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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
8. 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 …
7. 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.
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).
5. 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.)
4. 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.
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 …
… 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.
1. 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…