Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man

Stephen Saito at IFC:

At the risk of being tacky to bring up Dennis Hopper’s personal travails late in life, as they unfortunately will be alongside the glowing career retrospectives now that he finally succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 74, it’s worth mentioning that he wouldn’t let his weakened state keep him from being a daring rabble-rouser until the very end.

Although Hopper’s long battle with disease robbed us of one of cinema’s great rebels too soon, it also allowed for moving considerations of his work while he was still alive as the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Matt Zoller Seitz did of both his work as a director right here for IFC.com and his career as a whole for Moving Image Source around the time he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Hopper’s speech for the occasion can be found here.)

Of course, Hopper was always an odd fit with Hollywood — a fiercely talented actor with all-American looks whose early roles opposite James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” always hinted at his independent streak with the ever-present mania behind those blue eyes. It may not entirely have been his plan to overthrow the film business in 1969 (and using studio distribution to do it, no less) with “Easy Rider,” a film that helped bring counterculture to the masses and kickstarted one of the most creatively fertile periods in Hollywood history, not to mention its influence on shaping the modern independent film movement. (In a study of extremes, Hopper acted in Tinseltown stalwart John Wayne’s “True Grit” the same year.)

Showing my age, I grew up with Hopper in the era long after his exploits offscreen and on (let’s just say it was a long time before I got to appreciate his turn as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”) had given way to a steady stream of villains in mainstream Hollywood fare. His appearance alone was instant code for crazed mastermind in such films as “Super Mario Brothers,” “Waterworld” and “Speed,” even though he was doing some of the most nuanced work of his career in films like the May-December romance “Carried Away” and his pivotal supporting turn as Christian Slater’s blue collar father in “True Romance.”

David Thomson at The New Republic:

There was a time when Dennis Hopper exulted in the reputation of being the first kid who knew what was wrong with Hollywood. What he said, more or less, was that the movies have gone dead, man, that it’s just old-timers doing it all on automatic pilot, that there’s no truth, anymore, man, and they won’t put me in lead parts.

There was some truth in what he said, and it was certainly the case that a number of veteran directors found Hopper an intolerable smart-ass who said he had known Jimmy–Jimmy Dean–and that what he was saying now was only what Dean would have said. Which may have been true. But which also allowed that Nicholas Ray–the director of Rebel Without a Cause, one of their two films together–also knew some of what was wrong about Hollywood, even if there was very little he could do about it. Come to that, Orson Welles, 15 years earlier had known, too, and had done his best to indicate another way out of the jungle.

Dennis Hopper was not a Dean or a Welles; he was not a Ray. But he was a bright-eyed, wide-browed kid with a slightly frozen beauty who looked a little like some silent screen actors.

Though he had come out of Dodge City, Kansas, he got to California early on and for a moment it was reckoned he had a career. He was a guy in the gang that hazes Dean in Rebel, and just a year later he played the grown-up son to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

He did a few other films–Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (that’s the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas version) where he played Billy Clanton, From Hell to Texas, and The Sons of Katie Elder (with John Wayne).

In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, the stunning daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. The young couple was good looking enough to be taken for the next generation of Hollywood royalty, but no one quite noticed that the kingdom was melting like an ice sculpture out in the sun. Hopper fought with directors. He spouted a lot of Method talk about the actor feeling “right,” and his career was going nowhere.

Then something happened. Roger Corman was making his exploitation films of the moment and the subject was bikers on drugs having sex. One of these pictures was The Trip, with a scene where Hopper, Peter Fonda, and some others were at a campfire, passing round a joint, and improvising. Was that a real joint? Corman would ask later. He was shocked to think that could be going on. But others noted that the joint gave Dennis a gift of tongues–he made up a speech using the word “man” 36 times.

As a reward, he said, Corman sent Hopper and Fonda off into the desert with a nonsynch camera to get some atmosphere shots. They had a terrific time as can happen with gorgeous kids, a camera, and what may be joints. As Fonda remembered, “So we shot for a couple of days in Yuma, in Big Dune and back towards L.A. Dennis got some beautiful, beautiful stuff of me in the dunes with water behind me, water going into my profile and bursting behind me.”

Gee, this is easy, they thought, and so they reckoned they’d make a whole movie more or less that way. They called it Easy Rider and they did it without Corman. And Dennis would direct. A wild bunch of Hollywood kids came on board–Hopper and Fonda, Terry Southern, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Donn Cambern, Henry Jaglom and Laszlo Kovacs. Anyone they knew, passing by, was likely to be asked to help in the editing. Another kid they knew, Jack Nicholson, got the third acting role, the disenchanted lawyer–though there was a good deal of argument (and money in court later) over how he got the part when Rip Torn had been in line first. Thy shot stuff–beautiful, beautiful stuff. They had desert, sunrise-sunset, and girls. Kovacs was a terrific camera man. They laid music on the soundtrack and the film has a quest if not a story–of these cowboys driving across America for drug money (Phil Spector made a cameo as their connection–I’m not making this up).

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

On the one occasion when I met Hopper, at a film-festival party in San Francisco about 15 years ago, he gave a vintage performance, drinking wine and laughing it up with a group of people he barely knew (or, in my case, didn’t know at all). He wore a white linen suit and a trim goatee, regaled us with yarns from his heyday as a “total madman” in the 1960s, and looked terrific against what I remember as a crisp, sunny day. At some point his female companion — I’m not going to try to figure out who that was, and it doesn’t matter — stalked off after some heated private conversation, but he didn’t seem concerned.

When I asked Hopper what he remembered most about James Dean, with whom he appeared in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” his demeanor changed. He became intensely earnest, explaining that Dean had changed his approach to acting and to life. Hopper had begun acting in television at a time when it was all about clarity and economy, he explained: You hit your mark, you said your lines clearly, you made your exit. Then he got on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause” (his film debut) and met Dean, who had been studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York.

“Here was this kid, Jimmy — I mean, he was older than me, but he was still a kid,” Hopper said, “and the stuff he was doing was amazing, it just blew me away.” (I won’t pretend these are verbatim quotes; this is the conversation as I recall it.) He remembered Dean rolling around on the carpet of the set that was supposed to be the Stark family’s Los Angeles home. “I asked him what the hell he was doing. I mean, you just didn’t do that. It was completely from another planet.” Dean explained that Jim Stark, his alienated teenage character, had spent a lot of time on that carpet and was intimately familiar with it. He needed to know what it felt like.

Along with Marlon Brando, Dean was one of the principal vectors for the transmission of Strasberg’s “Method acting” approach into the Hollywood mainstream, and Hopper became an eager disciple. (Publicity photographs from “Rebel Without a Cause” show Hopper reading Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares” on the set, which can only have been Dean’s idea.) After Dean’s death, Hopper abandoned Hollywood for Manhattan and spent five years studying under Strasberg. In later years, as the Method came to dominate American film acting, several of its practitioners became much bigger stars than Hopper: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sean Penn, along with Hopper’s close friend Jack Nicholson. But I’m not sure any of those men internalized the Method, or pursued its philosophical and psychological dimensions to their logical extremes, the way Hopper did.

Viewed narrowly, the Stanislavski-Strasberg Method is a means to an end: An actor employs his own emotions, memories and sensations in order to portray a character in more lifelike and convincing fashion. Hopper seemed to develop his own expanded, synthetic interpretation, probably shaped by his appetite for consciousness-altering substances, avant-garde art and thorny philosophy. Every Hopper performance was just a facet of his lifelong, overarching performance as Dennis Hopper, and the professional separation most actors maintain between themselves and their characters evaporated entirely. Apocryphal or not, the story of Hopper’s phone call to David Lynch after he had read the script for “Blue Velvet” is on point: “You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!”

Of course Hopper wasn’t really an amyl-nitrite-huffing, psychopathic rapist any more than he was a disgraced Indiana basketball coach (as in “Hoosiers”) or a disgruntled bomb-squad officer (as in “Speed”). But he pursued roles as dangerous and damaged characters, at least in the second half of his career, with a fervor that suggests he found them personally therapeutic as well as financially rewarding. Frank Booth was a revelation because he was horrifyingly, recognizably real, in a way movie villains hardly ever are. Even with his exaggerated vices and mannerisms, his foulness was rooted in genuine pain. (And Frank’s profane preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon over Heineken launched a trend among young consumers that endures two decades later; the brewery should have paid Hopper and Lynch a lifetime commission.)

Roger L. Simon at Pajamas Media:

Unlike other Hollywood hot shots like Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, etc, who never once changed a single thought they ever had, whether on LSD or a glass of milk, Dennis Hopper was able to see that the very thing that allowed him to live the wild and crazy life he did was deeply obvious. Forget all the self-serving narcissistic left-wing baloney. It was good old fashioned American Freedom! Nowhere else could Dennis have been Dennis — and he knew it. He wanted that for everybody.

So when you think of Dennis on that iconic bike in Easy Rider, think of America at its best, out on the open road, optimistic and heading straight on with unflinching belief in liberty.

And to my Hollywood friends, let this be a reminder that traditionally an artist is not someone who goes with the crowd, especially when that crowd hasn’t revised an idea since the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Open your minds. What’s cool may not be so cool anymore. If Dennis can do it, so can you. He wasn’t afraid of losing his job.

Yes, I know, this is not exactly the perfect guy to pick as a role model — but in a way I do. In fact, in honor of Dennis I’m thinking of turning in my Prius for a Harley.

J. Hoberman at Village Voice:

“The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad!” So Hopper described Marlon Brando towards the end of Apocalypse Now in a no-doubt improvised line that basically referred to himself. Hopper took Method Acting to the far side of the moon and turned Hollywood on to Pop Art, he appeared in Andy Warhol’s first narrative movie (Tarzan and Jane Regain… sort of) in support of Taylor Mead, and pioneered the naturalistic use of marijuana on the screen. He never won an Oscar or a lifetime achievement award but there are lines like “Hey man, I’m just a motherfuckin’ asshole, man!” (delivered while pouring a bottle of bourbon over his head in Out of the Blue) to which no other actor could possibly do justice. Blue Velvet is unthinkable without him.

As an actor, the young Hopper combined the image of the Cowboy with that of the Juvenile Delinquent; later, he was pleased to incarnate the chaos of the Sixties (and not just as a Ronald Reagan supporter). Eighteen years after Easy Rider, Hopper enlivened the youth film River’s Edge as a one-legged ex-biker living alone with an inflated sex doll called Ellie, selling loose joints to the local punks, and reminiscing about his colorful past: “I ate so much pussy in those days, my beard looked like a glazed donut.” Last seen, he was in heavy rotation on TV as a clean-shaven but acid-ripped investment services pitchman proposing to redefine his generation’s notion of retirement. (See his villainous turn in fellow Sixties-man George Romero’s Land of the Dead to see how.)

Not long ago I made a pilgrimage to Chinchero, the Indian town 14,000 feet up in the Andes where The Last Movie was shot–sacred ground for the Incas, man, even before Hopper re-sanctified it! There was no monument to, or even a memory of his antics, just the realization that this crazy gringo had somehow taken over the whole town as the set for his masterpiece. The Last Movie is the one Hollywood production since Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons that deserves a place in Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema. It used to be that Hopper had the only decent 35mm print in existence. What will happen to it now, I wonder?

UPDATE: Dana Stevens in Slate

UPDATE #2: Jesse Walker in Reason

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2 responses to “Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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