May 31, 2010

Dennis Hopper (1936 - 2010)

Losing a voice of a generation is one thing, but then losing one who was a part of several generations, well, that is another. So it was with Dennis Hopper: actor, director, photographer, madman, clown, renaissance man. In some way he was always part of various movements which has shaped our culture in the past half-century. Upon co-starring with his friend James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, history might suggest that Dennis Hopper would follow in Dean's footsteps and venture on to some "troubled youth" dramas of his own. And when he returned to the Hollywood mainstream a decade later, he became a poster child of the new counterculture- an overnight sensation for acting in and directing Easy Rider, thus making him a major figure of the Hollywood Renaissance. That success of course led to excess, both creatively and pharmaceutically, with the debacle of his follow-up film The Last Movie (which may yet be re-evaluated as a masterpiece-- who knows?), and his drug use eventually making him unemployable in Hollywood.

Still, Hollywood always loves a comeback, and so it was, that a decade later, after being found waking around naked (a scenario not dissmilar to a moment in the amazing documentary The American Dreamer made during his non-stop Last Movie-era party days), he cleaned up his act, and emerged with a string of career-defining performances (Hoosiers, Blue Velvet, and The River's Edge) that endeared him to a new generation. And once again, he directed a film that is among his very best (Colors). As much as the 1980's re-defined Dennis Hopper, he remained durable as decades passed: such as a memorable supporting role in True Romance (no doubt inspiring a new generation weaned on 90's independent films), and the villain in the megahit Speed).

Whether his excess may have hindered or fed his talents is one for the biographers, but onscreen Dennis Hopper was a magnetic performer- he always surprised you. He could be funny, savage or tragic on a whim.. thus making him exciting to watch Onscreen, as in life, one never knew what he would do next. It is small wonder he was often employed to play obsessive oddballs-- all of his characters had a mad passion.

Offscreen, Hopper was also a talented painter and photographer (American Dreamer generously features the latter). One may also be surprised that for such a mainstream figure, Hopper was also a fixture in the avant garde. He was a good friend of Bruce Conner (in fact, Hopper has a photo credit for a Conner portrait in a 1960's experimental film text), a fixture on the Warhol scene, and it's not for nothing that his first lead role was in Night Tide, the first commercial feature of former experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington. (Forty years on, whenever someone programmed a Hopper retrospective, the actor would insist that this film be shown among other more obvious choices.) It could be that the fragmented, non-linear approach to experimental filmmaking influenced the jagged rhythms of his own Easy Rider and The Last Movie.

His long list of screen credits reveal many gems: the forgotten "new" western Kid Blue; the post-Vietnam Tracks, the arthouse cult favourite The American Friend; the post-hippie pre-punk masterpiece of lost youth Out of the Blue; even a funny self-parody in Flashback. In art, as in life, there is much more to discover about the man.

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