Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dennis Hopper RIP

Hollywood suffers again with the loss of another skilled star, Dennis Hopper. It's only those closest to him who deserve sympathy; I'd feel slimy being too soggy over someone I never knew - over someone I "enjoyed" from a distance. But I always feel sad when a talented, hard-working, member of "Old Hollywood" finds out what comes after death.

I usually ignore celebrity deaths, especially for film stars. The kind of media attention they get often has an obscene and selfish tone. The amount of coverage given also feels disrespectful to both the deceased and a world with terror, AIDS, starvation. I felt bad for Heath Ledger and his family, but I was exceptionally annoyed by the near-instant memorial DVD sales and "important breaking news" circus that occurred that day. The way it continued to dominate the media - what with wars, ethnic violence, over-fishing - was disgusting. Then I saw "fans" basically stalking his NYC flat, leaving flowers as if Marilyn Monroe had just committed suicide.

Dennis Hopper's 1965 photo of Jefferson Airplane

In that context, why should I write about Dennis Hopper? Well, I care. I care because Hopper did his job remarkably well for a long long time; because I smiled most every time he got on the screen. I care because he could bring 10 minutes of sunshine to a really bad movie, and because he showed no signs of slowing down. Even at 70+, I looked forward to his bright future, as I did with the much younger River Phoenix and Phil Hartman.

Dennis Hopper looked pretty good for a 74 year old; even in his 50's, you could see he was aging well. This is especially impressive given the extent of his drug abuse. His hair got silver more than grey, his eyes were still vividly blue. Whether his hair was slicked back, whether he wore a goatee - there was always something very approachable and relatable about him. His talents and skills made it so easy to buy whatever he was selling in any role he played.

And he always seemed like so much fun. He's featured on a Gorillaz song, on the album "Demon Days." Dennis Hopper was also a wide-ranging artist with work in poetry, sculpture, and painting. His photography has been well-received since the '60s. Long after he'd grown up, the kid from Dodge City, Kansas was hard to pin down. A regular supporter of the Republican party, he said he went with Obama when the GOP added Sarah Palin to their ticket. He was, to paraphrase his own words, "Republican, then Democrat, then Republican, then Democrat again." It all just demands my respect, and he's got it.

Hopper's photo of Paul Newman, 1964

He worked in just about every type of filmed story-telling that I can list. Mr. Hopper could pop up in awfully-executed junk like "Super Mario Bros.," "Space Truckers," and "Firestarter 2: Rekindled." You could also find him in superior B-level movies like "Red Rock West," "Basquiat," and "EdTV." Odder choices abound, like the racist lead in the surprising "Paris Trout," his self-parodic role in '80s brain drain "My Science Project," and his rampaging con in the misfire known as "Boiling Point."

Then, of course, you look at all the classics that Dennis is attached to: "Rebel Without a Cause" (his first film), "Giant," "True Grit," "Cool Hand Luke," "Apocalypse Now," "Rumble Fish." It's already quite impressive before noting that he co-wrote and directed "Easy Rider."

Dennis is so prolific I have unusual "minor favorites" among his work. "Speed" was a successful summer popcorn flick, and a great big dumb action movie (these often go together). I expected nothing from it because I didn't like Keanu Reeves at the time, and had no desperate need for time-sensitive action. I enjoyed it far more than I thought possible, and Dennis Hopper is the reason for it. "Speed" is that rare movie where the middle-aged baddie is much more interesting and charismatic than the young, handsome, hero. Every time the film goes back to the villain, he's laughing, mocking the television, talking to himself; it's so vivid and entertaining that his part was bound to impress and help sell the whole picture.

I can't express in words how surprised I am to be praising the movie "Speed," but time makes fools of us all - and it has me on speed-dial.

"Double Standard" by Hopper, 1961

A lot of people also talk about his great part in "True Romance." Hopper is excellent in his surprise cameo as Christian Slater's dad: protective and slowed down by age, but still vital; burdened with sadness and failure, yet still focused and practical... He breathed so much life into Clifford Worley. It's miraculous when you consider how little screen time he had. You can see him do something similar, with less time, in "EdTV."

Naturally, I also ate up every minute of his performance in one season of "24." He was the epitome of coldness and discipline, even if miscast as an Eastern European. Never have I enjoyed a horrible accent this much. "Jaack Bow-er eeeez an aneeeeemal!" He sounds like the Billy Crystal voice Meg Ryan tries to imitate in "When Harry Met Sally." There's not many people who could avoid my endless mocking after that sort of thing. Mr. Hopper was certainly one of them.

Finally, I turn to my favorites. "Hoosiers" was an extremely well-made feel-good sports movie. It's a film that is strong from top to bottom, from Gene Hackman's lead to the direction. Dennis Hopper, however, was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination, aside from Jerry Goldsmith's score. As "Shooter," Dennis captures and channels a man so overwhelmed by failure and self-loathing that he drinks til he can't stand. He gets you to understand how he's so angry at being a drunk that he drinks some more. It's an amazing portrayal of a broken man who finds a lifeline and does what he can with it. Even better, it works as an individual reflection of what's actually going on in the film. DH's job here was a masterpiece.

Andy Warhol silkscreen from 1971

Nor will I ever be able to forget Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet." A sick, crazed force of nature, Booth is the sort of person who makes you smile even while you're hoping that he's stopped, arrested, or killed. You're desperate for Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rosellini to just get away from him; yet Frank stays on the screen, and the extent of his insanity is mesmerizing. You can't help but wonder about him, wonder why he does what he does...

When film roles that vile become so well-known and -liked, it's because they manage to both delight and disgust audiences at the same time. Malcolm McDowell's Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" is the easiest example. Folks I've known for a long time will still crudely extol the virtues of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Or tell me that a love letter is a bullet from an F'ing gun, straight from their F'ing heart. I sincerely hope people don't stop saying this to me.

Let me close with one of my favorite stories: it's about Dennis Hopper's special public performance. Dennis sat in the center of a Texas speedway. Then he surrounded himself with sticks of dynamite, and blew them up. The actor walks away fine. The trick is that if you're in the center of a series of simultaneous explosions, the TNT blows away from the circle; it's an eye-of-the-storm thing. Is it a coincidence that Hopper checked into rehab soon after? Watch him do it!

But doesn't it make sense that, of all the actors in Hollywood, Dennis Hopper would do that? Isn't that all so in-character? He lived his life. Sometimes he enjoyed living it very loudly.

And sometimes he took up a cause: at 28, Dennis Hopper walked with many others in a protest, taking part in and photographing the Civil Rights March in Alabama. This is his photo of MLK, Jr.

It's been over two weeks since Dennis Hopper died. His battle with prostate cancer began around September of 2009, and it left him very weak by this March. By the time the problem was discovered, it was already an advanced case. Time gets the better of us all. More personally, time constrains my writing lately, but I wanted to write this little memorial regardless. Mr. Hopper deserves to be remembered fondly and missed deeply, so I would've been compelled to do this even if it were a year later.

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