Camp David


By • Apr 29th, 2010 •

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Portrait of Hopper from THE LAST MOVIE.

As I sadly watched the frail figure of 73 yr old Dennis Hopper make his way to the podium on Hollywood Blvd to modestly accept his long overdue star on its walk of fame, he seemed like a man falling from a great height, and his entire career began to flash before my eyes. From his humble beginnings as a star struck youth from Dodge City, Kansas, to the backlots of Warner Bros where an 18 yr old Hopper would sign his first contract, Dennis Hopper always had a destiny to fulfill, not just on the silver screen but more importantly as an artist.

When Dennis’s family relocated to San Diego in 1949, his artistic life was about to take root with his very first contact at the La Jolla Playhouse, which turned out to be Mary Price – the second wife of Vincent Price. Price would prove to be a lifelong mentor to the young man, allowing him his first contact with artists like Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn. Price also introduced Hopper to his personal collection of art which influenced Dennis in time to his own style of painting – abstract expressionism.

As Hopper’s artistic life began to unfold, so did his acting career, and soon he secured a seven year contract with Warner Bros beginning with, ironically, a small part in I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES. This would lead to the life-altering encounter with James Dean in the legendary REBAL WITHOUT A CAUSE. It would be with Hopper’s role as “Goon” and his now famous first line of dialogue, “What are we going to do with him”, that his second mentoring would begin in earnest with his devotion to James Dean. Dean taught Hopper the imaginary line: the difference between what was “real” – the life of crew behind the camera, and the “unreal” make believe – acting in front of the camera. Dean told him to abandon gestures and simply react to situations as you would in real life.

Lto R Donald Cammell  Dennis Hopper Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger.

Hopper’s lifelong pursuit of photography would begin on REBEL as well. Dean had opened the door not only to Dennis’s acting style, but gave him perspective in never cropping a photo, always going for the full frame. It was James Dean who first told Hopper he would direct films somewhere down the line. The next film they would work on together would also be their last. While filming GIANT for George Stevens, Dean died in the now infamous car crash that killed a man but created an icon. GIANT was a turning point for Hopper, as his performance was considered Oscar worthy, and soon he was on his way. Dean’s death seven days after Hopper did his last scene devastated him in ways he did not realize at the time. Warner Bros put him in several projects until his volatile encounter with director Henry Hathaway on the film FROM HELL TO TEXAS would lead to his expulsion from Hollywood.

The ghost of James Dean had influenced more than Hopper’s acting style, as he was now branded as “difficult” to impossible to work with as an actor. This in turn allowed him to pursue his other talent in photography in which his star would shine as brightly as it ever did on film, something Dean was also aware of in his young protege. Eventually Hopper would make his way to the East coast in 1961 where the “method” was in full swing under the influence of Lee Strasburg’s actors studio. There he would learn the phrase “sense memory” for the first time, adding to Dean advice. Hopper could now tap into the reality of any acting scene by simply using his own life experience, to recall things, which is what method acting is all about.

When Dennis Hopper finally returned to Hollywood, he was married to Brook Hayward, the daughter of Leland Hayward, the producer of Broadway blockbusters like THE SOUND OF MUSIC and SOUTH PACIFIC. Dennis and his bride took up residence in Bel-Air and began to live artistic lives in what was becoming the swinging sixties in Hollywood. A fire in mid 1961 would see Hopper’s home burn to the ground and with it all of his abstract expressionism. Not one painting would survive the flames. His photography, however, was spared because Dennis was in the middle of showing his work in a gallery at the time of the fire.

Vincent Price with Hopper between takes of STORY OF MANKIND.

Hopper as Napoleon in STORY OF MANKIND.

By 1963 Dennis Hopper was a well-established photographer and artist with many friend’s on both coasts. This was also the year he would meet Andy Warhol, introducing him to the Hollywood art scene with a series of parties and exhibitions. Dennis would also appear in what is now regarded as Warhol’s first movie, TARZAN AND JANE REGAINED…SORT OF. This 16mm production involved Hopper wandering through the rotting canals of Venice, California looking somewhat bewildered while at one point taking off his shirt and beating his chest a la Tarzan. Hopper would also make a life defining purchase at this time by paying $75 for a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can. Hopper’s collection of art would achieve epic proportions as time went on, and this was something he worked on even through his darkest days of substance abuse, which almost ended his artistic as well as his earthly life at one point after the success of EASY RIDER.

In 1967 Hopper would stop taking photos for the next decade as he began to pursue his dream of directing films. It would be while working on Roger Corman’s THE TRIP that Hopper would be given his first chance to direct a scene as well as second unit along with co-star Peter Fonda. This film was important to Hopper’s artistic vision as well as a lifestyle, since the country’s youth was undergoing a radical transformation that would forever be known as the “counterculture movement,” the Love generation, or perhaps the more lyrical Age of Aquarius. THE TRIP was also written by Jack Nicholson, who would create the trio that would later make EASY RIDER the signature film of a generation.

The second opportunity for Hopper to test his directing skills would come in the form of a biker flick known as THE GLORY STOMPERS for which Dennis directed several scenes. This and THE TRIP made a great sounding board for what was to follow in 1968 when Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider agreed to finance another “biker” film, this one named EASY RIDER. The title comes from an old bawdy Mae West line “Where has my easy rider gone?” that stayed in screenwriter Terry Southern’s mind and then made its way into legend.

Hopper with Peter Fonda in THE TRIP.

In the sixties, the public of the day turned away from Hollywood because the studio system was ill-prepared to grasp the paradigmatic alteration that was currently in the process of overwhelming the arts as a whole. The counterculture was flexing its newly found muscles with the “new kids on the block” – Kubrick‚ĶNichols…Penn…Altman and Polanski, with Dennis Hopper climbing to the top of that list with EASY RIDER. One can look back at all of the cinema of that era and begin to revaluate Dennis Hopper’s three films as a director as a “trilogy,” EASY RIDER is really somewhat inspired by Kenneth Anger’s SCORPIO RISING, as well as being the bastard son of Brando’s THE WILD ONE, with a dash of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS grafted on, as Fonda and Hopper ride their coke filled Harleys into hell. Instead of going west young man they go east to their predestined doom. In THE LAST MOVIE, set in Peru, the Cocaine capital of the world, Hopper creates an environment filled with Brechtian devices so that we, the audience, can take a front row seat for the demise of Western culture as well as the American dream.

The western genre itself is ravaged by homage through Hopper’s camera lens while presided over by one of its auteurs, Samuel Fuller, basically playing himself. The film is on one level a tripped out riff on THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE with Hopper’s on screen persona – the stuntman – staying behind after filming is over to search for gold and drugs. The specter of James Dean hovers over this set as well, with Hopper setting up a store front and naming it “Jimmys place,” and rightly so since in Hopper’s universe James Dean will also have a place and a time to influence Hopper’s art. The legend of Hopper wearing a ring on set given to him by Dean is of interest here because it represents an energy, an occult power for Dennis to draw from. The bronze and silver Aztec artifact was always on his finger, where he was seen rubbing it for luck, or to draw some of its supposed power. Dennis dreamt of making a film with his mentor, Vincent Price, playing what else but an elder magician, with Hopper as his apprentice who owns the ring but keeps it locked away since he already knows its power and has no need to wear it. Price is killed at one point and the ring stolen, but Hopper wins in the end by using its power with the knowledge left to him by his master. I had hoped one day Dennis would actually make the film, but now it is yet another lost horizon in a long career.

Hopper acting out the climax of THE LAST MOVIE.

Hopper with Florence Marley in Curtis Harrington's QUEEN OF BLOOD.

The third film, OUT OF THE BLUE, is more or less a punk era extension of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Hopper took this film over in mid-production, altering the concept into his own dark vision, with the inspired addition of Neil Young, not to mention the punk rock take on the proceedings. During each and every one of these productions Hopper still maintained his high level of interest in art and painting, making him even more unique as a filmmaker/artist working within the system in America. He would continue this examination one step further when he directed COLORS later, his take on the urban scene in LA with street gang violence, thanks to his star Sean Penn, who suggested he direct the film.

Dennis Hopper has made more than 120 films, during which time he collected art from such longtime friends as Warhol, Jasper Johns,Edward Ruscha, Marcel Duchamp and Bruce Conner, whose style inspired the editing of EASY RIDER. He has worn the four hats of expression with vigor, being an actor, painter, director, and photographer while achieving fame in success in each and every one.

I chose two of his films in particular to try and explain how much his acting has worked its spell on my imagination over the years, While I am a fan as well as being vastly entertained by his voice and off kilter personality, he remains very much like Klaus Kinski, an actor who has stared into the abyss and something has indeed stared back. After years of substance abuse Hopper got clean and sober by the time of BLUE VELVET, yet ironically this was his most druggy, out of control performance ever, and also one of his greatest. The creation of Frank Booth is a tour de force by which all such other manic attempts will be judged. What sense memory could Hopper have channeled to bring this character into being? When David Lynch gave Hopper the part, he was told by the actor that he really had no other options, since Frank Booth was Dennis Hopper’s evil twin, at least in that dark universe David Lynch tends to inhabit

Hopper with director David Lynch BLUE VELVET.

One of the mysteries of BLUE VELVET is just how much was cut prior to its release? I have seen stills of the infamous pool hall sequence, which was apparently cut to shave the running time, with yet another murder left on the cutting room floor. There was however another moment which I am sorry is not in the final cut and that is the sequence when Frank takes Kyle and the Blue lady on a nightmarish joy ride to what Brad Dorf’s character describes as “pussy heaven” a place our young lead may or may not have gone before. Now when Kyle punches Frank you would have thought this was it; Frank would kill him. But as Hopper revealed at a press conference I attended to promote BLUE VELVET…

“When he punches me that is when I take him out of the car and put lipstick all over him…. What actually happened was I put all this lipstick on Kyle then force him to take down his pants where I draw a lip-line all around his ass and then sodomize him. When he wakes up in the field the next morning his pants are down around his ankles and there’s lipstick smudged all over his ass. That was the scene, my friends, but David decided not to go with it…you know BLUE VELVET was easy for me to do because David is not only a director but he is also the writer and, more than that, a painter. He knows exactly what he wants visually. This is a perfect working relationship. Every single thing in the film I did was scripted….wonderful experience from day one.”

Hopper with bullet between takes of BLUE VELVET.

Hopper playing dead in BLUE VELVET.

When Hopper was working on APOCALYPSE NOW, he was far from sober and it showed, yet his performance was so intense he owned the screen whenever he was on it. After years of wanting to work with Brando, by the time it came to pass, Hopper was still too out there for Brando’s taste, so his only request to his director was “Francis, please keep Dennis away from me if at all possible.” As soon as Hopper wrapped on the film he flew directly to Spain to play – what else – a drugged-out junkie named “chicken” in a film that can only be described as a mess, entitled LAS FLORES DEL VICO or THE SKY IS FALLING…a vague reference to the Chicken Little fable, I suppose. This film also stars Carroll Baker as ‘Treasure,’ a washed up star from Hollywood, which is pretty much what she was at that time, having fallen from grace after HARLOW as well as the fab CARPETBAGGERS, which is her best work in my humble opinion. Anyway this film is a must for anyone following the career of Dennis Hopper because it is a textbook of Hopperisms that would flourish to greater effect a few years later in BLUE VELVET. A hard film to find but one that is worth the effort once you have, this film also is badly edited, photographed, you name it, which is surprising since the director is Silvio Narizzano who gave us GEORGY GIRL as well as BLUE, that really culty western with Terence Stamp, and last but not least DIE DIE MY DARLING with Tallulah Bankhead. How could a pro like Silvio make such an abomination? Well, only Silvio knows, and so far nobody has ever gotten around to asking….

One of the first projects Hopper signed on for after his stay in rehab during 1986 was the long awaited sequel to Tobe Hoopers ground breaking classic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. This sequel became the cornerstone in the three picture deal Hooper made with Cannon films the pther two being a remake of INVADERS FROM MARS and LIFEFORCE. As Dennis himself said at the time “My agent begged me not to make this film, he warned me that it would destroy my career all over again. I listened to his advice as well as some of my friends all saying bascially the same thing and then went down to Texas and made it anyway. I am here to tell you I made more money on that film than I did on BLUE VELVET”

Hopper between set ups with director Tobe Hooper THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PT 2.

Portrait of Hopper from Texas Chainsaw pt 2.

Dennis Hopper also celebrated his 50th birthday on the set of Chainsaw II with a party telling the press at the time doing this film made it possible for him to play lots of golf with his pal Willie Nelson. As far as his performace Dennis may have been clean and sober but his acting in this film does not dissappoint as he emotes way over the top yet again preaching the Lord while whielding a mean chainsaw.

The film was at the time a severe disappointment to the fans of the original however this is no longer the case today, a new DVD special edtion “the Gruesome edtion” has come out ranking TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PT TWO as a neglected cult classic whose black comedy was misunderstood at the time of its original release. While it borrowed from shamelessly from MOTEL HELL it has Tom Sarvini special effects to recommend it as some of his best work. One look at Rob Zombie’s THE DEVILS REJECTS and you can see the influrence was more than an homage as Zombie lifts chunks of plot from Hoopers film into his own script. As with most of Dennis Hopper’s film work one has to keep coming back to fully appreciate his legacy. While this was one of Hopper’s rare excursions into the horror genre it certainly paved the way for his tour de force as Frank Booth.

The lasting image which first began my awareness of Dennis Hopper was a still Curtis Harrington shot of him, reflected in a broken mirror. This was, I believe, his first lead, playing the young sailor in Curtis’s homage to the films of Val Lewton, NIGHT TIDE, which, like the Warhol short, was filmed in the canals of Venice, California. I spent one evening a few years ago with the leading lady of that film, Linda Lawson, and her memories were clear but not too flattering regarding her relationship with Hopper at the time of filming.

“Dennis was very talented and so excited about playing a lead in Curtis’s film, which was done for no money at all, so we all pitched in to make it work. I invited Dennis over to run lines one afternoon, and when he arrived at my apt he walked in and went straight back to my kitchen and climbed under the table and would not come out. He was really scary when he chose to act like this. Afterwards we worked together only on location or with Curtis present. I warned Dennis that if he acted that way again I would walk off the film. The end result was Curtis really did not like me that much in any case, and we never saw each other again once the film was wrapped. It is bittersweet now since I get so much fan mail about that film, and now it is a cult film with articles being done about it all the time, but it was not a pleasant experience for me because of Dennis being in such a weird place emotionally…”

Hopper in NIGHT TIDE.

It is only fitting that after all these years Dennis Hopper now resides in Venice, California, where so much of his early life as both an artist and an actor took place. His legacy is still a work in progress yet his impact is ageless and will continue to inspire future generations of artists who will ponder the question “What are we going to do with him?”



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3 Responses »

  1. David:
    How appropriate & timely for you to focus on Dennis Hopper this month. I only recently heard that he is deathly ill. That news rattled me & has caused me to reflect on the impact that Hopper has had on me while growing up.

    My first recollected exposure to Dennis Hopper was, of course, Easy Rider. The film was forbidden fruit for us young teenaged girls. The movie rating system had only just been initiated in 1968; Easy Rider was realeased the following year. We should have been 17 to see the film, but we were far from it. Sneaking in to see the film set the tone and the movie perpetuated the rebellion.

    Hopper was certainly a sight for sore eyes to a 13 year old girl. I still think that Billy, with long hair & roaring Harley between his legs, is responsible for my affliction for both as I got older.

    It took a few years before I realized what a talent he was….not just a pretty face, & I followed his career with interest…”Backtrack”, opposite Jodie Foster, Hopper directing, the hit man falls in love with the target….”Flashback” with Kiefer Sutherland:: This film was adorable, a ’60s activist who’s been underground, comes out of hiding & gets arrested by FBI agent Sutherland. & the pairing again in Sutherland’s first season of “24”…Hopper was awesome as the nasty warlard / mercenary ..really(!)…and the 100 films…I’ve seen most of them…

    Of course I’d seen Blue Velvet, a disturbing film. Powerful performance is an understatment ..Dennis was tapping into something deep…something…scary….

    And of course, there was that Halloween party in L.A when you came in with cut out faces of…wasn’t that Dennis Hopper?

    It was nice to Dennis Hopper get jobs as we both got older…I even smiled when he got the ad spots for financial services a few years ago..and he looked oh, so good..

    And I guess I still have a crush on him **

    I guess my point is that Dennis Hopper would & could take on any roll..from bunny rabbit cute to violent, troubled, disturbed, bloody and anything / everything in between. He had no fear of judgement and no lack of talent … what he wanted to do, when he felt like doing it. and always giving the best that he could, on celluloid, on film, or on canvas.

    The passing of Dennis Hopper will be a sad day, the end of another era, the snuffing out of a one of a kind talent.

  2. Another outstanding job David. I look forward every month to checking out your articles. When I heard Dennis Hopper was ill it really bothered me. It seems these days that every time I turn on the computer there is news of another legend that I grew up leaving us. Very sad time to be a fan.

    Again excellent article.

  3. An intense power from this cinema icon that grabs the viewer hostage! Few had that ability and Dennis Hopper was one of them!

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