THE magazine

Dennis Hopper: Counter-Culture Icon

Date March 31, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Why is it that Dennis Hopper, a film actor and film director for five decades, has resided in the consciousnesses of so many people, and for so long? When he appeared in Rebel Without a Cause, in 1955, he was merely a glimmer in the public eye. But it was in 1969, when he costarred in and directed Easy Rider—the film that defined a generation famous for its anti-establishment and counter-cultural values—that Hopper became celebrated by the moviegoing public.

Hopper, who has appeared in dozens of films, has been a very good actor, but not a great actor. Hopper himself has said, “There are moments that I’ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are only moments. And sometimes in a career, moments are enough. I never felt I played the great part. I never felt that I directed the great movie. And I can’t say that it’s anybody’s fault but my own.”

The word on Hopper in the film industry during the fifties and sixties was that he was an incorrigible hell-raiser—a binge-drinking, drug-addled pariah who more or less shot his career in the foot because of his penchant for being difficult on set. Hopper, who routinely carried a gun and a knife in those days, fueled himself with the same deadly recipe—cocaine and heroin—that killed actor John Belushi. Hopper has said about his wild lifestyle, “I believe in living to the edge of your senses. I always thought that’s what keeps the violin tuned. All my early idols were alcoholics and drug addicts—Arthur Rimbaud, John Barrymore, Edmund Kean. Crazies. So I took immediately to the bottle and let it carry me through my career. Then there was the sex.”

The continued use of drugs and booze sent Hopper around the bend—he became gone, so gone, so far out of it, that on the morning after he married singer Michelle Phillips, he woke up and did not recognize her. Their marriage lasted just one week; Phillips said she divorced him because of his deviant sexual demands. Of this time Hopper said, “With all the drugs, psychedelics, and narcotics I did, I was [really] an alcoholic. Honestly, I only used to do cocaine so I could sober up and drink more. My last five years of drinking was a nightmare. I was drinking a half-gallon of rum, with a fifth of rum on the side in case I ran out, twenty-eight beers a day, and three grams of cocaine just to keep me moving around. And I thought I was doing fine because I wasn’t crawling around drunk on the floor.”

Hopper’s drug and drinking habits sent him into virtual professional exile. He became more than just an actor to the public. He was now a bona fide celebrity—fair game and fodder for the gossipmongers and tabloids. Hopper was close to hitting bottom. In the early eighties, he found himself dead broke and recognized that he had to quit drinking or die, so he quit drinking. He understood that he needed help—he got help—and since then has not had a drink. He lived on, but his current battle with cancer is certain to be a lot tougher then getting off the sauce.

Everyone knows that America loves it when her heroes fall and then somehow get back up on their feet. So, being the “comeback kid,” Hopper overcame years of substance abuse—and mediocre film after mediocre film—to cement his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most productive actors. His career was revived by his role as an around-the-bend, pot-smoking journalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The film was a hit, and Hopper, after years of raucous behavior, was once again in demand as an actor. When he was being considered by David Lynch for the part of Frank Booth—a demented, nitrous-huffing madman—in the film Blue Velvet, Hopper told Lynch, “David, you have to let me play Frank, because I am Frank.”

In the sixties, Hopper—along with artists Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis, Ken Price, and Robert Dean Stockwell—migrated individually to Taos from Los Angeles and made it their home. Hopper bought the Mabel Dodge Lujan House, living there while editing The Last Movie. Critically and financially, The Last Movie was a bust; even so, it won the Grand Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 1961, a fire destroyed several hundred of Hopper’s paintings. At that point, Hopper took up black-and-white photography. As he moved through the art world and various Hollywood circles with his camera, he captured people and moments that might not seem noteworthy at first glance, but would take on historical significance because of how he photographed them. His portraits of Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Newman, and Jane Fonda are marvelous. In the late fifties, Hopper began collecting art. “He bought one of my first paintings, Standard Station,” says Ed Ruscha. “He was an early collector, one of the very few people in Hollywood who bought modern art.”

Hopper has been a prolific photographer, painter, and sculptor, making his mark as an artist in Europe as the first living American to exhibit at the Hermitage Gallery in St. Petersburg, Russia. “They had five rooms there with my work and it was incredible. I’m the most famous artist in Russia and nobody knows my artwork in the United States.”

Dennis Hopper has remained embedded in our consciousness primarily because of the cultish films he  acted in and directed, the unbridled lifestyle he led, and the company he kept. He has worked with a fascinating group of both fringe and major players: Asia Argento, Christopher Walken, David Lynch, Phil Spector, Kris Kristofferson, and Isabella Rossellini, to name a few. Critic Dave Hickey recently said, “Dennis is a facilitator of connections.” Tony Shafrazi, who represents Hopper’s artwork in his New York City gallery agreed, “Dennis is the conduit, he’s the guide, he’s the pointer.” Bottom line: Dennis Hopper’s vision as an actor, artist, photographer, and wild man is one that could only belong to a hardy soul.