At the risk of being tacky to bring up Dennis Hopper’s personal travails late in life, as they unfortunately will be alongside the glowing career retrospectives now that he finally succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 74, it’s worth mentioning that he wouldn’t let his weakened state keep him from being a daring rabble-rouser until the very end.
Although Hopper’s long battle with disease robbed us of one of cinema’s great rebels too soon, it also allowed for moving considerations of his work while he was still alive as the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Matt Zoller Seitz did of both his work as a director right here for IFC.com and his career as a whole for Moving Image Source around the time he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Hopper’s speech for the occasion can be found here.)
Of course, Hopper was always an odd fit with Hollywood — a fiercely talented actor with all-American looks whose early roles opposite James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” always hinted at his independent streak with the ever-present mania behind those blue eyes. It may not entirely have been his plan to overthrow the film business in 1969 (and using studio distribution to do it, no less) with “Easy Rider,” a film that helped bring counterculture to the masses and kickstarted one of the most creatively fertile periods in Hollywood history, not to mention its influence on shaping the modern independent film movement. (In a study of extremes, Hopper acted in Tinseltown stalwart John Wayne’s “True Grit” the same year.)
Showing my age, I grew up with Hopper in the era long after his exploits offscreen and on (let’s just say it was a long time before I got to appreciate his turn as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”) had given way to a steady stream of villains in mainstream Hollywood fare. His appearance alone was instant code for crazed mastermind in such films as “Super Mario Brothers,” “Waterworld” and “Speed,” even though he was doing some of the most nuanced work of his career in films like the May-December romance “Carried Away” and his pivotal supporting turn as Christian Slater’s blue collar father in “True Romance.”
To learn that Hopper was also a gifted photographer (he will have an exhibit at L.A.’s MOCA beginning in July), one of the world’s great art collectors and ultimately one of contemporary film’s most significant architects would come as a surprise for someone weaned on ’90s era Hopper, but then again, that was always one of his gifts as an artist, a constant sense of discovery that will surely be passed along to future generations. (He also was an incredible advocate of young filmmakers, championing the CineVegas Film Festival, which folded shortly after he became ill.)
Today, Hopper will be celebrated in all corners — he is the rare artist who was embraced by liberals ever since his earliest films and will be honored by conservatives who could count him among their number when he got older (one of his final performances was in David Zucker’s “An American Carol”) — but that’s as it should be, without throwing in any politics. In an era where the term icon is thrown around often, Hopper was a true iconoclast whose body of work actually lived up to his wild, larger-than-life reputation.
[Photos: “Easy Rider,” Columbia Pictures, 1969; “An American Carol,” Vivendi Entertainment, 2008]