Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper: 1936 - 2010

Two months ago, Dennis Hopper was honoured with a star on Hollywood's walk of fame. Such recognition was long overdue for a fine and often underrated actor, who spent much of his career on the margins of the film industry, before making a comeback every few years that reminded people just how good he could be. For those of us watching Hopper receive his place among the Hollywood elite, however, it was a more bittersweet day, as we saw how frail he had become in his fight against prostate cancer and realised that he surely did not have much time left. He finally succumbed to that disease today, dying at the age of 74, and leaving behind a large and varied body of work.

Hopper made his film debut alongside James Dean, taking supporting roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant alongside the ill-fated star. It wasn't until the late 60's that Hopper really made his mark on cinema, though. He collaborated with Roger Corman and Peter Fonda on The Trip, and later reunited with Fonda for Easy Rider, which they co-wrote and co-starred in alongside Jack Nicholson. The film is very much a product of its time, but in 1969 it proved to be a hugely influential movie, being cited alongside films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde as a sign of the New Hollywood that would transform American cinema in the 1970's. While Nicholson and Fonda went on to become stars in the next decade, Hopper struggled to repeat Easy Rider's success, and his second film as a director, 1971's The Last Movie, was a huge flop that baffled audiences and critics and effectively killed Hopper's aspirations as a filmmaker for many years.

We also lost many years of Hopper the actor during the subsequent years, as his personal problems and rampant drug use severely limited his opportunities. When he did emerge, he could often be brilliant, giving a sly and enigmatic performance as Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders' The American Friend, and enlivening Apocalypse Now's third act with his babbling performance as the hyperactive photographer. He began the 1980's by making his best film as a director, the fine cop drama Colors, and this was the start of his most fruitful period in front of the camera as well. Hopper finally entered rehab in 1983, and three years later he won an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Hoosiers, but the performance he should have received Oscar recognition for in that year was his career-defining turn in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. As the perverted, oxygen-sucking psychopath Frank Booth, Hopper gives a terrifyingly evil performance. He fully inhabits this chilling character – in fact, he won the part by telling the nervous Lynch, "You have to let me play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth."

Hopper spent the 90's taking supporting roles and making cameo appearances that often turned out to be among the most memorable aspects of the film he was appearing in. Remember the classic scene between Hopper and Christopher Walken in True Romance? Or his performance as the criminal mastermind taunting Keanu Reeves in Speed? Hopper worked ceaselessly in the last twenty years – perhaps making up for the years he lost earlier in his career – and while he undoubtedly worked on a lot of terrible projects in that time, a few of them did allow him to display the vitality and spark that he possessed on his best form. His last appearance of note was in 2008's Elegy, in which he gave a strong and subtle performance. Once again, he took the opportunity to remind us of his too-often overlooked talents, but it was to be the last such display from this one-of-a-kind artist.