Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film appreciation: Remembering Dennis Hopper, counterculture icon

Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

By Hap Erstein

I was in college when I first came under the influence of Dennis Hopper,‭ ‬going with my roommate and fellow counterculture rebel wannabe to see a movie called‭ ‬Easy Rider,‭ ‬which Hopper wrote,‭ ‬directed and‭ ‬appeared in.

It was a call to all of us closet revolutionaries to leave our humdrum lives behind and hit the open road,‭ ‬preferably on a souped-up motorcycle.‭ ‬It was an infectious fantasy and a stirring film that I would be afraid to see again today,‭ ‬for it could never be as good as my memory has made it.

Hopper died today of prostate cancer at age‭ ‬74,‭ ‬leaving behind a handful of first-rate films‭ (‬Blue Velvet,‭ ‬Hoosiers,‭ ‬Apocalypse Now,‭ ‬Elegy‭)‬,‭ ‬a few that would be unwatchable without his performances‭ (‬Waterworld,‭ ‬Super Mario Brothers‭) ‬and‭ ‬more than‭ ‬100‭ ‬others that were variously undistinguished.

By his own admission,‭ ‬Hopper never fully lived up to the promise of‭ ‬Easy Rider.‭ ‬As he said to me when he came to the Palm Beach International‭ ‬Film Festival in‭ ‬2006‭ ‬with another of those mediocre releases,‭ ‬10‭ & ‬Wolf,‭ “‬I’m not sure that there’s a meaningful body of work there,‭ ‬but certainly not the kind of body of work that I wanted to leave.‭” ‬The irony,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬is that the festival had lured Hopper to South Florida to accept a career achievement award.‭

Much of his career output was thwarted by‭ ‬years of drug and alcohol abuse that led to Hopper being committed to a psychiatric hospital,‭ ‬sense memories of which crept into some of his recent performances.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬he told me with unusual honesty,‭ “‬I feel that after‭ ‬‘Easy Rider‭’‬ I never directed the great movie that I wanted to direct.‭ ‬I never really played the great role that I wanted to play.‭ ‬They didn’t happen,‭ ‬in my opinion.‭”

Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper in‭ ‬Elegy.

Not by‭ ‬2006,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬but two years later,‭ ‬he gave a performance in‭ ‬Elegy,‭ ‬the screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s short novel‭ ‬The Dying Animal that shows the virtuoso actor he could be.‭ ‬He played the best friend and fellow academic of Ben Kingsley,‭ ‬two lecherous old men who meet for morning coffee,‭ ‬a brilliantly underplayed role that certainly deserved an Oscar nomination at the very least.‭ ‬Chances are you have not seen‭ ‬Elegy,‭ ‬which was underappreciated and under-distributed,‭ ‬but is worth seeking out.

‭(‬Yes,‭ ‬I know the Academy Awards get it wrong too often to use that as a measure of an actor’s skill.‭ ‬It is worth noting that Hopper played the snarling villian in‭ ‬Speed,‭ ‬the movie that brought Sandra Bullock to prominence.‭ ‬Now she has an Oscar,‭ ‬and a real actor like Hopper does not.‭ ‬I’m just saying‭ …)

From our‭ ‬2006‭ ‬interview,‭ ‬Hopper commented on some of his cinematic career high points:

* ‬Easy Rider:‭ “‬I wanted to leave a time capsule of what was happening at the time.‭ ‬I never thought about directing when I was in the theater,‭ ‬but I got into the movies and there was somebody telling me every line,‭ ‬to do it differently.‭ ‬I realized the director was really an important guy.‭”

* Blue Velvet:‭ ‬“That was one of my first roles coming back out of rehab and detox.‭ ‬I finally got sober and it was a terrific experience.‭”

* Apocalypse Now:‭ ‬ “It was unbelievably arduous,‭ ‬but a great creative experience.‭”

* Waterworld:‭ “‬One of the best vacations I’ve ever had.‭ ‬It didn’t do well in the United States because everyone shot themselves in the foot talking about‭ ‘‬the most expensive movie ever made.‭’ ”

When we spoke,‭ ‬Hopper was a month away from turning‭ ‬70,‭ ‬a milestone that he could not quite fathom.‭ “‬It seems ridiculous,‭” ‬he said.‭ “‬I was the one who said I didn’t think I’d live to see‭ ‬30.‭” ‬He scoffed at the notion of retirement.‭ “‬I don’t think acting or painting or taking photographs‭ ‬--‭ ‬the kind of stuff I do‭ ‬--‭ ‬that one day you just stop because you’re too old.‭ ‬You continue doing them as long as you can physically do them,‭ ‬and I’m feeling pretty good physically.‭”

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010).

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