When Dennis Hopper read the script of David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet, he is reputed to have called the director and said: “You have to let me play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth.”
Nobody who has seen Blue Velvet could ever forget Hopper’s performance: a blue-eyed psychopath puffing pure oxygen from a tank, swearing reflexively, occasionally regressing to infancy. Frank’s every appearance on screen is dripping with menace. And this is the character with whom Dennis Hopper felt an instant affinity?
More than any actor of his generation, Hopper (b.1936) has blurred the boundaries between art and life. He has played loners, misfits, lunatics and anti-heroes for most of his career, and carried those roles over into everyday life. He was the toast of Hollywood when he directed and starred in Easy Rider (1969), a low-budget film that helped define an era and a generation, grossing forty million in the process. His next project, The Last Movie (1971) was judged too eccentric to get an American release. It was badly edited, renamed, messed around, and finally shelved, although it had already won a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival.
For a decade Hopper was effectively blacklisted by the big studios, before making his return to stardom with Blue Velvet. It wasn’t because he had produced one difficult movie, it was because he was widely perceived as someone who was out-of-control with drink, drugs and adrenalin, unable to take instructions from any director, determined to bring his own interpretation to every role. It was during this ‘wilderness’ period that Philippe Mora brought Hopper to Australia to star in Mad Dog Morgan (1976). Mora’s recollections of that shoot, recently published in the Herald, are hilarious and harrowing. The highlight was when Hopper recorded a blood alcohol reading that meant he should be clinically dead.
Throughout these decades of mayhem and excess, Hopper has been relentlessly creative. He has been painting pictures in many styles, taking photographs, experimenting with video and large-scale sculpture. He has played large and small roles in numerous projects for film and TV, and directed movies such as Out of the Blue (1980), Colors (1988), Catchfire and The Hot Spot (both 1990).
All these elements of a career may be sampled in the exhibition Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood at The Australian Centre of the Moving Image in Melbourne. This show has been put together in co-operation with the Cinémathéque Francaise in Paris, where Hopper’s reputation has always been sky-high. It is a strange, anarchic compendium of artworks, objects, films, photos and memorabilia that maps the jagged outlines of a creative biography.
This is not a ground-breaking event because Hopper has had shows in museums and commercial galleries all over the world, including Sara Roney in Paddington. What is unique is the size and scope of this display. It is as much a show about Los Angeles and Hollywood as it is about Hopper himself. We travel from the Beatnik era of the late 1950s, when Hopper acted alongside his friend, James Dean, in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955) and George Stevens’s Giant (1956); through the counterculture of the 1960s; the disillusionment of the 70s, and so to the 1980s, when a new generation of artists, actors and filmmakers came to prominence.
It is easy to see why Easy Rider had such an impact in 1969, as it captured the moment when the idealism of the hippy era was beginning to fall back to earth. The film begins in a haze of marijahuana and ends in blood and fire, as redneck America reasserts its dominance. It was a pattern echoed by Hopper himself, who started voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and has remained true to the Republican Party ever since. This is one aspect of his biography that gets scant attention in the show or the catalogue, which would prefer us to see Hopper as a devoted libertarian.
The truth is, Hopper is both libertarian and authoritarian; a great original and a shameless copycat; he is generous and self-indulgent; capable of acute insight and awful banality. Among all the actors of our time, there is no-one who better exemplifies the fragility of the line that separates genius from madness. It’s a shame Hopper never got to play Vincent Van Gogh, because he is possessed of the same unrelenting intensity that made the Dutchman such an extraordinary painter, and an impossible human being.
This intensity is evident in all Hopper’s roles, from Mad Dog Morgan, where he refused to wash while he was playing the bushranger, to the deranged Frank Booth. Only someone with first-hand experience of the dark side could bring such figures so brilliantly to life. His approach owes a debt to James Dean, a graduate of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, who once told him: “Do things, don’t show them.” At his best, Hopper is much more than a method actor – he is subsumed by the character as if by demonic possession.
It would be good to report that Hopper brought the same brilliance to his activities as an artist, but on the strength of this collection it’s hard to make a case for him. He lost almost three hundred paintings in a fire in 1961, eliminating his early Abstract Expressionist phase. After this he concentrated on photography, putting together a documentary record of the actors, artists and politics of the day. If there is real distinction to be found anywhere in Hopper’s art, it is in these black-and-white images of the 1960s. There are portraits of everybody from Paul Newman and Jane Fonda to Martin Luther King, along with many artfully composed street scenes.
Typically, Hopper gave up photography in 1967 and didn’t pick up a camera for twenty years. When he started again in 1989, he became obsessed with walls covered in graffiti, and more abstract motifs.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Hopper’s paintings, assemblages and photographs, is that he seems to make no distinction between his activities as an artist and as a collector. He is a kind of aesthetic sponge. In the early 1960s he hangs out with Californian Dadaists such as Wallace Berman, George Herms and Ed Kienholz, and produces grunge sculptures that echo the works of his companions. Next he shifts his allegiance to Pop Art, acquiring works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. In later years, he collects pieces by Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer.
He is as eclectic as a public museum, always ready to embrace a new trend or movement. Each move has an impact on his own production of artworks, lending a dilettantish aspect to his experiments. Comparing Hopper’s works to those by artists such as Warhol, Schnabel, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha that he has collected, made me think of the Joseph Brown Collection that occupies such a large hunk of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Federation Square Galleries. Like Hopper, Joseph Brown was not content to merely collect, he made his own paintings and sculptures, now on permanent – and rather pitiful – display at the NGV.
Beyond this point, I can’t see any similarities between Dennis Hopper and the late Dr. Brown.
With Hopper it seems that the style or meaning of an artwork is not of major importance. What really rings his bells is the prospect of something new: the energy and vitality of a new departure. Hopper seems to be attracted by the idea of ceaseless change, which helps explains his fascination with the rap culture he celebrates in the film, Colors, and even his conversion to the Republican Party. He was motivated by the idea that “the Democrats had been in power too long”. He says he also liked the concept of less government, although in retrospect it seems that the only beneficiaries of these new freedoms were multinational corporations.
As I write, Dennis Hopper is battling prostate cancer and going through divorce proceedings with wife number five. The film industry has forgiven him his excesses and let him have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but he is telling reporters that he is sick and broke. It seems that the ultimate Wild Man of Hollywood; the director who finishes all his movies with an inferno; the man who made a whole film around Neil Young’s line, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”, might make his final exit with a whimper rather than a bang.
Dennis Hopper & the New Hollywood, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, November 12, 2009 -April 25, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 25th, 2010