The Controlled Chaos of Dennis Hopper

Movies Features Dennis Hopper
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The Controlled Chaos of Dennis Hopper

Certain actors are described as chameleons, doing everything they can to disappear as fully into a role as possible. They dive into accents, costumes, makeup to attempt to become one with the character and remove themselves as the actor. Others have adopted such an ubiquitous personality that casting them is a decision based on their persona, where you know the audience will largely be watching the actor and not so much the transformation of the character. Somewhere in the middle exists Dennis Hopper, a performer whose off-screen behavior went beyond what most characters could contain—who was known as much for his history outside of his films as for his performances in them.

However, rather than resting on his laurels and allowing Hollywood to lazily typecast him as the maniacal outsider—as was the case at one point in his early career—Hopper constantly found ways to mold himself into a variety of parts, channeling the baggage he brought with him into performances that often benefit from greater knowledge of the man behind the mask. He took what could have been a detriment and made it a strength, becoming an actor so unique that a casting director looking for a “Dennis Hopper type” for their new film only had one realistic option: Dennis Hopper. This gift was demonstrated at its maximum impact across a quartet of performances he gave in 1986, the year responsible for his only Oscar nomination for acting and his cementing in cinematic history as one of the most fearsome on-screen villains of all time.

Coming into the mid-1980s, Hopper was somewhat on the outs, trying to make his way back into the Hollywood fold. To chart his epic path of burning bridges and causing harm to himself would take hundreds of pages (many of them included in Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), but things had been difficult for the Kansas-born, classically trained thespian since his days on 1958’s From Hell to Texas with director Henry Hathaway. The old-school Hathaway treated his actors like cattle, and Hopper’s resistance led to reels and reels of film being wasted before he finally relented to his director’s demands. After the shoot, Hathaway got the calls out around Hollywood to ensure that Hopper was essentially unhirable, leading him to toil away in episodic television for the better part of the next decade until a family friend by the name of John Wayne got Hopper a part on his latest feature, The Sons of Katie Elder, working for a director by the name of…Henry Hathaway.

Not too long after this, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda to change the face of American culture for good. Written by the duo and Terry Southern, and directed by Hopper, 1969’s Easy Rider was as momentous a shift in the zeitgeist as cinema is capable of achieving, but its counterculture mentality was quickly appropriated by the mainstream. The resulting years would demonstrate that Hollywood only wants someone like Dennis Hopper when they’re trending and when they can be controlled, something he certainly wasn’t on his directorial follow-up, The Last Movie. Appropriately titled, the chaotic shoot and abstract final product irritated studios and mystified audiences to the point that Hopper was again shut out of Hollywood. While he found work for the next decade in low-budget and European films, trading on his reputation by playing oddball Americans in films like Mad Dog Morgan and The American Friend, it wasn’t until a scene-stealing supporting turn in Apocalypse Now that Hopper had enough clout to begin making his return to the mainstream.

In the early 1980s, a particularly intense drug-fueled bender landed Hopper in a rehabilitation program, finally getting treatment for the substance abuse that had partly fueled his falling out with the industry. By 1986, the now-sober Hopper’s reputation was one that would make it difficult for audiences to see him as a character, as they were so aware of his notoriously troubled history both off and on-screen. As was the case with his earlier films, however, certain directors knew how to take advantage of what a gift this kind of cultural standing could be, planting Hopper into roles where having him show up in a scene would give an immediate sensation and awareness of who this character is.

This trick is utilized efficiently in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his 1974 horror masterpiece that took a similar hold on the country to that of Easy Rider. Emphasizing a black comedy approach befitting ‘80s sensibilities, the film stars Caroline Williams as Stretch Brock, a DJ who runs afoul of the cannibalistic, chainsaw-wielding family introduced in the first film. Hopper shows up as Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright, the uncle of two of the victims from the first film, who has been trying to track down their killers for the last 13 years.

Despite receiving top billing, Hopper is more of a supporting character here—as the film focuses primarily on Stretch—but in the casting of Hopper, Hooper knowingly gives the audience a fascination with Lefty they wouldn’t have had with another actor. From the moment we meet Lefty, we can tell something is off about him, and each scene he’s in gives further hints to the bloodlust lurking underneath his no-nonsense demeanor. Suiting the way that Hooper dials the film’s eccentricities up to 11, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 climaxes with a gory jamboree at the cannibal family’s lair: An underground carnival area with neon lights and piles upon piles of bloody human remains.

While Stretch is being captured and assaulted by the family, Hopper is in the background, wielding a heavy-duty chainsaw to systematically destroy their lair, screaming “I’ll take you to hell!” Just as things look like they’re reaching the end for Stretch, Lefty shows up for a chainsaw duel with Leatherface, in one howling riot of a good time. If you don’t want your Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies to end with a chainsaw fight, you should get checked out. While Lefty is gone for most of the film, this showdown is a fist-pumping moment specifically due to the casting of Hopper, someone whose mania we can spot the moment we’re introduced to him—we understand the character even if there’s not actually that much of him on the screen.

This idea is employed to even greater impact in River’s Edge, Tim Hunter’s film centered on a group of teens (including Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye) in a Northern California town who have an oddly indifferent reaction when their friend John (Daniel Roebuck) nonchalantly murders his girlfriend Jamie (Danyi Deats). Neal Jiminez loosely based his script on a real-life murder, and there’s something specifically unsettling in the authentic way that River’s Edge captures the pervading ennui of eking out an existence in this type of go-nowhere place. With no hope for anything beyond the sad day-to-day that you see around you, what point is there in caring about anything?

One of the film’s strongest elements is the presence of Feck, played by Hopper. A local drug dealer who sells marijuana to the kids, Feck is easily recognizable to anyone who’s ever had their odd weed guy try to hang out whenever you buy from him. At the same time, there’s an uneasy menace to the man, signposted by the film’s horror-tinged score when we are first introduced to his house—the camera looking through his window to show Ellie, his blow-up sex doll girlfriend. Routinely reminding our main characters that he killed a girl himself 20 years ago and that the authorities are after him, there’s an unpredictability to Feck that makes you question what he could do at any moment.

And yet, while River’s Edge could have painted Feck solely as this whacky freak, Hopper is able to ingrain genuine heart into the man. There’s a sadness he holds within his gaze, a genuine fondness he has for these kids, and what seems to be a true love he feels for Ellie. Not quite a villain or a heroic Boo Radley loner, Feck is much more complicated, and Hopper creates a remarkably multi-faceted performance. Feck represents what these kids could turn into if they don’t change their ways. He’s the pitiful embodiment of what a place like this can do to you if you don’t get out, a Ghost of Christmas Future they should see as a warning for where they’re headed.

The unpredictability of Hopper as a performer is never more present than in the frightening Frank Booth, his character in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. A sadistic son of a bitch if there ever was one, Booth’s introduction is one of the most memorable in screen history, a clear line where the film shifts to become something far more sinister. Holding the husband and son of Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens captive in order to force her into sexual slavery, Frank huffs gas while assaulting Dorothy during his introduction, with memorable lines like “Baby wants to fuck!” spoken directly between her legs. The haunting sequence immediately sinks into your skin, and it’s only the beginning of what Frank has in store.

While Hopper was able to inject empathy into River’s Edge’s Feck, there’s no soul to be found in Frank, yet Hopper insisted on playing the character because, according to him, “I am Frank Booth.” David Lynch said, “Dennis had to have been through experiences on the dark side to have owned that character. When Dennis called me and said that to me, he had been clean and sober for about a year-and-a-half, and had already made another film clean and sober, but he had held all that he had learned from his suffering. He could bring that now in a very strong way to characters without screwing everything up.”

Having trained with Lee Strasberg in the art of the method, Hopper spoke in his 1994 Inside the Actors Studio episode about utilizing sense memory to tap into the subconscious to become a character. He speaks passionately about drawing from your past experiences in every way possible to push past your conscious mind in order to fully become a part. As he says James Dean told him when the two were friends and co-stars on Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, “You gotta start doing things and not showing them,” meaning that to act you must destroy the line between yourself and a character. While inhabiting the spirit of a man like Frank Booth may have been impossible for anyone else, Hopper was perfectly suited to walk in his shoes and manifest this creation of absolute evil—a menace who is only as frightening as he is because Hopper somehow makes him feel human.

The actor immediately went from shooting Blue Velvet to Hoosiers—about as dramatic a shift as an actor could possibly make. It speaks to his reputation that while the sadistic nightmare fuel of Blue Velvet is a film you can easily see Hopper starring in, the quaint mainstream sports film Hoosiers seems to be a black sheep among his filmography. Hopper isn’t known for being in populist hits—or if he is, they’re off-the-wall disasters like Super Mario Bros. or he’s still playing an utter maniac, as in Speed. Hoosiers is neither; rather, it’s a high school basketball drama loosely based on the true story that took place in Milan, Indiana in 1954, starring Gene Hackman as the head coach coming into town to pull this ragtag group of high schoolers together. Hopper portrays Shooter Flatch, the alcoholic father of one of the students on the team.

Despite the film seeming out of place for Hopper, the character is clearly one he was able to have much personal connection to. As Lynch mentioned, the actor was totally clean and sober at this point in his life, and with that clarity and his practice in sense memory he could tap into his own experiences to make Shooter a real, fleshed-out human being. In one pivotal scene, Hackman’s Norman Dale intentionally gets himself thrown out of a game so that Shooter, who at this point has been appointed as assistant coach, will be placed in charge of the team for the rest of the game. It’s the standout moment for Hopper’s performance, as he subtly captures the utter fear Shooter is struck with, grappling with the anxiety of this responsibility in the midst of attempting sobriety and wanting to impress his son. The team wins—a moment of victory for Shooter—but the pressure that comes with it is too much, and he quickly relapses to the point where he is hospitalized for treatment.

Shooter spends the rest of the film in the hospital, a decision that Hopper was instrumental in making happen. As the team eventually heads to a massive underdog victory at the state championship, the original ending of the film saw Shooter arriving to celebrate the win with the team. However, in the aforementioned Actors Studio interview, Hopper mentions that he argued against this, stating that if the character left the hospital this early then he would never get sober. The greater win for Shooter is his sobriety, and the ending wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling with a rushed decision to have him be there with the team, inevitably leading him to another relapse.

That achievement for the character was matched with what Hoosiers did for Hopper, netting him the only acting Oscar nomination of his career (he had previously received a nomination for co-writing Easy Rider’s screenplay). As time has gone on, the fact that Hopper’s 1986 nomination was for the sports movie that it’s surprising to remember he’s in and not for one of cinema’s most iconic villains is a bit odd, but it of course speaks to the Academy’s reluctance to go off the beaten path with the types of films they award—and to Hopper’s versatile deployment of his unique screen presence. The collective success of his 1986 marked a comeback long after many had counted him out. He remained steadily working in blockbusters like Speed, indie darlings like Red Rock West and Elegy and the new wave of television, including 24 and his starring role in Starz series Crash. There was a time when, if Hopper retired from acting, he could have been remembered more for his off-screen troubles than his cultural contributions, but now the name Dennis Hopper immediately calls to mind the motorcycle-riding rebel from Easy Rider, the persevering father in Hoosiers and Blue Velvet’s unforgettable antagonist. By channeling his eccentric life into his art, Hopper cemented his legacy as an inimitable cinematic force.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.