Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In Character: Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper’s film and television career spanned nearly six decades, in which he delivered more than 200 roles. From loyal sons to crazed photojournalists, easy riders to drunk fathers – there was never a role too dark, or an area of the psyche left unexplored. A pioneering Method actor who trained under Lee Strasberg, Hopper was known for fully immersing himself into his work, which often caused problems, but consistently generated amazing performances. There were many roles to choose from for this post, but I do hope you enjoy my picks. As always, feel free to share your favorite Hopper roles as well.

Five Essential Roles
Giant (1956)
Jordan “Jordy” Benedict III
As the only son of wealthy rancher, Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson), and Texas socialite, Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), young Jordy shakes things up from the beginning. When Jordy announces his intention to marry a Mexican woman, for example, Bick is immediately skeptical, aware of the potential dangers a mixed marriage could bring.

At its heart, George Stevens’ masterful Giant is about acceptance. And watching a young Hopper fight for he and his wife to be accepted makes for some of Giant’s finest moments. Late in the film, a rich oil tycoon named Jett Rink (James Dean), insults Jordy’s wife and beats Jordy in public. It’s a fiery scene, two acid-hot young actors at the peak of their early abilities. Then later, in a hotel room, Jordy has it out with his mother and father. Both Hudson and Taylor were nearly never better than they were in Giant, and it’s great to watch Hopper hold his own against them. Pound for pound, word for word, the man could carry a fight from the very beginning.

Easy Rider (1969)
I’ll admit, Dennis Hopper’s perseverance behind the camera is more noteworthy than his actual performance in Easy Rider. As the co-writer and director of the film, Hopper earned a place in cinema history for creating one of the most unapologetic “Fuck Yous” in the history of American film. Easy Rider changed so many things, not just for movies, but for a generation of people who were looking to be heard. Watching Hopper’s Billy and Peter Fonda’s Wyatt cruise across America in search of freedom, understanding, money and dope, has never lost its appeal. One simply cannot talk about Dennis Hopper’s legacy without stressing the importance of Easy Rider.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
There are many ways to deliver a great performance. And at this particular point in his career, Hopper chose to show up to the jungle location of Apocalypse Now as crazed as the maniacal photojournalist he was cast to play. Consistently drunk on booze and amped on coke (and never bothering to shower), Hopper delivered a captivating and insane performance. All told, his character isn’t really in the film for that long, but because of Hopper’s wild antics, it’s impossible to ignore his presence. There’s so much danger and raw energy in his work; you have no idea where he’s going to go, but you can’t wait to see what he does (and, of course, says) next.

Hoosiers (1986)
Hopper received his only acting Oscar nomination for playing the heartbreaking and hopelessly drunk Shooter in Hoosiers. And while one can assume that Hopper had plenty of personal experience to draw on (his Shooter is one of the most convincing drunks I’ve ever seen on film), Hopper had actually gotten sober before filming began, which makes me appreciate this performance that much more. Hoosiers may be Gene Hackman’s show, but Hopper steals every single scene he’s in. From soberly helping the team win a crucial game as assistant coach, to storming onto the court stone drunk in the middle of a game. Shooter made for one of the best character arcs of Hopper’s career.

True Romance (1993)
Clifford Worley
One of the best conversations in all of cinema. Expertly written, perfectly performed. And Hopper’s face at 9:42 just kills me.

Wild Card
Speed (1994)
Howard Payne
The thing about Dennis Hopper is that it never mattered what he was in, he was always worth watching. King Koopa in Super Mario Bros., Deacon in Waterworld, Howard Payne in Speed – there’s always something to take away from a Hopper performance. He has so much fun terrorizing Los Angeles in Speed, it’s one of the reasons the film is so compulsively rewatchable. Crazy, not stupid. That’s damn right.

The Best of the Best
Blue Velvet (1986)
Frank Booth
There’s every other Dennis Hopper character, and then there’s Frank Booth. A uniquely psychotic madman who huffs gas, drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon and loves Roy Orbison. It’s the kind of character that could only exist in David Lynch’s world. Yet, rather famously, upon auditioning for the part, Hopper told Lynch “I’ve got to play Frank! I Am Frank!” which itself is a terrifying thought.

One of the things that makes Hopper so interesting to watch is trying to figure out how much of him, Dennis Hopper, is in each of his characters. Hopper was notoriously Method, so when we watch Blue Velvet, we know within seconds of meeting Frank Booth that he will be unlike any character Hopper ever played. And given how many lunatics Hopper played, it’s saying quite a lot that Frank remains the highlight. Truly, Frank is one of the most dangerous film performances I’ve ever seen. No apologies, no inhibitions. And really, what else could we expect from such a fearless performer?

Other Notable Roles
in Rumble Fish
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Hang ‘Em High (1968)
True Grit (1969)
The Last Movie (1971)
The American Friend (1977) 
Tracks (1977)
Out of the Blue (1980)
Rumble Fish (1983)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
River’s Edge (1987)
Black Widow (1987)
The Pick-up Artist (1987)
The Indian Runner (1991)
Boiling Point (1993)
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
Red Rock West (1993)
Waterworld (1995)
Basquiat (1996)
Edtv (1999)
Jesus’ Son (1999)
Knockaround Guys (2001)
24 (2002)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Entourage (2007)
Crash (2008-2009)
Swing Vote (2008)
Elegy (2008)


  1. Oh, man. I miss that guy already. He is one of the best actors all around. That scene with him and Walken in True Romance.... how did Tony and Quentin had the balls to do that? There's so many great performances that it's hard to choose whether it's Blue Velvet or Hoosiers as both films came out the same year. He should've gotten an Oscar for either one. I'm still waiting for Out of the Blue to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray as I've heard great things about that film.

    1. That True Romance scene really did take a lot of balls to pull off. If that appeared in a movie today (a movie written and directed by white guys), "the culture" would have a fucking FIT. And to be clear, a lot of the words they're using make me really uncomfortable, which is a testament to Hopper and Walken that the scene comes off so well.

      I saw Out of the Blue a long time ago, but it is really good. And I agree, this post did come down to Blue Velvet and Hoosiers... crazy those movies came out the same year.

  2. I remember Dennis Hopper. I've come to know him as that guy who kept getting cast as psychopaths and crazy people, since that makes up the bulk of the films I've seen him in: Apocalypse Now, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Blue Velvet, Speed. Generally if Dennis Hopper is involved you can expect his character to be a bit messed up. After all in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 his whole character arc amounts to buying lots of chainsaws for no apparent reason and then failing to save Stretch from being EATEN ALIVE because he gets distracted too easily (that film also had him literally take part in a sword fight with chainsaws). Granted, it eventually forces her to stop screaming and actually do something but that doesn't really take effect until the last five minutes of the movie.

    Blue Velvet is probably is most memorable role, though. Frank Booth is definitely a curious character for a deranged psychopath. Maybe it's that enigmatic quality about him, since we never find out precisely why he is like that.

    1. Few people played psychos as well as Hopper. That man could tap into crazy so easily. Texas Chainsaw 2 is kind of a mess, but it's fun in a bad sort of way. And Hopper is clearly having fun, so hey, fair enough, right?

  3. Dennis Hopper is one of the few really famous people I have met. I'll make this quick. He was a genuinely nice guy, someone who treated me, a punk kid interviewing him for a niche magazine, with real warmth and respect. He couldn't have been more gracious to me.

    Admittedly, I'm biased toward him based on that experience.

    It's always a joy when someone you really admire turns out to be a decent human being, and Hopper, based on my one-day experience, was that.

    1. Thanks for this comment. I love hearing when filmmakers I admire are genuinely nice people in real life. So cool that you got to spend some time with him. Is that article you wrote available anywhere? I'd love to give it a read.

    2. Sadly, I wasn't kidding when I saw I was writing for a niche magazine. It was also 20 years ago (he was filming Waterworld).

      Here's the best part of the day, though:

      Hopper was doing a voiceover for a computer game called Hell, and I was working on a computer gaming magazine at the time. I went out to interview him mainly because I was a friend of the PR guy for the game company. He recorded all morning, we had lunch, and he finished up that afternoon. Afterwards, he signed pictures for people involved.

      Now, my mother had discovered where I was going and who I was interviewing. She demanded--demanded, mind you--that I get his autograph for her and all of her movie group friends. They'd seen Speed three times, and they weren't going to watch Keanu Reeves. So I memorized Mom's friend's names (Carol, Mary, Dorothy, Jane) and I waited until he had signed pictures for everyone else.

      I told him the story of my mom and her friends and he signed four pictures, for which I thanked him profusely, since I had asked for twice as much as everyone else. He then said, "You want one for yourself?" I said no, I'd already asked for too much, but he insisted. So, because of the name of the game, I said, "Can you sign it, 'See you in Hell'"?

      He smacked his hand on the table and yelled, "Why didn't you go first! I would've signed 'em all like that!"

    3. Now THAT is a hell of a story. Thanks so much for sharing. Seriously, I love stuff like this. And man, what a ballsy line from you. Love that you had the stones to ask him to sign it that way. Perfect.

  4. Excellent choices. Dennis Hopper is definitely one of my all time favorite actors. I have never seen him give a bad performance, even in garbage like the Super Mario Bros movie. I remember that was one of the first movie i ever saw in the theater and probably the first movie i ever actually felt disappointed by, but watching it now i can have fun with it and it's awfulness. Especially Dennis Hopper's over-the-top performance. He always gave such great villain performances. But picking my favorite Dennis Hopper performance is incredibly hard. He really does have so many great ones to pick from. All of the ones you listed are definitely his best work, but if i'm gonna pick one outside of that i would have to say Red Rock West. I feel like that's a very underrated movie with a great performance from Hopper.

    And he is also in one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good movies The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 where he is dual wielding two chainsaws in a battle with Leatherface. That is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. Man, i really miss Dennis Hopper. He was one of the greats, even if the movie he was in was a masterpiece or total trash. He always knew what he was in and acted appropriately. He was an icon that will always be remembered.

    1. Red Rock West is definitely an underrated flick, and Hopper is superb in it. So happy you like that one. And yes TCM2 has to be seen to believed. That movie is fucking bonkers. It doesn't at all feel like it was directed by Tobe Hooper.

  5. "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"

    I'm not very familiar with Dennis Hopper's work apart from the performances you've mentioned here, but I'll be damned if his Frank Booth isn't one of the most terrifying yet strangely intoxicating performances of all time.

    1. I LOVE that line. If you pay attention to the extras in the scene, they all start laughing their asses off. And because they try to hide their laughs from the camera, I assume those laughs were not scripted, which I think is priceless. Fuckin' Frank Booth, man.

  6. Thanks for doing this post! My favorite is also his performance in Blue Velvet. On my top 5 favorites.

    1. Great choice on your part! Love this guy. And I love hearing that Blue Velvet is one of your favorites.

  7. Gotta be Blue Velvet. And I agree pretty much on the others (although I've never been that big a True Romance fan).

    For a quieter, different take from him I'd mention Carried Away. It's about as far from the stereotype of him as you can get.

    1. Oh wow, I'm so curious about Carried Away now. Restrained Hopper would be so interesting to see. Thanks for the recommendation.

    2. Well, I can't say it's a "must see", but it makes for an interesting contrast. It also stars Amy Irving, Amy Locane, Julie Harris, Gary Busey, and Hal Holbrook. It's from 1996. Irving produced it with her then-husband Bruno Barreto, who directed.

    3. Great cast. I'll definitely seek it out soon.

  8. Gotta love Hopper and I don't envy you at trying to bring it to 7 key roles sir lol. That had to be tough. So many amazing roles and I think you pretty much got the best ones here... lol, my super subtle way of saying the only one I would have put on is his role in The American Friend.
    I'm a little surprised at the inclusion of his role in Giant to be honest, not because I don't agree but because I'm pretty sure that would be a performance that many others would have skipped over - good on you sir, always keeping an eye out and spotting the gems. There was no other option besides Frank Booth for the top spot though, just such a fascinating performance that continues to confound me to this day. If only those at the academy knew how incredible that performance is/was and could have rewarded him (and Lynch).

    1. Dude, Hopper is so good in The American Friend. Rider, Apocalypse, Hoosiers, Romance and Velvet were musts for me, but that last spot was a tough one. The American Friend, Out of the Blue, Tracks, Rumble Fish... very tough call. But I ultimately went with Giant because that was such a dangerous role for a young actor to take on in 1956. But I'm really glad you're a fan of his work, dude was one of the all time greats.

  9. Great write up! I haven't seen Blue Velvet in years so I really need to rewatch it. It's funny - he is so memorable and charismatic yet I don't remember him being in Elegy at all

    1. Thanks! He was Kingsley's good friend in Elegy. A small but memorable part. And Blue Velvet... never a bad time to revisit that one.

  10. Ah, Blue Velvet. I was in college when it was released, and I saw it in the theater where I worked. I was a very conventional movie watcher back then, and --damn -- that movie was different. To this day I'm not sure whether I liked it. :-)

    Dennis Hopper definitely made a lasting impression on me. His portrayal of a psychopath was mesmerizing.

    1. Yeah if there's a movie to dump convention, it sure is that one. That's one of the reasons I love it, because it starts as this Leave It to Beaver fantasy and then BAM, enter Hopper to eff things up. But it is a tough film to love, for sure. Ebert's 1 star review of it is so intense.

    2. I want to watch it again sometime. I remember the gist of it and the general vibe, but I've forgotten a lot. I do remember some people coming out of the theater freaked out. *LOL* Apparently it wasn't what they were expecting.

      I'll check out Ebert's review.

    3. The thing is, if you hadn't seen Eraserhead when Blue Velvet was released (which few had, it was really hard to get a hold of back then), then you would've thought Lynch was, like, normal haha. I can't imagine how much of a shock Blue Velvet was.

  11. Nicely done man. Love this guy, and it's always great when I've actually seen ALL of the performances you discuss. ;) Couldn't agree more with these, especially your #1.

    1. Awesome man, so happy you like the picks and that you've seen all of them! Gotta love ol' Hopper.