With a career spanning over more than five decades, Dennis Hopper was one of Hollywood's true rebels and the icon of the counter-culture generation. Making his first screen appearance at the age of eighteen, Hopper spent the majority of the fifties and sixties doing television shows and playing bit parts in a wide array of films, some which were quite notable. He appeared in two James Dean movies, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, even becoming close friends with the Hollywood icon, as well as showing up in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Cool Hand Luke and True Grit. But his career really seemed to start in 1969 when he co-wrote, directed and starred in Easy Rider, a low-budget film which turned out to be a giant financial and cultural success, competing for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and winning a Best First Work Award at the festival, whilst also changing the way Hollywood looked at movies in the process. Nonetheless Hopper basically went AWOL for the next decade, after as his life was consumed by drugs and alcohol. The turning point seemed to be 1979 when he appeared in Apocalypse Now. Spending the early eighties sobering up, Hopper also started to get more notable work and by the mid-eighties he was back on track, even directing with success again a few years later, when he released Colors with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in 1988. From there on in he steadily worked, mainly doing character work but also being prolific as a photographer and painter, as well becoming a serious collector and connoisseur of modern art. Hopper died on May 29th 2012, leaving behind a huge body of work. Whilst not all of it is memorable, here are ten of his best and most iconic performances. A real anti-hero and a one of kind Hollywood persona, Dennis Hopper was a true legend.
River's Edge (Hunter, 1986)
1986 was the year Dennis Hopper truly made his comeback, after having spent most of the seventies doing drugs and the early eighties slowly getting himself back together. He appeared in no less than five feature films that year, three of which have their way into this top ten. In River's Edge, Hopper managed to stand out in small role as the town's drug dealer. A recluse relic of the sixties who hops around on one leg and makes love to a blow-up doll, even he can't understand the indifference of the kids that surround him, in the aftermath of a murder of one of their own. Perfectly cast as the old washed-out and disappointed hippie, Hopper's small role, along with Crispin Glover's one as the leader of the local kids, are the absolute highlights of this clinical study of youth alienation and apathy in the eighties.
The Indian Runner (Penn, 1991)
In 1988 Hopper made a come-back as a director when he released Colors. The film starred Robert Duvall and Sean Penn and Penn and Hopper became good friends. Hell, Penn even named his first born son Hopper Jack (after two of his idols and actors he would cast in his own films). So when Penn made his directorial debut in 1991 with The Indian Runner, he called Hopper and offered him a supporting role in a character drama which revolves around two brothers (David Morse and Viggo Mortensen)on opposite sides of the law. Another small but significant part, Hopper plays the local philosophising bartender whose murder leads to the film's ultimate confrontation between the two brothers and its finale. A small but noteworthy part in a film filled with a great supporting cast, which also includes Charles Bronson, Valeria Golino, Patricia Arquette, Sean Penn's mother Eileen Ryan and even a cameo by a young Benicio Del Toro.
Hoosiers (Anspaugh, 1986)
The second film from 1986 on this list, Hoosiers was one of Hopper's most critically acclaimed performances as an actor and a clear sign that the actor officially made his come-back that year. Playing an alcoholic father to one of the kids in the small town basketball team, which the film revolves around, as well as their assistant coach, Hopper was nominated for an Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor whilst also winning the same prize at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards. Like some of his previous roles during the first half of the eighties, Hopper clearly drew from personal experience in playing the part of a man addicted to alcohol but trying to desperately get his life back together. It paid off and both the movie and his performance drew significant critical praise.
The American Friend (Wenders, 1977)
The only film worth mentioning during Hopper's lost decade would have to be Win Wender's The American Friend. As Hopper was dealing with personal issues and addiction, he was viewed as being unemployable by Hollywood and consequently sought his fortune elsewhere. This resulted in Hopper making various films in Europe and even Australia at the time. Wim Wender's The American Friend however is the only noteworthy one of the bunch. The film is loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game (yes, that right: just like The Talented Mister Ripley was first made in France as Plein Soleil, Ripley's Game was first made in Germany as The American Friend). Hopper played Tom Ripley, involved in shady art deals and trying to arrange a contract hit whilst in Germany. Drawing from his real-life love of modern art, Hopper gives one of his most understated performances here, which might also have to do with the fact that he was in a pretty bad state whilst doing this film and severely under the influence of god knows what substances. In this case however, it paid off and The American Friend is Hopper's only stand-out film of the period.
Speed (de Bont, 1994)
Speed is one of the best modern Hollywood action films out there. In fact, it might only be topped be John McTiernan's Die Hard, which coincidentally was shot by Jan de Bont, who made his directorial debut with Speed. And just like that film and any other good action flick, a great villain is essential for this type of movie to succeed. And that's where Hopper came in. Playing an extortionist bomber with verve, Hopper seems to bring the tiniest bit of the madness of his Blue Velvet persona along here, which greatly adds to the character's flavour. Hopper managed to convey craziness and menace in equal measure and by doing so supplied the movie with a menacing central villain. Speed was without a doubt Hopper's greatest mainstream blockbuster hit of his career and one of the all-time classics of Hollywood action flicks.
Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
Dennis Hopper starred in the movie that kicked off the New Hollywood era and whilst he went virtually missing for the next decade, he came back by playing the appropriate role of a manic and stoned-out-of-his-brain photographer in Apocalypse Now, the film that could easily been seen as the conclusion of the era Hopper had helped create. His character only appears at the end of the film when the search party finally finds their target, Colonel Kurtz, whom the photographer idolises. It's hard to tell how much acting is going on here as Hopper was still heavily abusing substances at this time, but he handles the supporting part superbly and makes a lasting impression with his minor part. It was the start of his come-back and the period in which he would get himself cleaned up, and in the following years he would consequently often play characters who were addicted to something or recovering from addiction.
Rumble Fish (Coppola, 1983)
Another clear and very impressive example of Hopper playing a substance dependent character is his pitch perfect portrayal of an alcoholic in Rumble Fish. Playing the largely absent father of the movie's two main characters, Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy, Hopper basically shows up in only two scenes but both of them are stand-outs. The first one is the film's equivalent of a “happy family home” scene, when Rusty James, after being slashed up in a gang fight, comes home to his drunken dad accompanied by his older brother who has been missing for some time. It's the other scene though, set in bar where Hopper talks about the boy's long lost mother and the differences between his two sons, that really stands out, as Hopper hits the perfect tone of melancholia, disappointment and adoration for his sons whilst being in a drunken stupor. A very important performance as Hopper was busy digging his way out of the hole.
True Romance (Scott, 1993)
No matter how good or important the number one and two spots on this list are, something inside of me would want to put True Romance on the top spot. It contains my favourite scene in film history, as two Hollywood greats, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, go head to head in a scene which is quintessential Quentin Tarantino fare. Hopper plays the security guard father of Clarence (Christian Slater), who has unwittingly stolen a suitcase full of coke from the mob. As a result he gets a visit from Don Vincenzo, who claims that Sicilians are “the world's heavyweight champions of liars” and can therefore tell if Hopper is telling him the truth before he starts his interrogation. What follows is a brilliant scene of Hopper explaining the origins of the darker skin tone of Sicilians, knowing full well that he's not going to live to tell about it. The film is filled to the brim with great actors in small supporting roles, but it's this one scene with Hopper and Walken that I can see over and over again. Two giants at the top of their game, it's genius.
Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
Blue Velvet is the film where David Lynch announced to the world what David Lynch films would be all about. There had been Eraserhead in 1977 but it had gone by largely unnoticed, whereas Blue Velvet struck like a lightning bolt on a clear summer day. It was also the film that really became the come-back for Dennis Hopper, who played one of the most twisted, terrifying and psychotic killers to ever grace the screen. It was a bravura, tour de force performance, which stayed with viewers long after the credits rolled. And whilst it certainly wasn't the only aspect of Blue Velvet to stand out, the gas tank carrying, unidentified substance sniffing psychopath might well be the most memorable impression of a film, filled to the brim with strong bold visuals and all sorts of idiosyncrasies. Blue Velvet is one of the greatest American movies of the eighties and the unforgettable performance by Hopper, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe and won Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and the National Society of Film Critics Awards, is simply legendary.
Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969)
There is no way that Easy Rider was not going to be on the number one spot on this list. The film's importance cannot be understated as it changed the way Hollywood would perceive and make movies. It's the film that more than any other embodied sixties counterculture and kicked off the New Hollywood period, in which smaller, more realistic, downbeat and youth orientated films would dominate for the next decade. The film was also Hopper's clear breakthrough as he co-wrote, directed and starred in this low-budget production, which would go on to be a monster hit and a genuine cultural phenomenon. And last but not least, it would cement his image for the rest of his career; that of a rebellious non-conformist, who would forever be linked to the lost idealism of the sixties. A monumental achievement and Hopper's show all the way, Easy Rider is one of the most important American films ever made and hence the clear number one on this list.
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