Tuesday 24 January 2017

on the long road to magic and mayhem

Paul Whitington

Published 10/04/2010 | 05:00

As Kate Winslet and Sandra Bullock have recently discovered, marriage break-ups are pretty much an occupational hazard for Hollywood's glitterati, and it has ever been thus. But spare a thought for poor old Dennis Hopper, who would appear to be conducting his latest marital separation from his death bed.

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In January of this year the 73-year-old filed for divorce from his wife of 14 years, Victoria Duffy. He cited her "outrageous conduct" and, with typical restraint, added the more descriptive terms "insane" and "inhuman" to his list of complaints.

He was granted a restraining order on February 11 that forbade her from coming within 10 feet of him, but things got nasty when Ms Duffy, who is some 30 years his junior, refused to leave the family home in Venice Beach.

Court orders have been flying to and fro, and Hopper has since accused his estranged wife of absconding with $1.5m (€1.1m) worth of his famous art collection. She has accused him of trying to cut her off without a penny, and a court hearing is scheduled for next month.

Whether or not Mr Hopper will be in a position to attend that hearing remains a moot point, because he's reported to be terminally ill. In October 2009, he was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer. According to his lawyers, he has since deteriorated rapidly, and was deemed too weak to be questioned by his wife's lawyers at a recent Los Angeles court hearing.

It's all a bit unseemly, and yet it's also shaping up to be a fitting end for a colourful, mercurial and multi-talented man who's never been a stranger to chaos.

In a patchy 55-year movie career, the actor and director has had moments of brilliance but few roles of substance. Even so, throughout his public ups and downs there is one thing Dennis Hopper has never been called, and that's dull.

He hails from solid farming stock, and was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936. He showed an early interest in art and would become an accomplished painter in later life, but when his family moved to San Diego in 1949 his horizons broadened considerably.

He was popular at his new high school, where he was encouraged to try acting. He loved it and after graduating he moved to New York to study under Lee Strasberg at the celebrated Actors Studio.

There Hopper met a whole generation of rising actors that included James Dean, who would have a huge influence on him. It was Dean who helped him land his first significant film role, in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and the pair appeared on screen again in the oil epic Giant the following year.

Dean's death at 24 in a car accident had a profound and unsettling effect on Hopper, who was already developing an unhealthy interest in alcohol and drugs. On the set of From Hell to Texas, in 1957, he became so incensed by the bossiness of veteran director Henry Hathaway that he refused to take any direction at all and an ugly two-day standoff ensued.

Before he had even established himself as a leading player, Hopper had acquired a reputation for being difficult that would dog him for the rest of his career. By the end of the 1950s, his film career had puttered out, and he spent most of the 1960s plying his trade in episodic television shows like Bonanza and The Twilight Zone.

But while engaged in this hack work he didn't waste any time, double-jobbing as a magazine photographer and pursuing his interest in poetry and painting. He made some important friends, including the young Jack Nicholson, and proved himself an astute art collector, buying one of Andy Warhol's famous soup can paintings for $75.

A string of small roles in the late 1960s reminded Hollywood of his presence. He had a nice cameo in the Paul Newman prison drama Cool Hand Luke, in 1967, and appeared opposite John Wayne in True Grit, in 1969.

The big break he'd been waiting for came that same year when he and Peter Fonda found backing for their screenplay about a drug-fuelled motorcycle ride across the southwestern deserts.

Hopper persuaded Fonda to let him direct Easy Rider, and the resulting film became a counterculture classic.

At 33, Dennis had earned his entrée to Hollywood's top table, but his combustible personality and various addictions would soon put paid to that.

Critics had high hopes for his next film, The Last Movie, but while editing it Hopper locked himself away in a small town in New Mexico for more than a year, emerging only to buy cocaine, argue with Fonda over Easy Rider's profits and marry Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.

She would be the second of his five wives, but not for long, as the marriage only lasted seven days.

Hopper would later dryly comment that "the first six were pretty good".

But he was less amused when The Last Movie emerged in 1971 and was savaged by the critics as a pretentious and impenetrable mess.

As the 1970s wore on his self-abuse became legendary, and by his own reckoning his daily intake included "a half-gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine just to keep me moving around". Inevitably, his work suffered, and by his own admission he squandered his prime years. We did get the odd snatch of brilliance, and in 1979 he added to the on-set madness of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now with a frightening turn as a gabbling war photographer.

In the 1980s, though, he began to clean up his act, and experienced something of a renaissance. Though few were keen to work with him, Francis Coppola again took a risk with him in his 1983 Rumblefish, and Hopper was outstanding as an unemployed alcoholic father.

Perhaps his most complete performance came in 1986, when he starred as the crazed psychopath Frank Booth in David Lynch's dark psychological thriller Blue Velvet, the legend being that Hopper phoned Lynch late one night to tell him he had to cast him because "I am Frank!".

The success of that film allowed him to direct again, and the result was the acclaimed cop thriller Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Ever since that revival he's enjoyed himself, playing verbose psychos in films like Speed and Waterworld, and adding to his American art collection with the proceeds. And if his story is destined to retain a certain element of squandered promise, he's had quite a time squandering it.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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