Zeitgeist Man

Jenny Diski

  • Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel by Peter Winkler
    Robson, 376 pp, £18.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84954 165 7

As charm is to Cary Grant, awkwardness to Jerry Lewis, vulnerability to Montgomery Clift, so malevolence is to Dennis Hopper. Very few actors specialised as Hopper did in convincing malice. Vincent Price was too camp to be really alarming, even as the witchfinder general. Peter Lorre was heartbreaking as a child murderer. James Gandolfini, playing an incorrigibly mean-minded godfather for seven years, strangely held on to the affection of most of his mass audience. James Cagney had his moments of deadpan nastiness, but there’s the mother thing. Perhaps George Raft came close, but I suspect that’s more the result of moribund acting. There isn’t any doubt about Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (one of the few good films I wish I’d never seen): as blank and merciless a psychopath as I’ve ever come across in the movies. But no one has ever been as repeatedly and consistently sinister, morally frightening and lethally paranoid as Dennis Hopper, whether he was playing for laughs in Speed, manifesting the dread unconscious in Blue Velvet or apparently just being himself in Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now.

A great deal of Peter Winkler’s entertaining and eventful book is taken from previously published and broadcast interviews with Hopper himself on the subject of his own life. Hopper wasn’t a reticent man, and he knew the celebrity value of the mythic over plain fact. His stories are always aware of public appetite and expectation. He tells of growing up in Kansas, spending a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm, lying around in the wheat fields watching the horizon and ‘wondering where it came from and where it went to’. Or stretched out on the hood of the farm tractor blissfully sniffing fumes from the petrol tank, until after a bad trip, his grandfather found him smashing up the vehicle-turned-vicious-monster with a baseball bat. Hopper knew how to talk about himself. His grandmother used to take him to the local moviehouse for the Saturday matinee. ‘Then all the next week,’ he said,

I’d live that picture. If it was a war picture I’d dig foxholes; if it was sword-fighting, I’d poke the cow with a stick … it was just after the Dust Bowl, and sometimes I used to say that the first light that I saw was in the movie theatre, because the sun was just a little glow. And being in Kansas, there’s nothing really to look at. And right away, it hit me … The world on the screen was the real world, and I felt as if my heart would explode, I wanted so much to be a part of it. Being an actor was a way to be part of it. Being a director is a way to own it.

But then another time he recalls Elvis in Hollywood for his first movie, balking at a scene in which he believed he had to hit his co-star: ‘No, I can’t hit a woman!’ Hopper, I imagine, took a deep breath before explaining ‘that you never actually hit anyone in a movie, that it was all faked, but the film was cut in such a way as to give the impression that it actually happened’. Being part of and owning the real world through acting and directing movies was more complex than his fantasy of a childhood fantasy come true suggested.

He began acting early in a theatre in La Jolla, where the likes of Dorothy McGuire were on hand to write the letters of recommendation that gave him a TV part at 19 and then, almost immediately, a movie contract with Warner Bros. His first successful films (though he only had small parts in them) – Rebel without a Cause and Giant – were steeped in 1950s cod-Freudian Oedipal narratives. He was, and in the way he looked back on his life increasingly became, a creature of his culture as well as an actor in it. Asked to describe his family life, Hopper says of his mother (the book has a large bibliography but the quotes are not annotated and rarely dated or attributed in the text): ‘She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller. My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her [sic]. I never had sex with my mother, but I had total sexual fantasies about her.’ (The placing of ‘total’ suggests he said this late in life.) By the time the press wanted him to look back, he was living – and relating himself – as a legend, and a legend only partly of his own devising. He pulled into it stereotypes of bad boys, troubled genius and movie star narratives that were being developed in the early 1950s, and had more or less fossilised by the end of the 1970s.

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