As part of our Great Lost Films feature in the current issue of UNCUT, I wrote a piece on the making of The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper's follow-up to Easy Rider. One of the people I spoke to was The Last Movie's screenwriter Stewart Stern. At one point during our interview, Stern mused dryly: "It was never quiet around Dennis." Certainly, Dennis Hopper - who died today aged 74 – was too tempestuous a personality ever to be considered quiet, even by Hollywood's colourful standards.
As part of our Great Lost Films feature in the current issue of UNCUT, I wrote a piece on the making of The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider. One of the people I spoke to was The Last Movie’s screenwriter Stewart Stern. At one point during our interview, Stern mused dryly: “It was never quiet around Dennis.”
Certainly, Dennis Hopper – who died today aged 74 – was too tempestuous a personality ever to be considered quiet, even by Hollywood’s colourful standards.
Stewart Stern met Hopper in 1955 while making Rebel Without A Cause. Stern was the screenwriter; Hopper, in his movie debut, played Goon, a member of James Dean’s gang.
“He came to a lot of parties,” remembers Stern. “In the aftermath of Rebel, there was a group of us that became close. That included Jimmy Dean, and Dennis was at the edge of that. Dennis had from the beginning a very original streak in him and an ability to locate talent that hadn’t yet come into its own or into acceptance. He was way ahead of us on artists, and saw art where many of us saw ugliness.
“He was very funny, very attractive and very irreverent. He was a great audience. He would laugh at anything. And also very mystical, in a funny way. He used to love to go down to Tijuana and see the famous bullfighters down there. One night, just on a whim, he said, ‘What’ll we do tonight?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t we do something extreme?’ So we drove down to Tijuana with the top down.
“I never really fit in with his group, I was older. I thought it was just nonsense when he and Peter Fonda and Bobby Walker would get together and everybody would be smoking joints. I just thought they got stupider and stupider as the evening wore on. But they all seemed to think they were brilliant.
“I have an early American bedpan, beautifully carved wooden handle. It’s from the early 19th century. It’s copper, and you would put a hot coal in it at night. Dennis one night, we were over at my house, and had a very mixed group there, from Beatrice Lilly to William Inge. Dennis was on this roll that night, he thought he was the greatest poet in the room. He was shouting this jibberish that he was making up on the spur of the moment and none us could hear anybody who had any sense there. There was a lot of interesting conversation going on, and Dennis just ignored it. Joanne Woodward, all of a sudden, she had hold of this bedwarmer and she fetched him a good one on the side of the head. He was really, really taken by that. He began railing and screaming, talking to Paul [Newman, Woodward’s husband] saying ‘I’m a better actor than you are, Newman, and I’m a better than she is.’ And Paul just said, ‘Dennis, get well soon.’”
Stern finished our conversation by suggesting that “the serious photography and all the things he really was, and that amazing instinct he had… he was really at the cutting edge. He would say he was a genius, and I would say, ‘Well, it’s much more polite if somebody else decides that and says that about you than if you go around telling everyone that you are.’ But he was.”
Hopper’s own volatility was, of course, mirrored in his work – which was frequently, and frustratingly, erratic. But more often than not, he was a compelling screen presence; it’s true, I think, that the appearance of Hopper in a film was, at the very least, going to prove interesting. It’s this unpredictability, an anything-can-happen-and-it-probably-will thrill that is now cinema’s loss.
As I was writing this, Hopper’s Easy Rider co-star and co-screenwriter, Peter Fonda, released this statement:
“Dennis introduced me to the world of Pop Art and ‘lost’ films. We rode the highways of America and changed the way movies were made in Hollywood. I was blessed by his passion and friendship.”
Hopper was genuinely brilliant in Tracks, Blue Velvet and Hoosiers; great fun in River’s Edge (out psychoing even Crispin Glover), Red Rock West and Speed. As a director, Out Of The Blue and Colors were both formidable pieces, and certainly laid to rest the ghost of The Last Movie, the film which halted his career for the best part of a decade.
Here, then, are three career highs from Hopper:
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
In amidst the madness of Coppola’s shoot comes this show-stopping turn from Hopper, effectively playing Dennis Hopper.
David Lynch, 1986
The role that revitalized Hopper’s career. Surprisingly, he never got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nitrous Oxide fanatic, Frank Booth.
Tony Scott, 1983
A tremendous, measured performance from Hopper, here facing death at the hands of Christopher Walken with dignity.
We’d love to know what your favourite Hopper films or memorable scenes are. So, please, go ahead and post then below.
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