Zeitgeist Man

Jenny Diski

  • BuyDennis 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.

The story he told and retold of himself was made up of what he had missed, what he had lost and how his talents had been wasted by people in power who were too mediocre to understand them. Not very different, I suppose, from the story any of us might tell, but more publicly told and more elaborately intercut between reality and the movies. He got stuck on the problem of having arrived too late, as each generation does, and being left to watch as the last of the great heroes disappeared. I still regret being just too late to sit in Les Deux Magots with Beckett or hang out at Shakespeare & Co with the Beats. Hopper missed mixing it with the hard-drinking rabble-rousers, Flynn, Bogart and Sinatra, while John Wayne, with whom he acted in The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit, called him a Communist and offered to explain why he, Wayne, ‘was worth a million per picture’. Hopper was, however, perfectly on time for the upcoming group of heroes, mumbling geniuses who had sat at the feet of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. But they left him behind for early deaths – in the case of Montgomery Clift and James Dean – or in Brando’s case just got lost. He had to make do with phantoms of forbidding stature, and legendary figures whose equal he claimed he would have been if they’d still been there to assent to his inclusion. Hopper met Dean while playing a gang member in Rebel without a Cause (1955). His association with him during Rebel and the filming of Giant (also filmed in 1955) seems weirdly parallel to the hero-worshipping relationship Sal Mineo as Plato has to Dean’s rebel, Jim Stark – except that in the movie Jim is nicer to Plato than Dean was to Hopper, and it’s Mineo’s character who dies. It’s also true that Hopper didn’t start out with any of Plato’s insecurities: ‘I was the best actor in the world, pound for pound – I mean the best young actor. I was really good, I had incredible technique, I was incredibly sensitive. I didn’t think there was anyone to top me. Until I saw James Dean.’

Dean kept to himself, locking himself in his dressing room between takes and refusing to respond to Hopper’s greetings. Hopper followed Dean around, and Dean did all he could to avoid him. Finally, Hopper grabbed him and shut them both in a car, demanding to know how to be as good an actor as Dean. Should he go to New York and see Strasberg? No, Hopper remembers Dean replying, ‘you’re too sensitive. Strasberg will destroy you.’ Make what you will of both young men, but bear in mind it’s always Hopper’s account you’re reading. ‘It was, in a strange way, a closer friendship than most people have, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where he said, “Let’s go out and tear up the town.” Sometimes we’d have dinner. Also, we were into peyote and grass before anybody else. What we really had was a student-teacher relationship, the only one he ever had, as far as I know.’ The sound of Plato hankering after Jim’s attention is plainly audible. In Giant, Hopper watched Dean try to create the edgy Jett Rink by keeping his bladder full for a scene with Elizabeth Taylor, and then, after blowing his lines, dealing with his awe of Taylor by emptying his bladder in full sight of her, the crew and several thousand movie-struck onlookers. (A good moment to recall Laurence Olivier’s comment to Dustin Hoffman, who had stayed up several nights to play a scene in which his character had stayed up several nights: ‘Try acting, dear boy.’) But then Dean died in a car crash, aged 24, after, according to Hopper, stopping by the set to say to him: ‘Today you were great.’ Hopper lost a mentor, but gained a substantial ghost and a one-sided story on which he would rely for the rest of his career.

Hopper’s early training in Oedipal awareness and petrol sniffing was useful support for his belief in his own remarkable talent. The notion of the angst-ridden, disturbed genius, and of the angst and disturbance confirming claims of genius, was as powerful in mid-20th-century America as it had been to the Early Moderns and the Romantics. Strasberg’s daughter Susan remembers Hopper’s disappointment after a psychiatrist he consulted told him he wasn’t neurotic enough to need therapy. ‘If I’m not sick, how can I be a good actor?’ he moaned, to which she replied, either with sincerity or as an act of kindness: ‘You are sick, Dennis. Believe me, you are!’ Being crazy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was de rigueur for any major artistic genius. Crazy drunk, crazy drugged, crazy paranoid, crazy creative – it all helped to persuade you and others of your unique gift. Not everyone succumbed. While Hopper was still in his twenties, and noisily convinced that he was a better actor than Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward concluded (some time after hitting him on the head at a party with an antique copper bedwarmer): ‘Dennis is a genius. I’m not sure of what, and I’m not sure Dennis knows of what. Certainly not acting. But he is a genius.’ It wasn’t just the acting: Hopper really was a zeitgeist man. He hung out with jazz musicians (apparently Miles Davis composed ‘So What’, on Kind of Blue, inspired by Hopper’s repeated use of the phrase), with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and Warhol and Lichtenstein. He bought paintings that became a major Pop Art collection and took photographs that were published by glossy art and fashion magazines. He had a good eye and a sense of what was going to last. Books, on the other hand, weren’t an active enough expression of his artistic sensibility. Winkler describes how in a documentary on Hopper, instigated by Hopper, called The American Dreamer (1971), ‘Hopper frolics with two girls in the tub. While the film shows a well-endowed nude woman sitting in a rocking chair, an off-camera Hopper philosophises: “I don’t believe in reading. By using your eyes and ears, you’ll find everything there is.”’

Hopper followed Dean’s example in wanting to be his own director to such a degree that after making life miserable for Henry Hathaway in his next film, From Hell to Texas, Warner cancelled his contract. Instead, he went to New York, lurked at the Chelsea Hotel, drank, took copious amounts of drugs and married Brooke Hayward, the daughter of a tragedy-prone Hollywood family. He did some television and a flopped stage version of Mandingo until Hathaway forgave him. In 1959, MGM signed a five-picture contract with him and he made some low-budget production-line movies, not at all seeming to be Dean’s representative on screen, but working on his art collection and taking photos of artists while feeling ‘in some strange way, I would be doing history a favour.’ It was only a hiatus. 1968 was coming up fast and there was a story to be told.

The music in Easy Rider is just as good as I thought it was when it first came out, and the film in a few parts is better than I remembered. Whose film it was – that is, whose idea it was and who wrote it – has been so disputed in print and in litigation by Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, Hopper, and even Peter Coyote, that it looks like we’ll just have to give the last man standing – that’ll be Fonda or Coyote – whatever credit one or all of them deserve. It has its moments (though not nearly as many as Electra Glide in Blue, made a few years later with half an eye on Easy Rider). It conveys a sense of young Americans threatened by their own history, ripping up their roots and not so much finding themselves as getting lost for a while in familiar surroundings. The main pitch, according to Fonda, was to do dope, motorcycles and travel with some sex here and there, but to ‘do all these things really honestly’. That was what we specialised in back then, doing it really honestly, whatever it was. We, and I daresay Fonda and Hopper, were sincere for the most part, by which I might mean young. Fonda and Hopper were going to remake the movies, break the old dead hand of the Hollywood industry and make independent visions of truth, just as the rest of us, high and spirited, were going to remake politics, social relations and, with the use of benevolent hallucinogens, reality itself. We have since learned how little sincerity and honesty has to do with making or remaking anything, but why not give us a little credit for naive effort?

What is most noticeable about the film – apart from Jack Nicholson’s masterly cameo – is how unpleasant the Hopper character, Billy (think Billy the Kid), is from start to finish. His plain nastiness in almost all situations, including those that warrant none, is actually a bit of a relief played against Fonda’s beatific and self-righteous Wyatt (think Earp), a.k.a. Captain America. But Billy’s meanness and scariness are startling. It’s possible to argue that it’s what redeems the otherwise self-indulgent film. Billy and Wyatt were never going to change the world or even themselves: their bikes and the journey are funded by a cocaine sale (to Phil Spector, of all people) and freedom’s just another name for dollars hidden in Wyatt’s teardrop gas tank, a tourist trip to Mardi Gras, and a visit to the best whorehouse in New Orleans. We see a bit of free love and countercultural living on the way, but when Billy crows, ‘We did it!’ the night before they’re blown away by rednecks, the ponderous Wyatt shakes his head: ‘We blew it.’ Billy has no idea what he means, because for him it was always about money, shiny machines, sex and popping into the carnival. I suspect that Hopper didn’t really get it either. This is, surely, the only reading of Easy Rider that can make it an interesting film. It’s seen as a road and a buddy movie and it does have a high proportion of roads, and of male compadres cavorting with whores. As Roger Ebert explains in an online review of the movie, ‘One of the reasons that America inspires so many road pictures is that we have so many roads. One of the reasons we have so many buddy pictures is that Hollywood doesn’t understand female characters (there are so many hookers in the movies because, as characters, they share the convenience of their real-life counterparts: they’re easy to find and easy to get rid of).’

The result of a lot of stoned young people paying to see Easy Rider was that Hopper was allowed to direct The Last Movie, which turned out to be the last word in expensive, incoherent, drink and drug-fuelled art or chaos. Hollywood was not impressed with the new movie-making and neither were the punters. Hopper got sent into the wilderness once again, this time to a mansion in Taos with a headful of paranoia, as well as guns, drugs, a partying entourage and a lot of money from the proceeds of Easy Rider. His marriage was over. He married Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas instead for about a week before she fled, then sank into a not so creative craziness with the daily help of three grams of coke, thirty beers, an untold amount of tequila, smoothed over with quantities of grass. After a suicide attempt and rehab, Wim Wenders cast him as an emotionally flat but lethally friendly Tom Ripley in The American Friend in 1977, probably his best movie and performance so far. Two years later, he was back to his old self in real life and on film in Apocalypse Now, as the funny, babbling, speeding and venomous photographer who provides the unpleasant comic relief in the midst of Kurtz/Brando’s final madness. More lost Hopper years were spent getting crazy and getting straight before he decided to blow himself up in public as a way of proving he was indeed a true artist. It might have been a suicide bid, but his notion that sitting at the centre of a circle of exploding dynamite would put him in a safe vacuum turned out to be correct, so he survived even if his artistic credentials weren’t much enhanced. Eventually in 1984, after the drink, peyote, cocaine and LSD he took in order to fuel his creative muse had made a paranoid mush of his mind and he heard the telephone wires talking to him while sitting in his room holding a gun, ready to shoot the first person who came through the door, he was committed to a mental institution, where he was treated with major anti-psychotics and his daughter was told he might never recover. He more or less got the message: ‘In my mind, I was an artist and writer. The reality was that I was just a drunk and a drug addict. It wasn’t helping me create.’

It turned out that he only had to be himself. A couple of months after coming out of rehab, he got the part of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986). Straightaway he called David Lynch to reassure him: ‘David, don’t even worry about casting me in this. You did the right thing because I am Frank Booth.’ Lynch turned to his lunch companions, Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern: ‘I just talked to Dennis Hopper, and he said he is Frank Booth. I guess that’s really good for the movie, but I don’t know how we’ll ever have lunch with him.’ Booth’s histrionic violence and self-pity, to say nothing of his constant and amazingly expressive use of the word ‘fuck’, are chilling, both for his Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer-like authenticity and his night-terror menace. The collision of dream and reality horror is perfect. And he did it all cold sober, apparently.

After that, he was stuck with the dwindling shadow of Frank Booth in generally terrible movies reprising his most-vicious-evil-bastard-in-the-world performance; at least in Speed he caricatures his inhuman monster into camp comedy. He earned money, collected art, painted, did voiceovers for animated TV and movies, appeared on innumerable talk shows, and became a solid, sober citizen: a Republican who promoted both Bush administrations with all the self-satisfaction of a Billy who had not been shot and left for dead by the side of the road, but lived on to put his drug money to work in the system, change his fringed buckskin jacket for a decent suit while, it seems clear, continuing to be who he really always had been. He grew old like movie stars do and spent his last days with terminal cancer also as many seem to do, amid an inheritance battle between the children by his former marriages and his wife of 14 years and mother of his young daughter, whom he was trying to divorce to get around a pre-nuptial agreement allowing her any money. It made for good gossip. Victoria Hopper claimed that he was being held incommunicado by his other children, one of whom was ‘pulling her father out of his bed and driving him to the divorce lawyers’, while the Hopper family were granted a restraining order against Victoria to prevent her from ‘harassing, attacking, striking, threatening’ Hopper or his grown up children. A fairly dismal end, but who knows how James Dean’s life and work would have gone? In retrospect Hopper looks more like the diminished latterday Brando, though he never showed that he had Brando’s truly remarkable early gifts, only his capacity for vanity and self-indulgence.