Even as a kid, there was something about Dennis Hopper’s insanity in movies that seemed genuine. The truth of the matter is that Hopper was not just the psychotic marshal of his own psychotic parade. He may have been at one point, but that’s what you get from a non-stop diet of tequila and mescaline smoothies for a decade and some change. In reality, Dennis Hopper was an exceptional actor, a deeply intelligent man, and a better-than-average artist.
But no doubt, he was still intense. Even after he famously sobered up in the 80’s, he remained just unhinged enough to make you nervous. He knew that, and he wisely cultivated it to a certain degree, when he returned to the good graces of Hollywood. Yet there was always something just slightly off about him. Was it the years of drugs, strange spiritual lives lived over long weekends, and heavy drinking? Possibly, but I don’t think it was that simple. I think there are some people who just have the wiring in their brain set up a little strange. Occasionally, sparks fly. Sometimes, the sparks talk to each other in hundreds of made-up languages simultaneously. If you look into the right pair of severe eyes, you can see all of that going on. That’s the kind of vibe I got from Hopper.
And thank god he brought his unique personality to acting. By the time he passed away in 2010, Hopper had amassed a film career as odd as he himself was. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is very decidedly not fantastic. The rest is at least interesting.
The best examples are as wild and engaging as the man himself very clearly was. I wouldn’t say Hopper was particularly versatile, but when you’re that good at portraying the kinds of characters that he played over the course of several decades, versatility is overrated. What you have instead is something just as good. Hopper had that, and the best examples of his career are well worth making time for.
He is a great example of the adage: “Well, we’re never going to see the likes of him again.”
1. Night Tide (1961)
Although certainly not as high-profile as some of his other early gigs (Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, or The Sons of Katie Elder), Night Tide is intriguing for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s beautifully shot and rich in atmosphere, making the most of these things due to the film’s obvious low budget. The other reason is because the movie features Hopper in an early, impressive starring role. As a seaman who falls in love with a woman who claims to be a mermaid, whose previous boyfriends died under mysterious circumstances, Hopper shows a measure of restraint that was never really associated with the majority of his acting work. At the end of the day, the movie is fairly silly in its premise, but executes that premise with enough suspense and style to make it worth a watch. Hopper stands out, and proves if nothing else the promise that he would later and almost completely squander for nearly two full decades. It’s worth noting as well that you can watch this movie for free on YouTube.
2. Easy Rider (1969)
It’s pretty much impossible not to include this movie on the list. Hopper directed and co-authored the screenplay for this iconic film about two bikers meeting up with an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson, in a role that finally started his acting career) for a run across the country, but who in the hell really knows who did what. The movie was mired in chaos during production, owing to the various chemicals Hopper and Fonda utilized to maintain their creative impulses. Or they just liked to get fucked up a lot.
Regardless, this movie is still one of the most shocking success stories in film history. For at least a little while, it gave filmmakers a level of control over their films that was largely unprecedented at that point. Hopper failed to capitalize on the success, descending instead into paranoia, drug abuse, and alcoholism until the mid-1980s. Yet none of that really matters here. There is no question that on at least some level, he was a director of significant energy and vision. Taking that out of the equation, his role as one of the bikers is one of his best acting performances of all time. Ignore anyone who simply shrugs this movie off, and claims that Hopper was simply playing Hopper. Maybe so, but most of us are smart enough to know that someone playing to their actual personality does not automatically generate an engaging performance. The sheer danger of what Hopper’s mind was capable of is evident in every scene, in every moment where we get a glimpse of the eyes of a man who is quite frankly capable of anything. In a movie filled with music and imagery that maintains a place in the public consciousness, it’s easy to forget that strictly in terms of his acting, Hopper is quite frankly outstanding.
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