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Hollywood's Glorious Bad Boy: A Tribute to Dennis Hopper

Posted: 03/28/2010 1:47 pm

Who could help but be moved at Dennis Hopper's gracious remarks -- and overall gallantry -- as the terminally-ill actor received his star on the fabled Walk Of Fame? I have to say this tribute feels criminally overdue given all this gifted, fiery maverick has been, seen and done in Hollywood.

More than bigger name stars and contemporaries like Beatty and Nicholson, Hopper bridges old and new Hollywood like no one else still on the scene. Though for the most part his blazing intensity as an actor only shone through with showier roles beginning in the seventies, he began as a talented juvenile player in the 1950s.

He was a Kansas native who knew almost from the outset that he wanted to act. After doing some impressive stage work, in his late teens he found himself at the epicenter of the movie business, cast in a feature called Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Hopper's friendship with the film's star James Dean only deepened as the two went on to make another movie together (among other things, the two shared an interest in photography). Dennis was later devastated when he learned of Dean's death in a car crash.

Talk about the ultimate survivor: even though early on Hopper was virtually blacklisted from Hollywood after talking back to the legendary Louis B. Mayer, the actor has still managed to rack up well over one hundred films in his fifty year career (this in addition to doing a ton of television work). He has directed a surprise hit, and a notorious flop. He was at the very heart of the industry renaissance in the early seventies, at which point he started morphing ever so gradually from drugged-out hippie to seasoned character player.

Big role or small, good movie or turkey -- Dennis Hopper is one of those screen actors who is consistently fascinating to watch. There's always an intriguing danger lurking behind his lazy, laconic Midwestern drawl. On-screen and off, he projects the spirit of a hellion- slightly erratic and unhinged perhaps, but also refreshingly honest, authentic and brilliantly alive.

Here then are eight outstanding films that trace the arc of Dennis Hopper's colorful legacy, and give us even more reason to celebrate the man:

Giant (1956) -- In 1922, Texas rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) falls for and marries Southern belle Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), a ravishing, headstrong beauty who accompanies him home to his million-acre estate, Reata. Trying to assert herself as mistress of the house, Leslie encounters resistance from Bick's resentful sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), among others. But it's the fortuitous future of churlish, uneducated ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) that will leave the biggest impact on Reata and the Benedict clan. Based on Edna Ferber's best-seller, Stevens's vibrant, sprawling epic about a rivalry that spans decades is every bit as grandiose, melodramatic, and visually arresting as it was half a century ago. In his final performance, Dean really hits the mark, playing the noxiously racist Jett Rink - a surly cowboy who inherits oil-rich land and establishes himself as Bick's nemesis - with smoldering angst. Hudson and Taylor offer some of their finest screen work, too, making their often turbulent marital conflicts (especially over Mexican-American workers' rights) equal to the grand majesty of the Lone Star landscape. Gripping and unforgettable, Giant truly is larger than life. (Note: Dennis plays Hudson's son.)

Cool Hand Luke (1967) -- Sentenced to work on a Southern chain gang for defacing parking meters while drunk, rebellious Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) soon finds himself on the outs with prison authorities. A battle of wills ensues, with Luke becoming a hero to his fellow prisoners for his nervy refusal to submit. The Captain (Strother Martin), however, wants his wards to "get their mind right," and won't sleep till he's broken Luke for good. This film came close to transforming Newman from movie star to anti-authoritarian folk hero. Clearly the actor was attracted to the dispossessed, in life and in film. His Luke is two things at once: a loser whose drunkenness lands him on a chain gang, but also a tough individualist equipped with personal courage and a defiant spirit. Top-notch support comes from Martin as Luke's wormy nemesis, and George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his turn as Luke's loyal pal, Dragline. (Dennis portrays a fellow convict.)

Easy Rider (1969) --After securing a major drug deal in Los Angeles, free-spirited potheads Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, a/k/a Captain America (Peter Fonda), buy choppers and hit the road, traveling from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to Florida, where they plan to retire on the booty hidden in Wyatt's gas tank. Along the way, they encounter rednecks, take LSD, visit a hippie commune, and land in jail, all in the name of living the American dream. The ultimate counter-culture classic, Hopper's Rider jolted a Hollywood in transition when it became an unexpected hit in 1969, encapsulating the freewheeling spirit of the times and the divide between the youth culture and the Establishment. Jack Nicholson became a bona-fide star playing football-helmeted, hard-partying lawyer George Hanson, for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor nod, while Hopper and Fonda merely amped up their reputations as iconoclasts. Along with its pulsating rock soundtrack, Rider endures as the ultimate psychedelic road-trip.

Apocalypse Now (1979) -- During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the unusual assignment of tracking and eliminating rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated career officer who has broken the chain of command and is presumed insane. Willard and his team venture into remote territory to find the enigmatic Kurtz. Symbolically, they're all traveling to the very core of man's bestial instincts. Director Francis Ford Coppola's re-edited "Redux" version includes new scenes which clarify some loose ends in the original cut of this slightly flawed masterpiece. "Apocalypse" stands as an epic, mesmerizing acid-trip of a war movie that melds together the savage themes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness with the inherent waste of Vietnam. This is grand spectacle, augmented by a brilliant use of music. The acting is superb, from Sheen, Duvall and Hopper in particular, as a gonzo photojournalist. Even bald, bloated, incoherent Brando fascinates. Once seen, never forgotten. For the ideal double feature, follow this with Eleanor Coppola's revealing documentary on the mostly jinxed production of this film, Hearts Of Darkness (1991).

Blue Velvet (1986) -- Out for a walk one afternoon in his well-manicured suburban hometown, fresh-faced everylad Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear in a field, and promptly notifies the police. When they respond with curious indifference, Jeffrey decides to investigate with the help of his girlfriend, Sandy (Laura Dern), and uncovers a nocturnal world of crime, sexual perversion, and drug-addled weirdness involving mysterious chanteuse Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her frighteningly brutal companion, Frank Booth (Hopper). This hallucinogenic mystery-thriller from cult director David Lynch explores the twisted underside of small-town American life, fusing noirish elements of mood and atmosphere with a classic Hitchcockian whodunit. Lynch's imprint is everywhere, including MacLachlan's deliberately trancelike acting, Rossellini's melodramatic distress, and Hopper's over-the-top turn as the angry, liquid-ether-huffing sadist who has a strange and violently sexual hold on Dorothy. Even the music - the Bobby Vinton song and Angelo Badalamenti's eerie score - completes the director's disquieting effect. Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, "Blue Velvet" is a lurid parable about innocence and evil film that mystery/noir fans will find irresistible. (Also check out Dean Stockwell's sublime, campy turn as one of Frank's odd-ball colleagues!)

Hoosiers (1986) -- Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) has a checkered past coaching basketball, with his natural gift for the game repeatedly undermined by a volcanic temper. Finally exiled from college ball, he takes a job coaching an Indiana high-school team with low morale and limited prospects. On a mission, Norman proceeds to whip the team into shape, but not before ruffling some influential feathers. Will Norman keep his job long enough to see how far his team can go? Deeply felt, tense and exciting, this fact-based movie is anchored by yet another bravura Hackman performance, as a man who must confront his demons and restore his own sense of worth. Hopper also registers in an Oscar-nominated turn as Shooter, a former player who loves the game, but who's also the town drunk- until Norman jolts him back to help the team. Director David Anspaugh does an expert job of shooting all the on-court play, building suspense to a breathless climax. Jerry Goldsmith's rousing original score received a well-deserved Oscar nod as well. Here's that rare thing: a good old fashioned, feel-great movie for the whole family.

True Romance (1993) -- When quirky comic-store clerk Clarence (Christian Slater) meets beauty Alabama (Rosanna Arquette) at a Sonny Chiba triple feature, it's love at first sight. Never mind that Alabama is a prostitute hired by Clarence's boss to seduce him: the two are made for each other. Now the only thing standing in their way is Alabama's violence-prone pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman), who Clarence has plans to bump off. When Clarence inadvertently picks up a cache of cocaine on leaving Drexl's lair, he plans to cash in. But the mob, who'd originally invested in the drugs, wants Clarence to cash out-permanently. Sure, the lovers-on-the-lam genre has been done to death in Hollywood, but this film, penned by Quentin Tarantino (while he was still a video-store geek), is directed with electrifying flair by Tony Scott. And it's fun to boot! Slater's impish, slightly madcap charisma and Arquette's plump-lipped coquetry will make you root for these rebels, even after they knock off Oldman and hit the road carrying their illicit loot. This is pure, adrenaline-fueled pop filmmaking, with the best cameos (Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper, and Val Kilmer) of any recent film I can think of. In particular, the scene between old pros Hopper and Walken is one for the record books.

Speed (1994) -- Madman Howard Payne (Hopper) wreaks havoc in Los Angeles, strapping a bomb under a municipal bus set to go off if the acceleration goes under 50 mph. Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock, in a break-out role) is one unlucky woman on that bus, due to too many speeding tickets. Officer Jack Travern (Keanu Reeves) plays the LAPD bomb expert assigned to rescue the passengers. As it happens, he also has a more personal score to settle with Howard. Though I may quibble with Reeves' slightly wooden performance, Speed was neither written nor directed as an actors' showcase, and rightfully so. It's really one long adrenaline rush, with enough twists and turns to sustain its running time, and keep action fans wide-eyed to the closing credits. Bullock gives a natural, throughly winning performance (you can see why this launched her). Still, it's Hopper who carries the film as a deliriously over-the-top wacko; he has as much fun causing all the mayhem as the audience does watching it.

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