Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

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Why his wild reputation had nothing to do with the greatness of Blue Velvet.

Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet 

Friday night, the air conditioning went out. It was eighty-three degrees inside the house and felt like ninety-five, and as the Missus and I sat on the patio, munching ice cubes and fanning the dog, our conversation somehow turned to formative experiences, and I got to talking about seeing Blue Velvet when it came out when I was in college. Turned out the Missus had never seen it. Which is how, once the air conditioning came back on, we found ourselves watching Blue Velvet that night.

The first time I saw it, it was impossible to separate anything in it from its place in the total effect, but whenever I’ve seen it again in recent years, I’ve always found one new element to love, and this time it was the force of Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth, the greatest movie monster since The Third Man‘s Harry Lime. Frank is different from Harry in that he has no charm. (Watching the first scene featuring his scurvy posse, the Missus blurted out, "He has friends!?") But they’re alike in that they’re both totally unredeemed, yet capable of inspiring fleeting moments of sympathy — when Harry is cornered in the sewers and suddenly has the expression of a cat lost in the rain, or when Frank’s voice cracks as he warns Jeffrey Beaumont away from his sex slave, Dorothy Vallens. ("Don’t be a good neighbor to her! I’ll send ya a love letter!") At a moment like that, you recognize the pain of being a monster, and wish that this creature didn’t have to suffer from the knowledge of what he is. But at the end of the movie, you’re glad he’s dead.

Blue Velvet was Hopper’s comeback movie, even if the Academy in its infinite wisdom chose to give him an Oscar nomination for his role in Hoosiers. I was a huge fan of Hopper’s at that time, and I was thrilled to see him come back. But I had only the faintest idea of what he was coming back from. The standard answer: he was a Hollywood maverick who, having been run out of the business in the dull old ’50s because he was too pure and weird in his devotion to his craft, had hoisted the flag for counterculture cinema with Easy Rider, had been run off again, and finally had conquered his addictions and come back, better than ever. All of this gave him an aura, and it was the aura that made me a fan. It came packaged with a new humility that was very becoming, as when a Film Comment interviewer mentioned that Harry Dean Stanton had turned down the role of Frank Booth because "Harry Dean wants to be a leading man" and Hopper, after saying he could understand that, added that he himself was just "happy to be working."

That’s not how Hopper talked for most of his career. Working on The Last Movie, his follow-up to Easy Rider, Hopper told an interviewer he expected his second film as a director to be a massive hit, but if it turned out to be a masterpiece that flopped, that’d be okay too. ("I was sleeping on a mattress when I edited Easy Rider, and I can sleep on a mattress again.") Easy Rider itself is as unwatchable today as any zeitgeist film whose moment moved on, but it shook up the studio heads so badly that, for a time, they were willing to bankroll interesting directors and give them some freedom, because they had to admit they had no idea what kinds of movies might excite "the youth audience," and maybe people like Hopper (and Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma and Woody Allen) did.

But if Hopper helped kickstart indie cinema, he also had a role in the subsequent crackdown. The Last Movie was funded by Universal Pictures as part of its "youth division" slate, a scheme to court the new audience with a bunch of movies made by offbeat directors, working with full creative freedom, on relatively low budgets. With the partial exception of Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, none of these movies were big hits. None was more hotly anticipated than The Last Movie, and none was received with greater hostility.

In later years, Hopper often assured interviewers that The Last Movie was a lost masterpiece, and those interviews, coupled with the movie’s general unavailability since 1971, have had their effect: in a recent New York Times piece on Hopper, Manohla Dargis insisted that The Last Movie is "not as narratively incomprehensible as its reputation suggests," which is less a contrarian critical opinion than an exercise in alternate history. The film stars Hopper as a stunt man shooting a Western in Peru who stays behind when his film crew returns to Hollywood. He then becomes a martyred Christ figure when the natives begin staging their own movies, using bamboo cameras but real violence. It was a year in the editing, and Hopper, who was deep in his own hallucinogenic fumes throughout the process, seems to have set out to create a massive, defiantly self-deconstructing machine that would simultaneously sum up and negate the history of movies, and maybe America itself. At the same time, he had lived with the project for so long that he probably thought that the hash he’d made of the footage was still comprehensible to general viewers, if only on an emotional level. (As a director, he’s very taken with images of himself being mysteriously driven to tears.)

The combination of Hopper’s terrible movie and even worse public profile, with his verbal diarrhea preserved in hundreds of interviews, made him a club for the studios to use on anyone trying to make innovative movies. But the fact that this was wrong doesn’t retroactively make Hopper a great director. Nor does it do anything for his acting. As a young man, Hopper had a bland screen presence and a shaky grasp of technique, which he joined to a bad case of James Dean worship. He was desperate to express something, but he either didn’t have much to express or couldn’t figure out how to use his body and voice to do it. Sobering up didn’t do much for his directing: a still photographer whose work has been featured in gallery shows, Hopper always had an eye, but his post-comeback movies (Colors, The Hot Spot, Chasers, and Backtrack), while less indulgent than his pre-comeback work, show no other signs of directing talent. He sometimes gave it his all when it came to composing arresting-looking frames, but couldn’t get them to pulse dramatically, and didn’t even seem to know how to work with the actors.

As an actor, though, the sober Hopper was a man reborn: a spark plug and an entertainer, more interested in showing the audience a good time than in impressing anyone with how hard he was groping for dark, inner depths. He got typecast as a maniacal villain, thanks in part to Frank Booth but also to Speed, Red Rock West, and — flirting dangerously with having worn out his welcome — Waterworld. (We shall not speak of his King Koopa in Super Mario Bros.) He did a lot of crap and he gave a lot of performances that he’d given already, but hey, he was happy to be working.

When it was announced last fall that Hopper was dying, it set off a rush of retrospective tributes (such as Dargis’s) to his life and career. In addition to making some grand claims for his directing skills, many of these have played up Hopper’s stature as a wild man and uncontainable anarchic force. Hopper told a lot of stories on himself, and some of the work he did before he got a grip — his worst acting as well as The Last Movie — lives on mainly through legends about how far out on the ledge he managed to go before, miraculously, reeling himself back. People like the stories; they’re cautionary tales that make you giggle, and watching Hopper explode across the screen in his best later acting, it’s easy to feel that they have some connection to what finally made him great.

But they don’t. Before Blue Velvet, Hopper was a wild man, but not in any way that fed or fueled any worthwhile work. Sam Peckinpah used his intemperate emotions to light an atomic charge on screen; Richard Pryor would take off into ozone and come back with lucid accounts of what it was like out there where the buses don’t run. But Hopper’s wildness took the form of blinkered egomania and self-destructive wallowing, and its sole effect on his work was to prevent him from expressing himself meaningfully or cogently. It’s exciting to think about the young prince getting himself blackballed in Hollywood because he got into a Method pissing match with Henry Hathaway, or about the counterculture seer out there in Peru, cobbling together his avant-masterpiece while plastered to the highest cloud. But actually watching the movies is work.

I have no problem with people enjoying the stories; I enjoyed them myself, the first four or five times I heard them. But at the risk of sounding like an A.A. sponsor, the people toasting Hopper’s wildness should understand that it was something he had to learn to control before he actually began doing work that mattered, and that the messianic young madman they retain so much affection for (as he himself always did) was someone he had to outgrow. Watching Blue Velvet again Friday night, I was knocked cold, yet again, by Hopper’s performance, but this time my admiration had a dimension it hadn’t when I first saw it, because now I know how hard-won that level of control was for him. When I was working in college and regional theater in the late ’80s, I knew a lot of people who wanted to give that kind of performance, and who thought that the key was to go all out with the kind of cursing and yelling that’ll shake all the bananas out of the trees. (On some nights, the list of people who made this mistake included me.) Those of us who were educable, or at least capable of achieving conscious embarrassment, learned that there was a lot more to realizing a character like Frank Booth than a willingness to behave like a Tourette’s sufferer experiencing an attack of St. Vitus Dance.

Hopper himself found out that this was no way to live. Based on his interviews, he may never have figured out that it was no way to act, but it’s asking a lot of someone that he write off the fruits of the first thirty years of his career as an exercise in public wankery. I myself have chosen to go on about it not to blow shit at a much-loved dead man, but because Frank Booth seems like a heroic creation to me now, because I appreciate the hard work and deep thought that must have gone into Hopper’s performance, which entailed rethinking his whole approach as an actor. Actors who’ve earned reputations as dependable lightweight charmers sometimes get raves for their daring when they agree to play roles that are shady or repellent, like Ian McShane since Sexy Beast, or Tom Cruise in Magnolia. That wasn’t the kind of breakthrough that Hopper needed; he was always up for scenes of cursing and rape, but before Blue Velvet, he hadn’t taken the time and care to do such things in a way that showed you a bottomlessly cruel yet suffering human being. Redemption was denied to Frank Booth, but Dennis Hopper, as creatively ambitious as any bundle of sweaty flesh and neuroses who ever stormed Hollywood, finally achieved artistic redemption, against all odds and at a point when the smart money barely knew he was there, never mind whether it would have bet on him. That’s why he deserves to be remembered.