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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 8)

Hopper was so inspired by Dean's improvisational abilities that he later studied with Dean's acting coach, Lee Strasberg, whose method-acting techniques relied on sense of memory, a skill Hopper still uses both in acting and art.

"Dean had all these things going on internally but he expressed himself physically with strange movements. You can see it in Giant when he's marking off the land or when the oil starts coming down. It's like a dance. No one else has ever done that."

After Dean's death in a car crash, Hopper was devastated by the loss of his mentor. "His death was mind-boggling to me," Hopper says. "He was going to go on to write and direct."

Some Hollywood observers say that Hopper tried to fill Dean's shoes and carry on his rebellious image. Dean's demand for reality in film would be a cross Hopper would bear for decades.

Trouble began early with director Henry Hathaway, who finally broke down Hopper's improvisational spirit by making him do 80 takes in 15 hours in From Hell to Texas (1958).

Hopper was in tears when he finally gave in and said the lines the way Hathaway wanted him to. Hathaway warned Hopper he would never work in films again. And he almost didn't. Work was so scarce in Hollywood after that film that Hopper gave up and went to New York. Ironically, Hopper would later work with Hathaway in The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965. Hopper did the lines just the way Hathaway wanted saying, "See what a better actor I am now?" Hathaway growled back, "You're not better, you're just smarter."

Hopper worked on TV while living in New York but mostly he hung out with the new Bohemians, an arty crowd of Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists, writers and poets. This offbeat group included Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Marcel Duchamp.

Frustrated by films and the lack of good roles, Hopper turned to art for a creative outlet. In 1961, he began shooting full frame black-and-white photos -- frozen images of the social changes in the art and film world. He stopped shooting in 1967 but has recently begun again, now focusing on peeling paint and graffiti on walls in Tokyo, Venice, Paris, Prague and Morocco. His photography has been displayed in museums and galleries around the world.

"I was stopped so many times from acting and directing that if I had not had art as an outlet, I don't know what I would have done," he says. Hopper also started collecting modern art. Contemporary artist Ed Ruscha first met Hopper in 1964 at the Ferris Gallery in Los Angeles.

"He bought one of my first paintings, Standard Station," says Ruscha. "He was an early collector, one of the very few people in Hollywood who bought modern art.


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