Apocalypse Now (1979)
I learned of Dennis Hoper’s death in a bowling alley in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, while drinking warm Canadian, trying to figure out what I was doing in this place, and losing badly at five-pin. I tend to take it hard when my heroes die, even when they’ve had a good run, and this didn’t seem the ideal scenario in which to hear sad news. Yet somehow, there in that bowling alley, with the leering local drunks and ill-fitting shoes and the unseasonably bone-chilling, desperately lonesome prairies unfolding forever just outside the doors, it struck me that this place was perfectly emblematic of my personal experience of Hopper’s singular body of work. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Feck, Hopper’s character from River’s Edge (1986), perched by the bar, slapping his artificial leg, embracing his rubber doll, hardening his beady eyes, and launching into a monologue about bikes, beer, and pussy. This gave me comfort.
River's Edge (1986)
Feck. Father. Photojournalist. Frank Booth. For moviegoers of my generation, Hopper’s story didn’t begin with Rebel Without a Cause (55) or Giant (55), or even with Easy Rider (69). It began with River’s Edge and Blue Velvet (86). That famous anecdote, how Hopper phoned David Lynch, already in production in North Carolina, just to assure him that he could play the drug-addled, sexually deranged, murderous, mommy-fixated sociopath Frank Booth because he was Frank Booth, how Lynch got off the phone and confessed to Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan that Hopper’s identification with the character could be great for the movie but how are they going to have lunch with him?, endures not only because it fuels the legend of the then recently rehabilitated Hopper, but, more importantly, because it functions as a declaration of an artist’s devotion to his work. Hopper recognized something of his own weaknesses in Frank Booth, and he used that recognition to elevate what in less disciplined hands might have been a cartoon villain. I will never forget hearing in an interview how the only thing that got Hopper through his worst times was his persistent belief that the cameras were always rolling.
Blue Velvet (1986)
In any case, Frank led me to Feck, then back to Father, his wonderful supporting role in Rumble Fish (83), and to Apocalypse Now (79), and Hopper’s unforgettable photojournalist or, as Hopper enunciates it in the movie, “I’m a photo. Journalist.” Between moments of eerie stillness he rattles off his monologues like a Beat auctioneer, with multiple cameras dangling round his neck like so many eyes, trying manically to take in everything. By the 1980s Hopper’s infamous past exploits, even Easy Rider and The Last Movie (71), didn’t matter as much as what he was doing right then, giving one performance after another that seemed that much more virtuosic, focused, dynamic, scary, and inventive for Hopper’s new straight edge. He seemed to convey genuine craziness with greater force when he wasn’t wasted. His work from this period, at least in the better movies—there were plenty of very bad ones, too—dispelled the notion that the demise of the New Hollywood meant the demise of great ambition in American movies. Blue Velvet was a masterpiece, and Frank Booth a walking, talking, horny, nightmare Id figure, at once terrifying and hilarious and the likes of which we’d never seen, barking lines as impossibly banal as “Let’s fuuuuck!” and rendering them gleeful howls from the collective unconscious.
Night Tide (1961)
Over time I began to grasp the larger story, to catch up with Hopper’s long and winding career, his photography and art collection and years in alcoholic abyss. For years I was merrily tracking down The Trip (67) or Out of the Blue (80) or, wow!, Night Tide (61) on VHS, while still trying to see every new movie he appeared in or directed, which wasn't easy because there were so damn many. He was always coming back, from blacklisting, humiliation, disaster, and addiction, but even Dennis Hopper’s resurrections are numbered. His death from metastasized prostate cancer at 74 came not as the last ember of a long fading away but as a sudden burning out. To the very end he worked like a madman, perhaps because he was a madman, a suggestion not meant to diminish his talents but simply contextualize his sensibility. He radiated unnerving intensity, and while he could play softer, more palatable roles, such as the schoolteacher hero of Carried Away (96), he had a special gift for weirdoes who left such indelible impressions on a movie that he barely needed names, guys known only as Goon, Moon, Prophet, Chicken, Shooter, Cracker, Doggie, and Kansas, his state of birth. He first left Kansas at 13, and it was then he first saw mountains, skyscrapers and the ocean. In every case he was disappointed because in his imagination these things were always grander than reality. For better and for worse he was born to seek grandeur, and through the most ragged and at times ridiculous routes, whether scaling the lower depths or shooting to dazzling heights, his life and work achieved it.