Archive for May 30th, 2010

Like all artists I want to cheat death a little and contribute something to the next generation.

May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper

For more than 50 years, Dennis Hopper brought an extra edge to every role because some little unspoken something told us that maybe he really was as nuts as the guy he was playing.

Hopper was just a teenager when he first played characters who didn’t fit into the world around them, supporting his pal James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”

Dean and the young Marlon Brando created the restless-young-man template to which restless young men still aspire today, and in many ways Hopper was the young man who carried that torch through the years, after Dean died and Brando got simply strange.

To the extent the movie rebels of the early 1950s had a philosophy, it was summarized when Brando’s character in “The Wild One” was asked what he was rebelling against and he replied, “Whatcha got?”

Hopper spent much of his movie career tacitly addressing both questions. From his motorcycle drug-runner in “Easy Rider” to his bizarre and scary psycho in “Blue Velvet” up through the drug-addled music man he played recently in “Crash,” almost every one of his roles asked, “Whatcha got?”

Nor did he get an answer, which after a while became the answer. In a world where so much is so screwed up, Hopper’s characters seem to be suggesting, someone has to say no, things are not all right.

He was also blessed with the right physical makeup to play characters who didn’t trust the rules.

He looked normal, the kind of guy you could bring home to meet your parents. It was only when he turned up the intensity in his eyes that you realized there was something scary there.

At the same time, for all the well-publicized drug problems that led him into an 18-year lost weekend, the off-screen Hopper did not end up wandering off into aimless indulgence.

When he wrote and produced “Easy Rider,” he saw something all the big boys in Hollywood could not. “Easy Rider” earned $40 million on a $380,000 budget, launched Jack Nicholson, spawned a boatload of cheap independent flicks and was one of the few mass entertainment productions of the late 1960s that seemed to understand the restlessness it was tapping into.

One of the things that made “Blue Velvet” such a disturbing and fascinating film was director David Lynch’s use of Roy Orbison’s great song, “In Dreams” – and the way Hopper’s character plays off it in disturbing and fascinating ways.

Orbison, a quiet, Christian man, was asked shortly before he died what he thought of the movie, particularly whether the Hopper character’s graphic language bothered him.

“I was a little shocked,” Orbison said. “But it was hard to take your eyes off that character.”

If only because, to the end, you were never sure what Dennis Hopper would do next.

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