#115 - The Last Movie
1936 - 2010
If it were up to me, I’d never have to write another tribute column. All of our friends, family members, heroes and influences would stay forever healthy and vibrant, continuing to shape our lives into eternity. Unfortunately, as George Harrison put it, all things must pass and my weekly Electric Theatre dedications are my small way of acknowledging the filmmakers, writers, artists and musicians who influenced and inspired me. But the extraordinary career of Dennis Hopper requires more than a mere box in the margin.
From his debut in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause, Hopper strode across all aspects of film history in the second half of the 20th century. He worked in live television, classic Hollywood westerns, Roger Corman programmers, Australian exploitation, studio blockbusters (and would-be blockbusters), high art and direct-to-video schlock. He could be the best part of some pretty bad movies and he could elevate some pretty good movies to greatness. And in 1969, he was at ground zero of the most monumental change that American cinema had undergone in decades. The impact of Easy Rider can’t be overestimated. Without its massive success, the cinematic landscape would look much, much different today.
Hopper’s directorial career suffered a massive blow with the failure of his follow-up, 1971’s The Last Movie (an unfairly maligned effort, sadly not available on DVD). He helmed only five more features: Out Of The Blue in 1980 (available but badly in need of a higher-quality re-release), Colors in 1988, Catchfire (a.k.a. Backtrack) in 1990 (which Hopper removed his name from after it was taken out of his hands and re-edited), The Hot Spot in 1990, and Chasers in 1994. Out Of The Blue, Colors and The Hot Spot are all pretty good. The others, unfortunately, are not. None of them had even a fraction of the impact that Easy Rider had.
But if the majority of Hopper’s career as a director is little more than a footnote, his legacy as an actor is enduring. Hopper was a performer of great range and fierce intensity. No matter how large or small the part, he commanded your attention from the second he appeared on screen. Trying to narrow his work down to ten essential performances is practically futile, although that won’t stop me from trying. The first thing you’ll notice about this list is that it doesn’t include Hopper’s Oscar-nominated role in Hoosiers, simply because I haven’t seen it, embarrassingly enough. Even with that glaring oversight, these are the ten movies I immediately think of when looking back at Dennis Hopper’s remarkable body of work.
One of Hopper’s first lead roles was in Curtis Harrington’s low-budget, dreamlike horror film from 1961. Hopper’s a sailor who falls for a woman who plays a mermaid in an amusement park. She believes she’s actually descended from the Sirens and warns him to keep away from her for his own safety. Hopper’s performance is quiet, methodical and adds to Harrington’s eerie tone. The film also benefits from top-notch location shooting of Santa Monica Pier and Hopper’s beloved Venice Beach, where he lived for much of his life.
Of course. If you can, try to watch this like it’s just another movie, without considering its enormous influence and reputation as a milestone in film history. It isn’t easy. That reputation casts a long shadow, a testament to what Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson achieved back in 1969. This is arguably the quintessential movie of its decade. Forty years later, it still packs a punch that has been often imitated but never duplicated.
The American Friend
Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is a fascinating character and a challenge for even the most gifted actors. He’s never been played the same way twice. For my money, Hopper’s interpretation from Wim Wenders’ brilliant 1977 film is one of the best. Prowling around his enormous country house, Hopper is a diabolical, manipulative enigma. It’s a masterfully subtle performance that gets richer the more times you see it.
Hopper turns up late in the game in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic. The movie has been slowly building up to the reveal of Marlon Brando and if any other actor had played the photojournalist, the audience might have grown impatient. But Hopper’s manic energy bursts out of the screen, enhancing Brando’s near-mythic stature while creating an indelible character all his own.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
One of Hopper’s greatest strengths as an actor was that he knew when to reign in his performance and when it was appropriate to go totally batshit, over-the-top crazy. There’s no better place to see Hopper unhinged than in Tobe Hooper’s way-better-than-it-should-have-been 1986 sequel. You are indeed the Lord of the Harvest, Mr. Hopper.
Tim Hunter’s mesmerizing, disturbing 1986 drama is taken to another level by Hopper’s turn as Feck, a sleazy drug dealer with a murderous past (and a peculiar love for his female blow-up doll). His reaction to the teens’ emotionless treatment of their own murder comes as a shock, both to the kids and the audience. It’s a very humane portrayal of a man clinging to the bottom-most rung of society.
Hopper’s unparalleled run of great work in 1986 reached its peak with his role as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s modern classic. Endlessly quotable and filled with a weird, virtually impossible-to-define menace, Frank Booth is like no other character in movies. Scarier than any horror movie monster, Hopper’s presence drapes over the movie like a shroud even when he’s not on screen.
Red Rock West
John Dahl’s 1993 neo-noir is one of my favorite movies most people haven’t seen and Hopper’s performance as Lyle from Dallas is a big reason why. In a story already full of unexpected twists, Hopper’s arrival provides one of the most satisfying turns. If you haven’t discovered this movie yet, by all means check it out without delay.
Tony Scott top-loaded his 1993 filming of Quentin Tarantino’s script with some of the biggest and best actors of all time. But even in such esteemed company, the on-screen face-off between Hopper and Christopher Walken stands out as something truly special. It’s an unforgettable scene and a big part of why the movie has amassed such a devoted following.
Hopper bares all, body and soul, in this understated, deeply felt 1996 drama from Bruno Barreto. It’s some of his most nuanced work, playing a middle-aged teacher who has an ill-advised affair with one of his young students. Hopper could certainly chew the scenery with the best of them but this little-seen gem reminds us that he was also capable of astonishing subtlety and grace.
Over the weekend, I asked JET’s Facebook supporters what their favorite Dennis Hopper movie was. The replies reveal a widely diverse body of work. I look forward to catching up with those I haven’t seen, all of which will someday be featured in Tales From The Queue.
The Electric Theatre will be on vacation next week but I’ll be back in a fortnight with more reviews ‘n’ such. Until then, I hope you’ll join me in lifting a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon to Dennis Hopper. Thank you for fifty years worth of indelible performances, Mr. Hopper. I’ve enjoyed the ride.