Dennis Hopper, who died of cancer over the weekend at 74, was never so much an actor as he was a channeler of his own idiosyncratic selfhood. When he showed up in a movie, you knew what he was there to do: unleash that Dennis Hopper force, that weird alien energy that seemed creative and destructive at once. In his first two major roles, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), he was the syncopated beat poet to James Dean’s melodic rock star. After Dean’s death, Hopper started to alienate himself from directors with his Method-inspired insistence on multiple takes and emotional authenticity. It’s easy to imagine one of these on-set arguments as a scene from a Hopper movie in which the manic obsessive talks his way out of a job.
In the ‘60s, Hopper casually changed film history by making Easy Rider and then disappeared into the Peruvian jungle to shoot The Last Movie, a bizarre, deliberately unfinished white elephant of a film that puzzled audiences upon its release in 1971. The decade of drug abuse and semi-retirement that followed was marked by a few memorable roles, including the title role in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) and the wild-eyed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now (1979). The scenes in Apocalypse where Hopper’s character tries to convert Martin Sheen to the cult of the murderous Kurtz are doubly disturbing to watch, because the character’s mania and indiscipline, his spiraling free-association about dialectics and outer space, seem entirely unfeigned. Hopper isn’t playing a lunatic ranting in the jungle. He is a lunatic ranting in the jungle, and the fact that a camera is there to record his babble feels providential yet somehow unseemly.
Hopper emerged from rehab in the early ‘80s with his native freakiness tempered by age and sobriety, and he went on to give some the best performances of his life. If he’s remembered for only one role, it will be Frank Booth, the gas-huffing kidnapper and vector of pure evil he played in Blue Velvet (1986). Frank Booth has become a source of campy hipster impersonations (“Heineken? Fuck that shit. Pabst Blue Ribbon!”), but as the very Hopper-esque writer Georges Bataille once warned his readers, “If you laugh, it’s because you are afraid.” Now, 24 years after the release of Blue Velvet, the Frank Booth scenes are still uniquely, viscerally terrifying (especially the scene in which Hopper forces the captive Isabella Rossellini to play “mommy” to his sexualized “baby” while Kyle McLachlan spies on them from the closet). Frank is so awful you want to get up and run from him—not that mere physical distance would protect you from his brand of contagious psychic harm. “I have to play Frank Booth; I am Frank Booth,” Hopper reportedly told David Lynch after reading the script. Perhaps more frightening than anything Frank does is the notion of identifying with Frank. But it’s true that the character taps deeper into the dark side of the Dennis Hopper persona than any other role he played. With Hopper, the potential for aggression, regression, and danger was always so close to the surface.
Hopper’s willingness to be loathsome—the seeming joy he took in repelling his audience—served him well as a villain in mainstream action films (Speed, Waterworld). But that same eagerness to displease could also be mordantly funny and, in the right context, moving. A Dennis Hopper role that’s always stayed with me was his small part as Christian Slater’s father in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993). After his son is implicated in a drug-related murder, Hopper, a recovering alcoholic cop, gives him money to get out of town with his young bride (Patricia Arquette). The father is captured by a mob lawyer (Christopher Walken) who urges him, as only Christopher Walken can urge, to reveal the whereabouts of his son. Hopper must find a way to get Walken to kill him before he can be tortured into giving up the information. So he goes on a diatribe—scripted by Quentin Tarantino—about the presence of black blood in the veins of Sicilians, relishing Walken’s slow-boiling fury as he explains the “historical fact” that the mobsters’ ancestral “wops” mixed with “eggplants” back in the day. Hopper’s speech is wildly racist, explosively obscene, offensive six ways from Sunday—and, in the scene’s context, the most generous, self-sacrificial gesture a father could make. He is, in essence, committing verbal suicide to protect his son, and as he deliberately baits his opponent into a murderous rage, there’s a paradoxical tenderness in Hopper’s eyes.
Hopper, particularly the early, pre-Blue Velvet Hopper, was never a cinematic figure I held near to my heart. His brand of motormouthed gonzo bravado is connected in my mind with figures like Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs: cult figures whose hallucinatory visions were seized on by a certain kind of fan as a nihilist design for living. But there was no one else on-screen who could do what Hopper did, and now that he’s gone, I see how much we’ll miss that ineffable quality he channeled, the generosity with which he offered his worst self up for our revulsion and wonder.