Dennis Hopper, who died on Saturday aged 74, combined latent menace with a boyish sense of fear | Peter Bradshaw | Guardian, 30 May 2010 »»
It is 1969, and two Harley-riding cocaine suppliers are down Mexico way, pulling off the deal of a lifetime. In the presence of grinning, giggling villagers, they have just paid for a big consignment of the white powder with a block of high-denomination US dollar bills, an outlay which gets a vast return with a cash sale to a client at a remote airstrip.
One of these players is lean, cool, tanned and unflappably handsome: he is Captain America, played by the eternally youthful Peter Fonda. The other is the leery character, Billy. And this, of course, is Dennis Hopper, in the role that cemented his legendary persona, catapulting him into movie legend as a one-head Mount Rushmore of excess.
The film was Easy Rider, the loopy biker-freak countercultural event that gave Hopper a taste of something more addictive than any drug: success.
When the two roar off across America on their motorbikes with all that money and freedom, and the soundtrack bursts into Born to be Wild, it's clear that a new spirit is abroad in America. Hopper was to be its raddled figurehead for the rest of his life, mocked, feared and admired.
He was his reputation: he was a one-man orgiastic happening that somehow "happened" mostly off-camera, in the stunned reminiscences of friends or in Peter Biskind's 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which underlined his importance for a new generation.
Can it be possible that cancer has carried off Hopper, the man who 20 years ago was pretty well consuming his body weight in cocaine and heroin almost every month?
Hopper had worked steadily since playing opposite his friend and hero James Dean in the 1950s, but Easy Rider was the film that made him. Comically, almost furtively, he sports a cowboy hat, sunglasses and a heavy moustache, as if in disguise. When they test the merchandise, Hopper gets a white speck on this moustache and he gives a tiny convulsion, part shiver, sneeze and semi-repressed giggle. This is someone wound, liable to go off at any time, and yet he is not a violent man in the film.
As the director on Easy Rider and a co-writer, along with Fonda and Terry Southern, Hopper presided over pure acrimonious chaos, regularly treating cast and crew to drunken, drug-crazed screaming fits, megalomaniacal rants and death threats, benders and binges. And yet he is a subdued figure in the film, a Sancho Panza figure to Fonda's Quixote. His Billy is nervy, whiny, tense and utterly dependent on Peter Fonda's supercool alpha male for direction.
He is recognisably the same character as the wacko photographer who was to go way upriver with Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz 10 years later in Apocalypse Now. Here again, Hopper is a supporting player apparently idolising a mythic figure. Or is it that this figure is a projection of Hopper himself, all-American badass rebel?
However bizarre, Hopper's wild, freewheeling, untutored direction style arguably created an American Nouvelle Vague. He is credited with inventing "lens flare": the phenomenon in which globule-streams of light float woozily around as the lens is swung into the sun. This used to be a simple technical mistake, to be cut; Hopper kept it in, and it became a groovy signature of the 70s movie scene, now even used in animations.
Hopper made an experimental picture, The Last Movie, in 1971, about a film crew member in Peru who discovers that villagers, stunned by having a location crew in their midst and having no conception of what a film is, later set about "filming" a killing with mock cameras and boom mikes made of sticks. Much yawned at and mocked, it is now a cult item among cinephiles, and I found it absolutely fascinating.
But Hopper is not remembered for these creative adventures, but rather for a regimen of self-destruction that by the early 80s, according to Biskind, had reached a daily intake of half a gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine. (Easy Rider was credited with popularising cocaine use in America, in the way that Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses was credited with popularising auto-erotic strangling.)
In Britain, we had a phenomenon called "hellraisers": boomy-voiced act-ors who would consume too much booze and start declaiming Shakespeare and then be asked to leave the pub. In America, they had Hopper, who once attempted suicide by lying down in a coffin near a highway in Texas, surrounding himself with sticks of dynamite, challenging allcomers to blow him up, and finally leaving, reportedly shooting up cocaine and heroin, succumbing to delirious hallucinations, and taking off for Mexico, where he tried to venture into the jungle without clothes and was arrested for punching a cop. Did all that really happen? Or was Hopper his own gleefully self-created myth: the man who shot up with Liberty Valance?
The question was, could any director – could Hopper himself – somehow bottle this grisly reputation and make it work on screen, in the way writers such as William Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson converted their reputations into prose?
David Lynch came nearest, I think, in his 1986 surrealist noir nightmare, Blue Velvet, in which Hopper's latent menace, along with his sense of pain and even boyish fear, was allowed to come to the surface. Hopper plays Frank, a disturbing violent criminal who has apparently kidnapped the family of a sultry nightclub singer, played by Isabella Rossellini, in order to force her to submit to his twisted Oedipal sex fantasies as he huffs crazily on some inhaler that turns his face into a big plastic monster-proboscis.
This Hopper looks a smarter, sleeker creature than the Hopper audiences had come to expect. Yet he is lit up with self-doubt, and Lynch captures Hopper's pathos as no one else does. He was also a cool villain in the 1994 box office sensation Speed: the creepy genius who rigs a bus with a bomb that becomes activated above a certain speed but will explode if the bus then falls below that speed. It's an inspired metaphor for the man who lived fast and hated to slow down: Hollywood's own Uneasy Rider.
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