no avid film fan this weekend would have been able to avoid feeling saddened by the loss of Dennis Hopper. yes, we've known he's been ill for a while and yes, considering his lifestyle, he's had a one hell of a life. when you think back on his many fine film appearances, though, you can't but help feel that cinema has lost one of its finest, iconic servants; someone who was never quite in the limelight but performed roles in a way you simply couldn't imagine someone else doing.
this whole interwebnet thingie is going to be full of tributes and biographies of this film legend. allow me, then, to contribute with a look at five of his greatest appearances.
a very easy first one to think of when thinking of Dennis Hopper is the iconoclastic, groundbreaking film Easy Rider. it's a controversial film in so much as people either "get it" and love it or just get bored to tears and hate it. there is one universal truth, though - whereas Peter Fonda is more closely associated with the film than Hopper, the reality is that if you were going to ride across America, you'd like to think you could do it looking like Dennis Hopper did.
Easy Rider is a sprawling, mostly deliberately incoherent snapshot of life across America. it claims to be neither accurate or all consuming; for that matter the makers of the film have not once claimed it to be anything beyond a "good, or at least interesting, time". it has to be seen and experienced to have any clue of being understood, don't ask anyone to just explain it to you as this cannot be done.
if Easy Rider made Dennis Hopper an iconic figure, then the film that underlined the fact that he was a fine actor as well as an image was the small, somewhat little seen but warmly remembered film Hoosiers. playing alongside Gene Hackman, Hopper featured as a small town alcoholic, drinking himself to death rather than following his own dreams.
lazy types might well say that it doesn't take much of a stretch of imagination for Dennis Hopper to play an alcoholic, but to dismiss the film in such terms is to miss out on a genuinely affecting story in general and an acting performance of note in specific. Hopper plays the part of 'Shooter' wonderfully, giving a fragility and fear to a man faced with the realities of giving up the comforts of booze to pursue a dream his abilities easily allow him to meet, if only he wouldn't be at war with himself. Hoosiers is about the closest Hopper came to making a "suitable for all" film, if you wanted to see what the fuss about him was all about then this is the film to find a copy of.
the film True Romance stands out from the crowd for the number of astonishing cameo performances in it. if we are honest, the greatest of those cameo roles was perhaps Gary Oldman in the deranged role of Drexl, a white guy convinced that he is a black pimp. a very close second, however, would be Dennis Hopper in the pivotal part of Christian Slater's compassionate, supportive and ultimately sacrificing father.
it's hard to discuss Hopper in True Romance without giving away those awful spoiler type of comments, but i will give it a try. in his brief role he manages to make you believe you do indeed live in a world worth fighting for, that all fundamentally is well and no problem cannot be overcome. his son comes to him in a world of trouble, and there he is, making him feel like all will be all right.
True Romance is exceptionally violent, often as disturbing as it is funny. one of the greatest scenes of 90s cinema, however, is the stand-off between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken in this film, a scene referred to fondly and infamously as the "eggplant exchange". if you can stomach much of what this film throws at you, well worth seeing.
so, what is the greatest ever Dennis Hopper film role? very tough to narrow it down to just one, so i will go with two of his most famous parts. the first of these is easily the most controversial part he ever had, that of the sinister (to put it mildly) Frank Booth in the brilliant, if often misunderstood, David Lynch masterpiece that is Blue Velvet.
when people do those "ten best movie villain" lists, it's usually someone like Darth Vader or Dr Hannibal Lecter at the top of the list. that's because, no matter how "bad" or "evil" they are in their films, they are presented in a sedate, tame way when compared to Frank Booth. in Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper creates the most vile, warped, depraved, vicious, violent, repulsive, disgusting and beyond redemption villain the world of cinema has ever seen. the audience shivers in fear every time we see him after his first introduction.
Blue Velvet is one of the most disturbing films ever to be released as a mainstream film and it is disturbing precisely because of Dennis Hopper's towering performance.
finally, then, the film that first introduced me and i dare say many others to the magical abilities of Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now. as this is one of the greatest films of all time, it so follows that it is one of Dennis Hopper's best, if not the best overall, parts.
billed simply as the Photo-Journalist, Dennis Hopper's presence in the film is to serve as a chaotic, quasi-narrator for the last 3rd of the film. his character is a whacked-out oddball, delivering a stream of consciousness as dialogue that, in an inspired move from Francis Coppola, actually makes sense in the midst of the confusion and chaos of the world of Colonel Kurtz. the exact reasons for Hopper's borderline deranged performance are of course well documented, but the reality is without Dennis Hopper behaving and performing exactly as he does in this film, who knows if it would have remained as well remembered as it is?
the image of Hopper in Apocalypse Now is as iconic as that of him in Easy Rider for most. it's a performance you will not forget in a film you will not forget.
well, there you have it. somewhere, you'd think, right now Dennis Hopper is catching up with his old friends James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jim Morrison and Steve McQueen. in the mean time, thank you for reading my memories of his fine films, and apologies to fans of Speed and many others for trying to keep this post a bit shorter!
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