May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

An epic Senses of Cinema review of Easy Rider and its long aftermath, posted only a couple of weeks ago, ran like an advance obit. Dean Brandum on the career rehabilitation of Dennis Hopper, and the subsequent weakening of whatever strange force was attached to him during his years on the edge:
After a complete breakdown on the set of the women-in-prison variant Jungle Fever (1984, Theumer) in Mexico in 1983, Hopper underwent detoxification and rehabilitation and, having proven himself to be clean, sober and his erratic behaviour a thing of the past, he let it be known he was ready to resume gainful employment. But to become a settled and responsible member of the Hollywood community was not as simple as returning to work. In order to be accepted and embraced, Hopper had to prove his application to the cause through a process of initiation, whereby he could exorcise the demons of his personal and cinematic past on film. Three of these films were released in 1986. Hoosiers (David Anspaugh), a conventional and sentimental sports-redemption story in which Hopper took a supporting role as a near-derelict alcoholic who cleans himself up to be present at his son’s big game. A veritable press release in celluloid, Hollywood and the media, always enamoured with a comeback story, were even more taken with so public an admittance of personal and professional debasement. Granted a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance, perhaps not quite enough work had been done to win the statuette.

Blue Velvet
(David Lynch) presented an opportunity to show the old Hopper on screen – a debased, pill-popping, psychotic aggressor and abuser of women. Much of the media of the time related to Hopper’s insistence that he was the character of Frank Booth and had the ability to channel his horrifying persona. Yet it was made clear that the channelling was just that, the demons were locked away and never to be released, except in a controlled state for the sake of the art of others. For River’s Edge (Tim Hunter), Hopper was willing to denounce his Easy Rider persona and fame. Another supporting role, this time as a pathetic, drug-addled, aging ex-biker with a Harley Davidson lying in pieces on the floor of his rundown hovel; he spends his days hanging with a group of miscreant, directionless teens, their life a wasteland of lost hope and no future. It could well be not only an apology for Easy Rider and its effects upon the youth of the period, but also an admission of his part in the downfall of the New Hollywood.
 And very little of interest after he got his head sorted out. But there's no mention in the above of his limpid, almost feminine turn (“opaque”, says David Thomson in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, which isn’t right about everything but is mostly right about Hopper) in Wenders' The American Friend (1977; pictured). In his short essay on the film in the Faber collection Wim Wenders: The Logic of Images, Wenders doesn't even mention Hopper by name, saying merely that his Tom Ripley -- for The American Friend is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, later a vehicle for a more muscular, self-assured and extroverted Ripley, played by John Malkovich -- is "less unscrupulous, more sensitive" than the one Highsmith wrote. I like to think that Hopper could only have played it at such a point in his life: he came to Germany directly from the set of Apocalypse Now; in the Coppola film, he is on a babbling speed-high, in the Wenders film, the soft, sad wash-out of his comedown.

This is a very good Hopper obit, from Glenn Kenny. Maybe the only other one I've seen so far to praise The American Friend, as well as mentioning his small part as the hospital patient near the end of Alison Maclean's unjustly underseen Jesus' Son.