As a director, Dennis Hopper changed Hollywood. As an actor and a counterculture hero, he cut a figure that stood for freedom and an unpredictable new kind of rugged individualism. His most influential accomplishment was directing and starring in "Easy Rider," the 1969 biker film about two alienated souls who (as the tag-line said) went "looking for America....and couldn't find it anywhere." Made on a $400,000 budget (it grossed $60 million worldwide), it blew the hinges off the big studios' doors. It helped open American movies to contemporary content and new styles of acting and storytelling. Who could blame Hopper for falling into all the traps of early success, especially when he was trying to redefine success? I still remember when he told the makers of the documentary "The American Dreamer" that if his next movie ("The Last Movie") bombed (and it did), "That wouldn't bother me...then I'd be just like Orson Welles."
"Easy Rider" was never a great film, but it has become a terrific time-capsule: Hopper caught so much of his era's dizzying mood swings that it's a more evocative "trip" film now than it was 41 years ago. And every time you're watching a movie that's set on the open road, and you feel as if you're outside the theater in a convertible with the top off, you can thank Hopper and his cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs. They shot "Easy Rider" fearlessly, moving the camera fluidly and freely, pointing it wherever they felt the most arresting action was, even if that meant shooting right into the sun.
When Hopper and his costar Peter Fonda clicked with the featured player who stole the show, Jack Nicholson, they gave American audiences a promise of combining natural, unbuttoned and idiosyncratic performances with old-fashioned star presence. (That's Hopper in the foreground, Nicholson in the background, above.) Nicholson delivered on that promise, big-time. But so did Hopper, who spent most of his career as an actor, often in films where he played off his early wild-man image as cannily as Robert Downey, Jr. does today.
Just ten years after "Easy Rider," Hopper anchored the last part of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," connecting to the audience in the midst of insanity -- his own and everyone else's in that movie. As a freelance photographer too long away from home, he's a decade-older, strung-out Easy Rider, with melancholy in his eyes and gray in his beard. He knows his brain has exploded even though he claims it has been enlarged. He catches himself up with a single word -- "wrong" -- that sounds out like his conscious mind's foghorn. Hopper expresses more about the fall-out of the 60s than anything else in the movie.
Early in his career Hopper worked for some Old Hollywood titans like George Stevens, most famously on Stevens' "Giant," with his friend James Dean. He had a bit role when Dean etched the title role in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause"; Hopper would later be part of the ensemble surrounding Paul Newman's most popular alienated hero, "Cool Hand Luke." Hopper also performed in a string of entertaining Westerns from John Sturges' "Gunfight at the OK Corral" to Henry Hathaway's "The Sons of Katie Elder" and "True Grit."
Hopper knew how to play off his strengths without getting boxed in. In 1986, he created a one-of-a-kind villain as Frank Booth, the sleazoid at the center of the small-town rackets in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (right). Under Frank's influence, wispy songs of adolescent longing, like Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet," or Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," become druggy, sadomasochistic anthems. To Hopper's Frank, blue velvet isn't poetic: he's hung up on the actual material. And when he recites Orbison's lyrics -- "In dreams I walk with you/In dreams I talk to you/In dreams you're mine" -- they become terrifying. Hopper's performance goes over-the-top in character -- you could call it a topless performance, but it's bottomless, too. In "Blue Velvet" he acts with the veins on his forehead.
Yet in a square sports hit from the very same year, "Hoosiers," you can see him doing admirable yeoman's work as an alcoholic assistant high school basketball coach. Hopper, always honest, catches the hint of desperation behind the character's declaration, "I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented."
I respected him for working with risky directors when I liked their collaboration -- as with Sam Peckinpah on "The Osterman Weekend" -- and even when I didn't, as with Wim Wenders on "The American Friend." And he did daring work to the end. He was never more passionate and moving than as the poet in a Philip Roth-based movie from 2008, who says "Beautiful women are invisible....we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell. We're blocked by the beauty barrier. We're so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside." Again and again, Hopper brought us inside his characters. The name of that film, with his last great performance, couldn't be more perfect: "Elegy."
Which Hopper performances did you find springing into your head when you learned of his death? Did his work as a director have a lasting impact on you? Was he ever part of your cultural -- or countercultural -- pantheon?