Top 10 Dennis Hopper Performances

by Eric Melin on June 1, 2010

in Top 10s

There was sad news from the world of cinema this weekend as we learned that Dennis Hopper had passed away after a battle with prostate cancer at the age of 74. He was a true Hollywood rebel, and his movie career was as wild and all over the place as some of his best characters. Let’s revisit his best roles and his wild journey inside and outside of Hollywood with my list of Top 10 Dennis Hopper Performances. If you’d like to contribute your own Top 10 list, email me at eric@scene-stealers.com.

hopper red rock west lyle dallas 199310. Lyle from Dallas in “Red Rock West” (1993)

An underappreciated twisty gem directed by John Dahl (“The Last Seduction”) and starring Nicolas Cage as a drifter with bad luck, “Red Rock West” features Hopper doing what he did best late in his career—play the heavy. (It’s also 10 times the movie that “True Romance” was, which is why that Hopper role isn’t on this list.) Hopper is actually the hitman that Cage pretends to be when he takes cash for a hit on J.T. Walsh’s wife. He benefits greatly from Harry Lime Syndrome, where suspense is built because everybody talks about you before your character actually makes an entrance—but when Hopper (referred to in the film only as ‘Lyle from Dallas’) does appear, he doesn’t disappoint. A moody neo-noir with a dusty Western look, “Red Rock West” gave Hopper the chance to continue living on the dark side. With Hopper in the role, what could have been a rote bad guy becomes the kind of psychopath we can believe in.

goon hopper rebel without a cause 19559. Goon in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)

James Dean was Hopper’s friend and his acting mentor way back at the beginning of his career. “Rebel Without a Cause” was the first movie Hopper appeared in. The film falters a little in its last act, but it remains a classic of teenage alienation, a theme Hopper would revisit again in 1980 (see number eight on this list). Hopper was crushed after Dean’s untimely death, and it was because of Dean that he moved to New York to study Method acting at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in 1959. The Hopper in “Rebel” is virtually unrecognizable—he plays a young, clean-shaven tough guy miles away from the longhairs and grizzled tough guys he’d play later in his career.

out of the blue 1980 hopper8. Don Barnes in “Out of the Blue” (1980)

Hopper starred in and directed this grungy little-seen film about an alienated teenage girl (Linda Manz) with a haunted, alcoholic father recently out of prison (Hopper) and a junkie for a mother (Sharon Farrell). It was Hopper’s first return to the director’s chair since the disastrous and intriguing-but-incoherent 1971 statement “The Last Movie,” and he acquitted himself well in both duties. As Dad, he goes from tender to drunken rage believably in T-minus-3 seconds. The title of the film is taken from Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” which is ironic coming from a hippie icon like Hopper because both the song and the movie are about a cultural changing of the guard now that punk rock had arrived and captured kids’ imaginations. Rumor is Hopper rewrote the film in a weekend and brought it in on time, which must have been a shocker considering …

the last movie 1971 hopper poster7. Kansas in “The Last Movie” (1971)

… the legendary fiasco that was “The Last Movie.” Fresh from his triumphant “Easy Rider,” Hopper secured studio funding for this ego-driven madhouse. He played Kansas (a nod to his birth state), a movie stunt coordinator working on a Western in Peru. After a deadly on-set accident, Kansas stays in Peru and is ultimately crucified by villagers who don’t understand the difference between movie violence and real violence. If you were to ask Hopper, his character’s bizarre fate might be a direct effect of Third World exploitation, American Imperialism, and movie-making myth. Ask anyone else and they are likely to be baffled. (The insertion of “scene missing” cards in the film don’t help.) This movie-within-a-movie features enough flash forwards and flashbacks to confuse even the most ardent “Lost” fan, and flopped upon release. One thing you can say about the Hopper from this era, though: He never played it safe.

dennis hopper 1979 apocalypse now6. Photojournalist from “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam epic could be compared to “The Last Movie” when it comes to the arduous shoot and drawn-out editing process it underwent, but unlike Hopper’s movie, it is now considered nothing less than a classic. So it’s no surprise that Coppola turned to Hopper to play a crazy war photographer who is discovered by Martin Sheen on the final leg of his quest to find renegade U.S. Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). He’s a gatekeeper of sorts, rambling on wildly about Kurtz’s greatness, all the while seemingly oblivious of the dead bodies and severed heads that line the temple outside. He is another lost and unhinged soul looking for acceptance, just like the role that made Hopper famous (see number four).

hopper hoosiers 19865. Wilbur ‘Shooter’ Flatch from “Hoosiers” (1986)

He may have received a screenwriting nod from the Academy for “Easy Rider,” but this formulaic-if-inspirational sports flick provided Hopper with his only acting nomination (in the Supporting Actor category). Essentially the role is a ‘town drunk’ kind of character—Shooter was an alcoholic obsessed basketball fan whose knowledge of the sport equalled his reclusive tendencies. He’s eventually hired as an assistant to Gene Hackman’s high school coach and he gets his shot at redemption. It’s because of Hopper’s own experiences that he could crawl into the skin of a character like this so easily, and despite all the heart-tugging sentimentality of the movie, Hopper still manages to make Shooter feel like a real person. (On the other hand, I also think that the Academy nominated him here only because they were scared shitless of his best two performances ever, which also came in 1986—see numbers one and two.)

hopper easy rider 19694. Billy from “Easy Rider” (1969)

Friends Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Hopper set out to make an experimental film about two hippie bikers who take a lot of drugs and ended up with a counterculture classic that defined alienation for a generation. They also got some unexpected Oscar nominations for their screenplay. Even though its filming (with Hopper as director and actor) was a drug-fueled improvisational rampage, the perceptive if dated film somehow evolved into a cohesive unit, portraying the moment when the late-60s “dream” went bad just as people were waking up to it. As biker Billy, Hopper doesn’t even seem to be acting (probably because he wasn’t), but he exuded the kind of natural charm that just couldn’t be faked.

american friend ripley hopper 19773. Tom Ripley from “The American Friend” (1977)

For the better part of the decade (and after the commercial failure of “The Last Movie”), Hopper exiled himself in Europe. We’re lucky he did, because he teamed with German director Wim Wenders for this moody Patricia Highsmith adaptation of the third book in the Tom Ripley series, “Ripley’s Game.” Hopper is the title character—an amoral sociopath who exacts revenge for a social slight by tricking a terminally ill man (Wenders regular Bruno Ganz) into being an assassin. Hopper is subtle, playing Ripley with far more internal anguish and existential dread than John Malkovich would in a colder but more tightly plotted 2002 version of the book. If you haven’t seen this film, you owe it to yourself to rent it immediately …

rivers-edge hopper 19862. Feck from “River’s Edge” (1986)

… and the same goes for this one! Hopper may play a reclusive and paranoid pot freak with one leg who killed his girlfriend a long time ago and is now in love with his inflatable blowup sex doll, but even he can’t fathom the amorality of the confused teenagers who frequent his doorstep in this disturbing low-budget shocker. When one of their schoolmates (Daniel Roebuck) kills his girlfriend and leaves her naked body to decompose by the river, Keanu Reeves (believe it or not), Ione Skye, and Crispin Glover must decide what to do. As written, Hopper’s character sounds like it’s trying too hard to be weird, but Hopper pulls it off with surprising grace and humor, and ultimately makes Feck sympathetic. The crazy hermit actually becomes the conscience of the film—disturbing, mesmerizing stuff on display from Hopper in this movie.

hopper rossellini blue velvet 19861. Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet” (1986)

1986 was a very good comeback year for Dennis Hopper. A quick look at “Hoosiers” and “River’s Edge” put them at completely different ends of the moviemaking industry at the time, while this role puts him, well, in David Lynch’s world. Beyond the white picket fences of American suburbia lies a seamy underbelly where a psychopathic rapist inhales amyl nitrate and makes his friends lip-sync Roy Orbison and bring him Pabst Blue Ribbon. What’s scary is that he related so well to the terrifying bully Frank Booth. Legend has it that after he had read the script for “Blue Velvet,” he called Lynch and said: “You have to let me play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth.” What’s special about his performance—besides that fact that it’s so horrifying—is that it seems that Frank’s aggressiveness comes from real pain. While Hopper berates everybody from Kyle MacLachlan to Isabella Rossellini to Dean Stockwell, he also masks an inner insecurity that less talented actors would have trouble pulling out. Did Hopper himself exorcise some demons onscreen in this Lynchian nightmare world? You bet your ass he did. To this day, Frank Booth is one of cinema’s most enduring raging maniacs and he’s a man we love to love/hate. Now it’s dark/I can’t see…

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Will June 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

Eric,

Thank you for the list. Dennis Hopper was one of my all time favorite actors, with my favorite films of his being “Blue Velvet” and “Apocalypse Now.” Major props for including “The American Friend”, one of the most underrated films of Hopper’s and Wenders’ career. I know you couldn’t fit them all in, but here are a few of my other favorite Hopper roles:

“True Romance” as Clarence’s (Christian Slater) Dad. The Sicilian Scene with Christopher Walken is priceless.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2″- Although not a great movie, the movie does have its moments and Hopper is his usual crazy ass self.

Also honorable mentions should have been made to his great crazed turns in the “Super Mario Bros.” movie and “Speed.”

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2 Will June 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

Eric,

Thank you for the list. Dennis Hopper was one of my all time favorite actors, with my favorite films of his being “Blue Velvet” and “Apocalypse Now.” Major props for including “The American Friend”, one of the most underrated films of Hopper’s and Wenders’ career. I know you couldn’t fit them all in, but here are a few of my other favorite Hopper roles:

“True Romance” as Clarence’s (Christian Slater) Dad. The Sicilian Scene with Christopher Walken is priceless.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2″- Although not a great movie, the movie does have its moments and Hopper is his usual crazy ass self.

Also honorable mentions should have been made to his great crazed turns in the “Super Mario Bros.” movie and “Speed.”

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3 Rich Yarges June 1, 2010 at 10:59 am

Shooter wasn’t actually ever a B-Ball Coach. Gene Hackman’s character is the one who hit his own player. Shooter was a local Basketball “expert” who Hackman recruited as his assistant.

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4 Rich Yarges June 1, 2010 at 10:59 am

Shooter wasn’t actually ever a B-Ball Coach. Gene Hackman’s character is the one who hit his own player. Shooter was a local Basketball “expert” who Hackman recruited as his assistant.

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5 Eric Melin June 1, 2010 at 11:20 am

You’re right, Yarges! My memory isn’t so good–wonder why?–I was in Truck Stop Love, maybe? Thanks–it’s been corrected above!

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6 Eric Melin June 1, 2010 at 11:20 am

You’re right, Yarges! My memory isn’t so good–wonder why?–I was in Truck Stop Love, maybe? Thanks–it’s been corrected above!

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7 Markus June 1, 2010 at 9:05 pm

FAIL.
How they hell do you leave out True Romance….one of the great scenes in cinema history.
Eric, you’re fucking fired!

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8 Markus June 1, 2010 at 9:05 pm

FAIL.
How they hell do you leave out True Romance….one of the great scenes in cinema history.
Eric, you’re fucking fired!

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9 Eric Melin June 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm

“You’re fucking fired!” Really? “one of the great scenes in cinema history”? Have you seen a movie before the 90s? Yes, its good delivery and dialogue and all that but the film is so slick and contrived and hollow (typical Tony Scott)- there’s a reason QT didn’t direct it–it was minor stuff; pure fantasy, nothing to it and not much to say. still don’t get why so many people hold it in high regard. nostalgia? timing?

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10 Eric Melin June 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm

“You’re fucking fired!” Really? “one of the great scenes in cinema history”? Have you seen a movie before the 90s? Yes, its good delivery and dialogue and all that but the film is so slick and contrived and hollow (typical Tony Scott)- there’s a reason QT didn’t direct it–it was minor stuff; pure fantasy, nothing to it and not much to say. still don’t get why so many people hold it in high regard. nostalgia? timing?

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11 Ross McG June 3, 2010 at 3:29 am

glad Red Rock West sneaked in there – terrific and underrated film
hard to argue against Frank Booth though

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12 Ross McG June 3, 2010 at 3:29 am

glad Red Rock West sneaked in there – terrific and underrated film
hard to argue against Frank Booth though

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13 wayne swab June 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I saw The American Friend years ago and didn’t get it. Not the biggest Win Wenders fan. Is it worth giving a second viewing? Hopper was the best part, but otherwise I thought it was pretty useless.
The dialogue in True Romance was pretty awesome, and I thought Tarantino sold the script because he needed the money. Same with NBKillers.
Red Rock West was an awesome movie that fell through the cracks.
No “Last Days of Frankie the Fly?” Just kidding.

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14 wayne swab June 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I saw The American Friend years ago and didn’t get it. Not the biggest Win Wenders fan. Is it worth giving a second viewing? Hopper was the best part, but otherwise I thought it was pretty useless.
The dialogue in True Romance was pretty awesome, and I thought Tarantino sold the script because he needed the money. Same with NBKillers.
Red Rock West was an awesome movie that fell through the cracks.
No “Last Days of Frankie the Fly?” Just kidding.

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15 Reed June 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Seems to me like your disdain for the overration of True Romance has tarnished your appreciation for the Walken/Hopper scene. I happen to dig the movie, but whenever I think of it, I think of that scene three times before I get to anything else. I mean, it’s freaking fantastic, even if it’s unnecessary in the movie.

I dunno. Maybe you’d like this version better?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2XnN4MMKFs
(OK, I’m reaching, but that guy’s good!)

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16 Reed June 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Seems to me like your disdain for the overration of True Romance has tarnished your appreciation for the Walken/Hopper scene. I happen to dig the movie, but whenever I think of it, I think of that scene three times before I get to anything else. I mean, it’s freaking fantastic, even if it’s unnecessary in the movie.

I dunno. Maybe you’d like this version better?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2XnN4MMKFs
(OK, I’m reaching, but that guy’s good!)

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17 Charley Downey June 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Eric, I totally agree that True Romance is not a very good movie. But I do think that scene merits Dennis Hopper a place on this list. If this were a list of the top ten best movies Dennis Hopper was in, then no. But it’s the top ten performances, and his performance in that scene is spectacular. He essentially steals the movie with it (battling for that honor with, of all people, Bronson Pinchot). Then again, you only have ten spots, and you have to make some omissions somewhere!

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18 Charley Downey June 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Eric, I totally agree that True Romance is not a very good movie. But I do think that scene merits Dennis Hopper a place on this list. If this were a list of the top ten best movies Dennis Hopper was in, then no. But it’s the top ten performances, and his performance in that scene is spectacular. He essentially steals the movie with it (battling for that honor with, of all people, Bronson Pinchot). Then again, you only have ten spots, and you have to make some omissions somewhere!

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19 Eric Melin June 4, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Reed and Charley- Yes, my disdain for the overration of True Romance has absolutely tarnished your appreciation for the Walken/Hopper scene.

Now that that bias has been noted,I’m happy that Ross and Wayne have concurred with me about Red Rock West. I’ll go so far as to say that RRW, River’s Edge, and American Friend should be rented IMMEDIATELY by any serious film fan who hasn’t seen them.

Wayne- For me, American Friend was an absurd morality tale anchored by Hopper’s ability to make you empathize. It’s a tough one, but worth seeing more than once. That’s why its in my Netflix queue right now!

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20 Eric Melin June 4, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Reed and Charley- Yes, my disdain for the overration of True Romance has absolutely tarnished your appreciation for the Walken/Hopper scene.

Now that that bias has been noted,I’m happy that Ross and Wayne have concurred with me about Red Rock West. I’ll go so far as to say that RRW, River’s Edge, and American Friend should be rented IMMEDIATELY by any serious film fan who hasn’t seen them.

Wayne- For me, American Friend was an absurd morality tale anchored by Hopper’s ability to make you empathize. It’s a tough one, but worth seeing more than once. That’s why its in my Netflix queue right now!

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21 Charlie June 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm

amyl nitrate, huh? I never knew…

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22 Charlie June 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm

amyl nitrate, huh? I never knew…

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23 Greg July 2, 2010 at 7:31 am

I just checked out Red Rock West and am glad I did although I thought it took a bad turn in the last 30 min or so. I don’t know how I would have wrapped it up or how I would have tried to maintain the mood/feeling/etc of the movie, but I really think it lost steam and got a bit hollywood.

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24 Greg July 2, 2010 at 7:31 am

I just checked out Red Rock West and am glad I did although I thought it took a bad turn in the last 30 min or so. I don’t know how I would have wrapped it up or how I would have tried to maintain the mood/feeling/etc of the movie, but I really think it lost steam and got a bit hollywood.

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25 Eric Melin July 2, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Hmmm…don’t remember the end 100%, but maybe it seemed a bit too convenient? Glad you dug the rest of it; love the feel of the movie for sure…

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26 Eric Melin July 2, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Hmmm…don’t remember the end 100%, but maybe it seemed a bit too convenient? Glad you dug the rest of it; love the feel of the movie for sure…

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27 wayne swab July 9, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I haven’t seen Red Rock West since the 90′s, but remember it being really good. A lot of movies are great right up to the ending ( possible top 10?) and it seems like the writer became done, and the movie had to end. But the atmosphere of Red Rock was badass, suspenseful, good film noir. Greg sometimes a movie is so good up to the ending, that you have to give it a pass. i.e….Spanish Prisoner, Southern Comfort,

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28 wayne swab July 9, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I haven’t seen Red Rock West since the 90′s, but remember it being really good. A lot of movies are great right up to the ending ( possible top 10?) and it seems like the writer became done, and the movie had to end. But the atmosphere of Red Rock was badass, suspenseful, good film noir. Greg sometimes a movie is so good up to the ending, that you have to give it a pass. i.e….Spanish Prisoner, Southern Comfort,

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29 Cody Marco February 26, 2011 at 12:53 am

nice list, seen all and they’re all great along with him. Dennis was truly a legend. Though I thought his turns in Rebel Without A Cause and The Last Movie were highly noteworthy, I would’ve probably switched them with Giant and Speed. Had it been a top 15, I would have also included Mad Dog Morgan, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, True Romance, Paris Trout, and George A. Romero’s: Land Of The Dead. but that’s me,.

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30 Cody Marco February 27, 2011 at 12:48 am

Nice list to a true legend and one of my most influentially favorite actors of all time. Your top 10 is pretty spot on with my own opinions actually. The only two that I would have changed were #’s 9 and 7. I would have put Jordan ‘Jordy’ Benedict III from Giant at #9, and Howard Payne from Speed at #7(Goon from Rebel Without A Cause and Kansas from The Last Movie were excellent performances too, but not ones I would pick for top 10.

other notable nods too(amoungst many others):
Daniel Morgan from Mad Dog Morgan
Lieutenant ‘Lefty’ Enright from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Paris Trout from Paris Trout
Joseph Svendon from Carried Away
Paul Kaufman from George A. Romero’s: Land Of The Dead

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