Dennis Hopper was 13, when he first sniffed gasoline and watched the clouds turn into clowns and goblins. There was little else to do in Dodge City, where he had been born and lived. Catch lightning bugs, fly his kite, burn newspapers, swim. Hopper was, by his own words, “desperate”.   A sensitive child without the stimulation to keep his fevered imagination in check.

He went to movies and watched Abbott and Costello and Errol Flynn. Hopper o.d.ed on gasoline fumes and became Abbott and Costello and Errol Flynn. He wrecked his grandfather’s truck with a baseball bat. It was a hint of what was to come.

Signed at 18 on contract to Warner Bros, Hopper identified with Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, but found he was expected to conform to the studio’s whims. Hopper was too sensitive to conform, and his vulnerability saw him bullied and picked on by old time studio director Henry Hathaway, who had him black-balled from Hollywood.

For the next few years, Hopper did little work. Instead, he picked up a camera and documented the social and cultural changes that were happening across America, and to himself, during the 1960s.

Towards the end of that decade, Hopper channelled his knowledge and experiences when he directed and starred in ‘Easy Rider‘, the film that announced the birth of a new generation of film-makers.

From this success, Hopper moved on to his next project ‘The Last Movie’, but drink and drugs unfocussed his vision and the studios destroyed his film.

It seemed the pattern set out in childhood was to continue.  Yet Hopper could still make his presence felt, as he did in ‘Apocalypse Now‘ but once again the truck got smashed, when his improvised scenes with Marlon Brando were heavily cut from the film.

By the mid-1980s, he had given up drink and drugs and had accepted his lot making B-list films. That was, until ‘River’s Edge’ and ‘Blue Velvet‘ confirmed what should have been apparent all along – Dennis Hopper was an incredible and unique talent. A talent that should have been given more respect and opportunity to fulfill his vision as an actor and as a director.

But sadly he wasn’t, as one of his last films as director ‘Catchfire’ (aka ‘Backtrack’) was taken out of his hands and hacked form a 180 minute cut to 98 minutes.  Hopper disowned it and had his name removed.

Thereafter, Hopper mainly stuck to acting, and though always watchable and still able to deliver film-stealing performances, as evident in ‘True Romance‘ and ‘Speed’, he made 20-odd forgettable movies.

Even so, Hopper appealed because his performances revealed the depth of his life-experience and a resonance of his emotional hurt that made each role he acted in real for the audience.

Hopper never faked it, and it was this talent which made Hopper more than just an actor, but a great and genuine artist.

Advertisements