Famed for playing violent psychotics, drug-addled adventurers, crazed villains and drunks, Dennis Hopper’s performances were often fueled off-screen by a superhuman intake of cocaine and booze. Over the years, this brilliant actor fought with addictions and appeared in low-budget stinkers, yet also played acclaimed roles in several classics. These six Dennis Hopper movies provide a glimpse into the first three decades of his edgy, unconventional and undeniably influential career.
A counter-culture classic, this road movie features Peter Fonda and Hopper as two bikers out to find the late ‘60s version of the American dream - sex, drugs and rock and roll - and instead encounter violence and intolerance. Directed by Hopper and filmed in 1968, one of the most turbulent years in American history, it’s nihilistic, pessimistic and self-indulgent. (The actors famously used real drugs during filming.) Shot for less than half a million dollars, it was in tune with its time, a huge success that helped bring about the “New Hollywood” movement and a flood of cheap anti-establishment films. It’s a little hard to watch today -- more interesting for its influence and as a document of its day than satisfying as a movie.
Hopper is utterly mesmerizing as the crazed, profane villain in David Lynch’s surreal classic, a nitrous-sniffing weirdo with mommy issues. He’s a psychotic monster, and his performnace is so good he'll make your skin crawl. Every time he’s on the screen it’s as though you’re looking at a gruesome accident you don’t want to see, but somehow you can’t look away. I really don’t want to know what kind of inner vision made this shocking, perverse performance possible, but it’s amazing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent and troubling Vietnam movie features one of Hopper’s most memorable performances as a pot-smoking combat photographer. It’s a minor role, but Hopper’s intensity all but warps the air around him. The character is based on a real photographer who went missing in Cambodia during the war. Always difficult, Hopper had been out of favor for some time, but this performance in the blockbuster movie returned the actor to Hollywood’s attention.
In another movie with James Dean, Hopper plays the son of a rich Texas rancher (Rock Hudson) feuding with Dean as a handyman turned oil baron. Elizabeth Taylor as the rancher’s wife rounds out the strong cast in a classic movie that explores racism against Mexican-Americans, and the sweeping changes that oil wealth brought to Texas. Dean’s death in a tragic car accident shortly before the film was finished deeply affected Hopper, who admired Dean’s talent and style.
Hopper played “Goon” in Rebel Without a Cause, the mother of all teen angst movies. It launched the careers of many of its young stars - including James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Hopper took a little longer to catch on than his young co-stars, primarily because he was difficult to work with, and the premier directors of the day didn’t want to use him. The story plays a little slow and trite today but was much praised in its day, marketed with the sensational slogan, "Teen terror torn from today's headlines." Gracious! Still, Rebel Without a Cause is an influential film and a must-see for classic movie buffs.
In Hopper’s most conventional role in a mainstream, successful Hollywood film, he plays the town drunk trying to sober up and get on the road to redemption. Hoosiers is the inspirational story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team, and Hopper’s role as the assistant coach cleaning up for the sake of his son, who plays on the team, is moving. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.