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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 5)

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).


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