Dennis Hopper's influential career came full-circle
Saturday, May 29, 2010; 5:33 PM
For audiences who know Dennis Hopper best from his work on "24" and television commercials for Nike, it's difficult to overstate just how influential he was on American movies.
After coming of age as a young actor in such 1950s classics as "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant"-- alongside no less a generational avatar than James Dean -- Hopper seemed destined to be compared to Dean, as part of a generation of sensitive, emotionally expressive actors, but nearly always to be found wanting.
Then, in 1969 he co-wrote with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, directed and starred in "Easy Rider," a movie that would redefine film on nearly every level. Hopper co-starred with Fonda and Jack Nicholson in the picture, about two men taking a drug-fueled motorcycle trip across the American West.
With its portrait of counterculture heroes raising their middle fingers to the uptight middle-class hypocrisies, "Easy Rider" became the cinematic symbol of the 1960s, a celluloid anthem to freedom, macho bravado and antiestablishment rebellion. As a low-budget independent film that earned huge amounts of money, it also triggered a seismic shift in Hollywood, which began eagerly to court the youth market and look for similarly disreputable properties to co-opt.
Critics argue about whether "Easy Rider" was good for movies -- opening up new avenues for experimentation and confrontational subject matter -- or helped create an entertainment culture that has become increasingly adolescent. As the critic David Thomson wrote in the Biographical Dictionary of Film, "incoherence became sensitive; drugginess was for a time a mainstream mode; and every studio drove itself stupid trying to repeat the hit."
Tellingly, Hopper's next directorial effort, "The Last Movie" (1971) was a muddle and a bomb. His cameo in "Apocalypse Now" (1979) was a masterpiece of unhinged mania, his "What are they gonna say about him?" speech a brief aria of unhinged perfection. But it wasn't until David Lynch's 1986 movie "Blue Velvet" that Hopper finally seemed to come into his own as an actor. As the sexually compulsive, pathologically troubled villain Frank Booth, Hopper -- three years clean and sober -- found a way to combine the knife-edge madness he had always possessed with newfound powers of control and discipline.
Hopper left the planet too soon, but it was still gratifying to see him turn what could have been a career of flameouts and sad self-destruction into a triumph of endurance. Now that he's gone, he has left behind a generation of actors who grasp at his wildness with mannerisms and empty emoting, but who can never reach that precise alchemy of derangement and focus that Hopper embodied at his best. (As for "Easy Rider," now we have "Wild Hogs.") It's an irony Hopper himself surely appreciated that the man who embodied antiauthoritarianism at its most anarchic finally realized his best artistic self when he embraced self-control.