Sunday 19 January 2020

Review: Film: Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride Of A Hollywood Rebel by Peter Winkler

Robson Press, £18.99

It would be hard to argue that Hollywood corrupted Dennis Hopper, because almost as soon as he got there he was up to no good. In his new biography of the actor, Peter Winkler describes a bizarre encounter between Hopper and Natalie Wood, during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause.

Hopper, who was only 19, teamed up with his equally dissolute 17-year-old co-star Natalie one afternoon and they decided to have a party. "She wanted to have an orgy," Hopper explained, "she just wanted all kinds of guys doin' her.

"I think she had heard that Jean Harlow or somebody had had a champagne bath. So Nick [director Nicholas Ray] and I went and got all this champagne and we filled the bathtub full of champagne and we said 'Okay Natalie, we're ready for the orgy'. Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming."

According to Hopper, the slightly acidic wine had burnt Wood's privates, and she was rushed to a nearby hospital. "It was a very expensive burn," he concludes.

Dennis Hopper, who died last year, ended his Hollywood life just as he had begun it -- mired in chaos, at war with himself, his loved ones and the world. Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in October of 2009, Hopper filed for divorce from his fifth wife Victoria Duffy in January 2010, calling her "insane" and "inhuman".

Their legal battle turned public, and seemed to be about money: he accused her of stealing $1.5m worth of his legendary modern American art collection, she accused him of trying to write her out of his will. He was still in the process of divorcing the woman when he died, an unseemly but fitting end to an extraordinary but ragged life.

Over a 55-year career as a Hollywood celebrity, Hopper was as famous for his wild misbehaviour as anything he achieved on screen. His early acting promise was constantly undermined by his obnoxiousness, and it was Hopper's chaotic personal life and bizarre outbursts that turned him into a countercultural icon.

Peter Winkler's worthy and well-researched biography pays due attention to Hopper's achievements as actor and filmmaker, but it's the scandal that Winkler is really interested in, and Hopper's life was positively packed with it.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas on May 17, 1934, and spent his formative years in the rural Midwest. He had, by his own admission, "a terrible, terrible relationship" with his volatile mother, and sought solace from an early age in the local movie theatre. "I decided when I was very young," he later said, "when I first saw movies, that I wanted to be an actor."

That ambition seemed unlikely amid the cornfields of Kansas, but things looked up for Dennis when he moved with his family to San Diego, California in his early teens. Against his mother's express wishes, he began studying acting at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. He proved a natural performer, and by the age of 18 had attracted the attention of Hollywood agents.

After making his professional debut in a TV series called Medic, in 1954, he was given a movie contract by Warner Brothers and cast in a small role in Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen drama Rebel Without a Cause. It was during that shoot that he fell under the spell of James Dean.

Hopper was in awe of Dean, his acting style and dismissive attitude towards directors. He worked with Dean again on Giant, and when the young actor died in a car crash in 1955, Hopper was devastated. From Dean he took the template of how a young actor should behave, and by the late 1950s he had fallen out with practically every director he worked with and been dropped by Warners.

Insisting on his own genius, he survived the 60s with TV work and small movie parts, but his career was resurrected in 1969 when he and Peter Fonda collaborated on Easy Rider.

After Easy Rider Hollywood was at Hopper's feet, but typically he soon blew his opportunity by disappearing to Peru to shoot a quixotic project called The Last Movie, which he spent a year editing and which was universally panned as a self-indulgent piece of nonsense.

By this stage Hopper had decamped to a compound in Taos, New Mexico, and begun a chaotic regimen involving drugs, alcohol and firearms. By his own estimate, "I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day -- and that wasn't getting high, that was just to keep going, man."

He began turning up to film-pitch meetings tanked up and heavily armed, and was once again ostracised by Hollywood circles. With characteristic grandiosity, Hopper compared his plight in Hollywood to that of Rembrandt: he turned to photography and painting, acting in bad films to pay his drug bills.

And his private life became predictably chaotic. In 1970 he married singer Michelle Phillips. When they divorced eight days later, Hopper said "the first seven days were pretty good".

By the late 1970s, Hopper's life had become truly ragged, and one critic memorably described him as "a chemically enhanced public spectacle". A lifeline of sorts was thrown to him by Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in Apocalypse Now as a demented photographer lost in wartime Vietnam. Coppola later said that Dennis offended Marlon Brando so much that he "would not shoot any scenes with him", but his manic performance reminded people he could act.

Still the big parts did not come, and in 1983, to publicise the fact that he was painting again and intended to become a serious artist, Hopper strapped himself on to a chair wired to six sticks of dynamite and lit the fuse. He emerged from a cloud of smoke and dust unscathed.

It was around this time that Dennis entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme. He remained more or less sober for the rest of his life, and in the mid-1980s his career finally blossomed when David Lynch cast him as the demented psychopath Frank Booth in his iconic thriller Blue Velvet.

Thereafter Hopper became the go-to villain in mainstream thrillers like Speed and Waterworld, and even got to direct again.

Hollywood finally learned to love Dennis, and in March of 2010, just two months before his death, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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