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Dennis Hopper: Rennaissance Rebel

Once spurned by Hollywood and nearly destroyed by drugs, Dennis Hopper has resurrected his life and his art.
Elizabeth Snead
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 1)

"I picked it up but when I read my ex-brother-in-law and Peter's [Fonda] partner say I was 'the worst editor he ever saw' and Peter [Fonda] called me 'a fascist punk,' I put it down. That's enough. It's fucking pathetic," Hopper says. "When someone asked Jack [Nicholson] if he'd read it, he said, 'I don't read fiction.'"

After the success of Easy Rider, Hopper was Hollywood's new golden bad boy. In 1971, Hopper wrote, directed and starred in The Last Movie, which, ironically, almost was his.

"That film was never supported and never understood," Lewis recalls. "But it was literally the height of craziness. We were shooting in Peru at an altitude of 17,000 feet in the cocaine capital of the world. I remember we were drunk at this press conference in Lima and a reporter asked Dennis if he had stopped doing drugs. He said, 'Why would I stop doing drugs just because I'm in Peru?'"

Movie was Hopper's dark, prophetic statement on the impact of media violence on society. When an actor is killed during a stunt in a movie shooting in Peru, villagers reenact the film's scenes, killing each other.

Reports of Hopper's nonstop wild parties on the set did not please the studio. "We had the premiere of Easy Rider happening in Lima and so we flew the whole production -- Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Peter Fonda -- down in a Peruvian airline, and Dennis and I got a phone call saying they were going to arrest the whole plane because they were giving grass to the stewardesses," Lewis says.

When Hopper returned to Los Angeles, he had 37 hours of footage, which he took home to Taos, New Mexico, to edit, much to the studio's dismay. After 16 months, the gray suits from the studio arrived and demanded to see the film. Horrified by what they saw, the studio demanded a recut. Hopper refused. Movie won best film at the Venice Film Festival that year but was only briefly released in the United States and critically reviled. The once-lauded Hopper was now lambasted, unable to get phone calls returned much less get new work.

Hopper freely admits he's had difficulty with the Hollywood power structure but says he only bumped heads over artistic vision, not trailer size or corporate jets.

"I've had a lot of problems through the years on a creative level with people in positions that used their power to stop me from working for many years," he says.

After being run out of Hollywood, the already angry actor returned to Taos and dove into booze and cocaine with a renewed fury. He worked sporadically over the next few years until director and friend Henry Jaglom hired him to star in Tracks in 1976. Hopper gave an inspired performance as a venomous Vietnam vet.

"The only thing Hollywood wanted less than a Vietnam War movie was one with Dennis Hopper in it," Jaglom said in a recent E! Entertainment Television "True Hollywood Story" on Hopper.

A few years later, director Francis Ford Coppola hired him to star opposite Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in his Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. Pounds of cocaine and gallons of booze fueled Hopper's performance as the crazed manic photojournalist. After the film wrapped, Hopper, a mental and physical wreck, exhausted, with open infected wounds, showed up in Germany to shoot An American Friend under Wim Wenders. "He was lethal, suicidal," Wenders later told the press.

Hopper's behavior went from bad to bizarre. In 1983, a delusional Hopper crouched under a folding chair rigged with dynamite at a Houston racetrack and tried to blow himself up to promote his one-man art show. He was unhurt.

"I was convinced there was a hit out on me," Hopper says. "If they were going to kill me, they would have to do it out in the open."

Months later, during the shooting of a small film called Jungle Fever, Hopper was found crazed, naked and babbling, hiding in a Mexican jungle. He was sent back to Los Angeles and put in a hospital.

After a few visits to psychiatric wards and rehabilitation centers, Hopper finally started to sober up. Steely determination and pure white fear got him through detoxes, shakes and tremors that lasted for many months.

Even before his rehab stay, Hopper stunned critics when he took the reins of a troubled film he was starring in called Out of the Blue (1980). He rewrote and directed it, brought the film in on time and under budget, and was nominated for the Palm D'Or at Cannes.

His subsequent directorial efforts have included the highly acclaimed gritty police/gang drama Colors (1988) with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, Catchfire (1989) with Jodie Foster and John Turturro, The Hot Spot (1990) with Don Johnson and Chasers (1994).

"In the early days, his films were raw and intuitive," says Lewis. "In his later films, it's more polished and planned. His style is a lot like John Ford but with a moving camera. He really styles a film, using backgrounds exceptionally well, and his images are impeccable."

In 1986, a newly sober Hopper was terrified that he would not be able to act without his booze and drugs. But he faced his demons for the memorably chilling portrayal of the nitrous-huffing schizophrenic Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

"Dennis knows his crazies," Lewis explains. "Frank is someone he knows very well. There were many times through the years when Dennis's life imitated his art or his art imitated his life. He used to become the characters he played. In Easy Rider, he didn't change his clothes for six months."

Hopper makes use of his outcast status to play misbegotten misfits. For his Oscar-nominated role in 1986's Hoosiers, Hopper captured Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch, the down-and-out alcoholic coach who misses his shot at fame. And in 1999's Jesus' Son, critics lauded his back-from-the-brink, blathering ex-junkie.

He's still drawn to marginalized characters, even for the new film he plans to write and direct about the Venice Beach homeless.

Hopper realizes that having lived life on the edge has given him a good perspective on the dark side. And he admits that much of his dependence on drugs and alcohol was self-medicating deep insecurity.

"People wanted to meet the guy from Easy Rider or Apocalypse Now or Blue Velvet," Hopper says. "I'm not those guys. They were just parts. But if you have a few drinks you can become Billy or Frank, you know? Everyone's real happy until they turn into a monster. For me, alcohol was such a destroyer. It was real Jeckyl and Hyde stuff."

The roles he chooses now reveal a more thoughtful man, less afraid to expose his fragile human core. One of Hopper's favorite parts is Joseph, an emotionally and physically crippled teacher, rejuvenated by his passion for a young girl in Bruno Barreto's Carried Away (1996).

Hopper kicks off 2001 with Knockaround Guys, costarring John Malkovich and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. In the movie, Hopper portrays Benny "Chains" Demaret, a cigar-smoking wise guy.

"Benny is a cold man, but we wanted him to have a hint of warmth," Levien says. "Dennis brings that. He plays a guy who is trapped in a life he hates and wants more for his kid."

As Benny, Hopper also wanted more cigars.

"We shot in Toronto, so we had access to real [Cuban] Montecristos," says Koppleman. "The prop guy was really nervous because he saw how much of an appetite Dennis had for the cigars and he thought, 'Oh, my God, if I have to keep clipping these cigars, we're gonna go through two boxes in a day!'"

Hopper's irrepressible spirit and zest for life surprised both directors.

"I think some of his past performances, like Frank in Blue Velvet, are so distinctive that Dennis still unnerves people 10 years later," Koppleman says.

"In real life, Dennis is much closer to the Keebler elf," adds Levien.

 

ennis Hopper was born on May 17, 1936. The first son of Marjorie and Jay M. Hopper spent his early years on a farm outside of Dodge City, Kansas, where films fueled his imagination.

"I grew up in the Dust Bowl and the first light I saw was in the movie theater," Hopper says. "My grandmother really used to fill her apron with eggs; we'd walk a few miles to Dodge City. She'd sell the eggs and we'd buy movie tickets."


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