Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper

What can be said about Dennis Hopper?

Nothing conventional of course. Hopper was not a conventional man, many things but never that.

Let us be frank, Hopper gave some of the worst performances in some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. He was in the Crow Wicked Prayer, playing a satanic gangster named El Nino, a role that required him to refer to Satan as an “OG Pimp Daddy”. He was in Firestarter 2. He was in American Carol for fuck sakes.

But it’s just this very fact that made Hopper feel so intimate. Some stars are so perfect you never feel attached. Hopper always felt like ours, we’d seen him with his pants down so to speak.

And yet, Hopper also gave some of the best performances in some of the best films I’ve ever seen. To see Hopper connect with a role is to see acting at its finest, an invisible energy that is not something as tawdry as authenticity but something truer.

One of my favorite things about Hopper is the sheer amount of work he did. Its almost impossible to keep it straight. Which means that I’m often surprised and delighted to find Hopper showing up in a piece of work I had no idea he was in. So when he shows up in Cool Hand Luke, or The Trip, or Hang Em High, or True Grit. The experience is always an uncannily friendly one. As though I’ve ran into an old friend under strange and unexpected circumstances. Coupled with the fact that I often times don’t quite recognize Hopper at first glance (The Osterman Weeknend) it becomes even stranger; because he’s older… or younger… You never know what you will see when he walks through the door.

I don’t know what it is that makes me take Hopper’s death so personal. I only know I will miss him terribly, and miss that feeling of him walking on screen. Bringing with him the instantaneous knowledge that the film I was watching was about to get a whole lot more interesting.

I’ve taken the liberty of writing up my five favorite instances where Hopper just brought it. Making the films, and the lives of the film watchers. More complete.

Rumble Fish:

Rumble Fish

“Accute perception can drive you crazy.”

This is, in my opinion Hopper’s most underrated role. Simply put without Hopper this movie doesn’t work. Coppala’s teenage melodrama, a collection of beautiful black and white shots, ridiculous poses, and dreamy elliptical dialouge relies on Hopper for its heart.

He plays his character as a grand ruin of a man. Mickey Rourke in twenty years on without the good sense to die young, all the poetry driven out of him by the world and the bottle.

It’s the way they talk, the way they connect, that makes Dillon’s performance in the film so poignant. The family that’s his that he’ll never had. He’s big, friendly, stupid Irish Setter born into a family of noble wolves. Not grand enough to even be wrecked so terribly as his family.

Hopper’s a wretch, you can nearly smell him. But he has grandeur, and the presence of mind to know how terribly he’s fallen. And in that final tracking shot, where he makes the simple act of wiping his mouth and turning away speak volumes, we watch that one last piece light left in him go out forever.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

“Lord show me what I fear. So I don’t fear it no more.”

One of Hopper’s greatest gifts was his ability to simultaneously over and under play a role. I think Hooper’s wonderful mutant of a film showcases this talent best. Hooper’s film is played at level of Grand Guignol to which the term over the top does not quite cover. Hooper’s film and Hopper’s performance are both hysterically funny, but precisely because they never wink (Even the scene in which Hopper takes a few Chainsaw’s for a strenuous test drive in front of a baffled clerk is handled straight).

Hopper brings all the intenisity he can to the part, and when he marches into the Sawyer’s Lair, fearlessly singing “Bringing In The Sheaves.” He has transcended any notion of camp or kitsch, and simply become big enough for such a grand gesture to seem completely natural.

True Romance

"You know I study history."
Sure this is an obvious choice and sure its all too often appreciated for the wrong reason. But it perfectly embodies another aspect of Hopper’s talent. That ability to come in for just a fraction of the time he deserves and invest a character with enough inner life and history and weight to make him unforgettable. The way he reactions to Slater’s words like body blows briefly made Slater look like a credible actor, and that’s something nobody has ever pulled off.

Apocalypse Now

"I'm a small man."

Again Hopper acts as the glue for Coppala’s film (can you imagine his Van Helsing?) Nothing else inspires the same understanding of the stakes at hand as his performance as a man driven round the bend by Kurtz’s vision. Raising the stakes to a battle not just for Sheen’s life, but his soul and sanity as well. For all the vision and startling images and moments in the last third of that film it’s those jumbled snatches of Hopper’s poetry that haunt, “A pair of ragged claws scuttling…”

Blue Velvet

"It's Dark Now"

Of course. The most convincing depiction of evil ever put on film. Fearless is a word too often thrown around like confetti. But Hopper earned it. Again and again and again. He put himself on the line. Every time. And I will sorely miss him.


Elwood Jones said...

He will be sadly missed that much can definatly be said. I would also add "Easy Rider", "Speed" and "House of the nine" on the list of my favourite Hopper performances, but nothing wrong with the five you've chosen that's for sure.
It's always to see people name "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" seeing how he regarded it as his worst movie, but hey he made "Waterworld" watchable which really says alot about the talent of the man.

Neil Fulwood said...

One of the most unexpected things I ever caught Hopper in was an old 'Twilight Zone' episode called "He Lives"; Hopper plays a neo-Nazi agitator mentored by a shadowy figure who as I recall was the ghost of Adolf Hitler. Hopper must only have been in his early or mid 20s, but he gave a palpably edgy performance, kind of an early sketch of Frank Booth.

Hell of a talent. An incredibly uneven talent, but like you point out that's part of what made the man unique.

A good post for a sad day.

Jay Clarke said...

Excellent eulogy, man. He will be missed!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Elwood: Yeah but you never know how people will judge their own work. I think its a shame Hopper didn't like the performance but I love everything about it. I'm going to rewatch the film again tonight along with Easy Rider for my Hopper Tribute.

@ Neil: He was fantastic in that Episode, and even though I've never thought about it, you're right he did have many parallels with Booth.

@ Jay: Thanks man. Much appreciated.

Unknown said...

"This is, in my opinion Hopper’s most underrated role."

I agree. I love, love RUMBLE FISH - one of my top fave films of all-time and Hopper is great in it. He doesn't have much screen-time but he makes the most of what he does have and I think that sums up a lot of his work.

What a fantastic tribute and a nice reminder of some of Hopper's most memorable work.

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad to see another Rumble Fish fan. I think its Coppola's most underrated film.