Monday 31 May 2010

In passing: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Given his fascination with contemporary art, it's perhaps apt that Dennis Hopper - who died of prostate cancer yesterday, aged 74 - should have shared a name with one of the foremost American painters of his time. You sense, however, that the canvasses of Edward Hopper would be altogether too serene for this most restless of talents - that Hopper, D. would have found himself more at home within the world of Banksy's "Nighthawks" and then, such was the reporting of the actor-writer-director's off-screen antics, we'd all know which side of the glass he'd have been on. Hopper's passing marks the severing of yet another link between two very distinct movie worlds: between old Hollywood and new Hollywood, Easy Rider and Speed, studio contracts and straight-to-video fodder, the Method and the madness.

After a number of TV appearances, Hopper made his movie debut in the role of "Goon" in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, and though he would claim that watching James Dean at work (both here and in the later Giant) would be the formative experience of his professional life, the bulk of his career from the late 1970s onwards would be devoted to playing variations on the goon theme. Hopper would typically be cast as middle-to-low-ranking thugs or heavies - albeit thugs or heavies who, while never too far away from the most horrific violence, were possessed of a manic, mocking, cultured spring in their step: think of his prophet-photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979), equally snapping at and riffing on the carnage around him, and in doing so providing the perfect warm-up act for Brando.

In the 1980s, Hopper essayed a string of variably monstrous, sometimes Oedipal father figures, incarnating the dark side of Reagan's America: the dad in Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), surrogate father to that film's cast of outsiders and mavericks; savage and brilliant as hyperventilating gangster Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986), certain scenes from which remain all but unwatchable to this day; quietly chilling (and affecting) the same year in Tim Hunter's underrated River's Edge, as a murderer offered up as the moral centre of that zeitgeist-bucking teen-oriented drama just for having actually felt something when he killed.

If I feel obliged to mention he also played King Koopa in the ill-fated Super Mario Bros. movie, it's only to highlight how wayward and frustrating Hopper could sometimes be in his choices; his best performances came in patches, sudden spells of clarity after long nights of drink-muddled wrong-headedness. There was a revival in the early 90s, as the trend for neo-noir and Tarantinian thrillers took hold - he was there, atypically avuncular and supportive in True Romance (1993); catching the tone of John Dahl's knowing Red Rock West (1993); back to something like his taunting best in 1994's Speed - and one final flourish in the early Noughties, emerging as Victor Drazen, very worst of the very worst, in the final hours of the superior first series of TV's 24.

Parallel to all this was the fitful directorial career, equally cursed and blessed by Hopper's restlessness. I remain unconvinced on Easy Rider's merits: sure, it looked and sounded good, there can be no denying it tapped successfully into the '68 generation's dopey sense of martyrdom, and it forced studio bosses to get on board with its underlying program of rebellious youth, but - as David Thomson correctly pointed out - this latter means we now have to sit through one or more 12A-rated movie a week painfully and obviously targeting the disposable income of brain-dead adolescents. (Put it this way: no Easy Rider, no The Losers.) Better was 1971's The Last Movie, where the finished feature very nearly managed to rival the stories emanating from behind the camera.

The very intriguing (and sadly out of circulation) Out of the Blue (1980) was both a product of, and touchstone for, an independent Hollywood: Hopper cast Linda Manz, the girl from Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, as his onscreen daughter; in so doing, he inspired Harmony Korine to cast Manz as the mother in his later Gummo. Yet 1990's Catchfire (a.k.a. Backtrack), with Jodie Foster, fizzled out under the Alan Smithee pseudonym; and the same year's (better) The Hot Spot and 1994's (much worse) Chasers felt like exercises in leering over the nubile forms of Jennifer Connelly and Baywatch alumna Erika Eleniak respectively; try as he might, the director could never quite leave the rogue in him on the roadside.

In recent times, the Hopper legend of drink-and-drug-fuelled excess - he simply went missing for four years in the 1970s - was picked over in such retro-artefacts as Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and the fun Aussie film Not Quite Hollywood. There was tabloid tittle-tattle involving his later wives, and a fair amount of lazy, DVD-destined dross, much of which can now be gleaned running on ITV4 in the wee hours, should you be so inclined. Offset against all this was Hopper's smart, informed appearances in such artworld documentaries as Sketches of Frank Gehry and The Cool School, about the Californian pop art scene of the 50s and 60s. Behind the mayhem, there was a trained and discerning eye that always made Hopper fun to watch; there'll be a gallery opening somewhere beyond the stars tonight, and the host will be weighing up whether to serve white wine or water.

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