basically admitted it.
Matthew Lickona: Well, things got a little shallower in the '90s, so
along with the cute kill-phrase at the opening ("Nothing personal")
and the silly speech at the end, we get a character with more obvious
damage: a bomb cop who got his hand blown up in the line of duty.
Matthew Lickona: Did I say things got shallower in the '90s? I should
be more careful. True, Hopper's character is again damaged in an
obvious, physical sense a mutilated foot that sentences him to life
as a stay-at-home also-ran in a tepid affair with his best friend's
widow. But in Speed, the blown-up hand caused Hopper to go nuts and
start killing people. Here, it takes a quieter toll: it contributes
to a suffocating, immobile life. So when Hopper sees a chance to get
carried away, he takes it. Smaller scale but more dramatic.
David Elliott: With Carried Away, Bruno Barreto made a film full of
observed truth. Hopper gives a subtle but deeply pressurized
performance as the bored schoolteacher who tries to break free
erotically. He doesn't bluster the role or soap it sentimentally. Of
course, Hopper fans mostly avoided this one, but I suspect Dennis was
happy not to be jamming a screwdriver into a security guard's ear,
like he did in Speed, or again upstaging Christopher Walken with his
infamous "Sicilian nigger" speech in True Romance. This role is like
a handwritten note that says, "Hey, I am Dennis Hopper, but I am also
still an actor."
The guy was a great sidewinder. He could dominate Water World as a
screaming skull from hell but also play Frank Sinatra in The Night We
Called It a Day. And as a director, he could take a TV-generic cop
script like Colors and give it some real force of style, using
cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It was a fairly dangerous movie to
make, but Hopper caught the L.A. streets and gang life. And he was
not overawed by the two heroes, Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. I
interviewed him for Colors and he was a total charmer, but he had
that crazy light in the eyes that seemed both a wink and a threat. By
then, his own mystique was so developed that he could have fun with
it, which is a kind of stardom. His cackle laugh was a classic.
Finally, there is an image of Hopper to put alongside all the staring
madman portraits. It is a William Claxton photo taken in the early
'60s of Hopper as the happy host of an art-world party in his sleek,
modern house. The look of joy on his face, surrounded by his art
friends, is fervent but sincere, not obsessive. In that world, he
didn't have to compete with Dean or Brando or Nicholson; he held his
own as a respected collector and photographer and shaper of the
scene. The movie Hopper was often something of a joke and at that
point was in exile, and yet in art he found his soul niche.