I ASKED PETER WINKLER a number of questions, about why he chose to write a biography of Dennis Hopper, what Hopper thought of film and art, and what attracted him to the life of an actor. What follows is drawn from his answers.
Peter Winkler: Dennis Hopper is an iconic figure in film who led a very rich and eventful life. Before he died of cancer in 2010, he’d survived enough personal and professional catastrophes to become a one-man Hollywood Babylon. He was an amazing character, whose life reads like a terrific movie. As a writer, you’re always shooting arrows hoping to hit a target that may not even be out there when you commit yourself to write about a certain subject. You choose a subject you hope an agent thinks he can sell to a publisher who will want to buy it. My first proposal, some time ago, was for a biography of actor Nick Adams. Agents told me that Adams was too obscure, so I decided next time out, I was going to find a biographical subject where a lack of name recognition is not a problem.
Hopper was an aesthete, and his interest in films was for their visual values, not their narrative. I recently discovered a podcast with writer Ann Louise Bardach, who Hopper had commissioned to rewrite the screenplay for the film Backtrack (1990) (a.k.a. Catchfire), which he directed and starred in, and which costarred Jodie Foster as a Jenny Holzer–like artist on the run from the mob. Bardach said that Hopper took her to Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico to scout locations for the film where Foster’s character would hide out, and he would point out artistic landmarks like Georgia O’Keeffe’s former home or Mabel Dodge Luhan’s home, which Hopper once owned, and insist she incorporate them in the screenplay. That’s what he really cared about.
Once, when assessing his life, Hopper said:
I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing, and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.
He spent most of his boyhood on his grandparents’ farm a few miles outside of Dodge City, Kansas, where he was born. Most days he had little to do except look at the flat horizon line or lie in the ditch with his dog and watch a procession of railroad flatcars loaded with farm equipment rumble by and disappear over the horizon, and wonder where they were headed. When he was five, his grandmother started taking him to the Saturday matinees at the move theaters in Dodge City, and the movies were a revelation to him. They opened up a new world to him.
Hopper later said:
The places I was seeing on the screen were the places the train came from and went to! The world on the screen was the real world, and I felt as if my heart would explode, I wanted so much to be a part of it. Being an actor was a way to be part of it. Being a director is a way to own it.
Hopper also believed that acting would win him the love and attention from people that he never got from his parents.
He arrived in Hollywood shortly after graduating high school in 1954, with only limited theatrical training in amateur productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but he thought very highly of his acting abilities. Hopper’s confidence in his acting prowess was shaken after he started watching Dean work on the set of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which was only Hopper’s second film.
“I thought,” Hopper said,
I was the best actor in the world, pound for pound — I mean the best young actor. I didn’t think there was anyone to top me. Until I saw James Dean. Watching Dean act was like watching someone pull miracles out of the air. He fascinated me. Because he was working internally, and I was working externally. I was an actor who’d come out of Shakespeare. My experience of acting was line readings, precise gestures, knowing what you were going to do next. Everything I was doing was preconceived, although it looked very natural. Dean completely disregarded any direction in the script. He would do a scene differently every time. It came straight out of his imagination, his improvisation. I didn’t understand how he was arriving at those conclusions, because he was having real emotional feelings, real emotional reactions. He also had a way of physically expressing himself that I’d never seen another actor do. I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew it was great.
After Hopper finally got Dean to talk to him, by throwing him into the back of one of the cars used for the “chickie run” in Rebel and demanding to know Dean’s acting secrets, they began to spend some time together. Hopper called it a student–teacher relationship. I think he was also turned on by Dean’s personal style and behavior, which embodied a rebellion that he found deeply appealing. In the short time Hopper knew him, James Dean appeared to transcend earthly constraints, seemingly defying actors, directors, and studio publicists with impunity. Then his death sealed him away from the inevitable ravages of age and the poor creative choices that diminish every actor. Hopper might not have made Dean his role model if he had lived to disappoint him. He made the mistake of confusing Dean’s personal attributes with his artistic ability. To Hopper, Dean’s professional success validated his personal excesses. He was convinced that Dean succeeded because of, not in spite of, what Dean’s friend Bill Bast called Dean’s habit of playing brinksmanship in every area of his life. That included his aggressive disrespect for directors and studio executives, casual drug use, and reckless driving, which Hopper emulated after he died.
Hopper’s adoration of Dean isn’t so hard to understand when you see how powerfully Dean’s image on film has affected millions of viewers for decades now who only know him from his three starring roles. Hopper was merely anticipating on a personal level the mass idolatry of Dean that exploded when Rebel was released a month after his death.
Peter Fonda offered Dennis Hopper the opportunity to direct Easy Rider (1969) after they worked together on Roger Corman’s film The Trip (1967). Fonda, who was friends with Hopper at the time, got Hopper the role of Max, the LSD dealer in The Trip. “Dennis needed a job,” Fonda said, “and he was very pleased to get this one. People didn’t want to hire Dennis because he was a tough cookie to work with.” Hopper and Fonda formed a second unit and filmed the desert sequences in Jack Nicholson’s script that Corman decided not to shoot. “We pulled off some of what I felt were the best shots of the film,” Fonda said. “Roger used it all.”
Hopper’s handling of the desert sequences in The Trip inspired Fonda’s confidence in his directorial potential. “Dennis Hopper was the only guy crazy enough to know what I was talking about, even crazier than I am,” Fonda said. “The footage was beautiful. Dennis could have done the whole movie [The Trip] like that, which is why I knew he’d be perfect for Easy Rider. He had the passion, and he had the ability to see form and substance much better than I. He understood framing.”
Fonda and Hopper had a fragile friendship, largely thanks to Hopper, who was paranoid, had a fractious personality and an insanely proprietary attitude about anything he thought he created. They met in 1961 at the wedding reception Jane Fonda gave for her best friend, Brooke Hayward, after Hayward and Hopper married. Peter and Dennis’s creative ambitions intertwined, leading to their making Easy Rider. After they began filming Easy Rider for several days in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Fonda decided he couldn’t work with Hopper anymore, whom he felt was out of control. But Bert Schneider, who put up the money for the film, wouldn’t fire Hopper. Then Fonda split screenwriter Terry Southern’s percentage of the profits between his production company and Hopper’s brother-in-law, William Hayward, after Southern left the production. Hopper felt that Fonda was trying to cheat him and, as he later said, “take away the one thing that I created.” William Hayward said Fonda and Hopper fought throughout the making of Easy Rider. Their friendship didn’t survive the film. Hopper sued Fonda several times over the years and made rancorous comments about him to interviewers. He even barred Fonda from attending his funeral. Fonda was more forgiving of Hopper, saying he had a love-hate relationship with him.
Hopper spent three months shooting The Last Movie (1971) in Peru in 1970. Though Hopper and everybody working on the film were besotted with drink and drugs, they worked very efficiently. Then Hopper returned to Taos, New Mexico, with enough raw footage to make several films, and he spent over a year editing the film. Hopper put too much on his plate. He had bought the former home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, which had been an artists’ colony in the 1920s, which appealed to Hopper. Hopper was expending his energies in too many directions. He was renovating the Luhan house, and brought in his brother and friends, hoping to create a kind of filmmaking commune. Hopper became a counterculture celebrity, and celebrities, sycophants, and moochers all descended on Taos and passed through his home.
He was in a maelstrom of activity, but it wasn’t always creative. Hopper was caught in the middle of a kind of range war between the Latino and Native American populations of Taos, and the influx of hippies who established communes there in the late 1960s, who Hopper symbolized. Hopper had a tempestuous relationship with singer Michelle Phillips, whom he married. She split on the morning of the eighth day, alleging all sorts of craziness and abuse from him. Then Hopper had a film crew come down to film his shenanigans for a documentary. Sometimes he would drop acid in the middle of the afternoon and just get lost for a while instead of huddling over a Moviola looking at footage from his film.
When Hopper finally got into the editing room, he had difficulty deciding what to cut or include. It was a repetition of what happened when he edited Easy Rider. Hopper was too enamored of the footage he shot, and there was just so damn much of it to sift through. He claimed he’d shot 48 hours of film in Peru. He had interim cuts of his movie that ran from four to six hours in length. He said editing was an agonizing, tedious process. Hopper also decided to give The Last Movie a nonlinear structure, which further complicated the editing process.
When he was working on Apocalypse Now, Hopper’s quirky whims tested Francis Ford Coppola’s patience, which had nearly reached the breaking point from dealing with so many problems on what was a troubled production. “Yes, he offended Marlon [Brando], who would not shoot any scenes with him,” Coppola said. “I used doubles. Also, every time I asked him to say ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ in dialogue, he would say ‘Nagasaki mon amour.’” An exasperated Coppola spent an entire day shooting 37 takes of the scene where Hopper’s crazed photographer meets Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) boat. Still, Coppola later used Hopper again in Rumble Fish (1983). Coppola said, “I hire Hopper for the two percent of brilliance, not the 98 percent of horseshit.”
Hopper liked David Lynch better. “Working for David Lynch was wonderful,” he said. “It was great to work for an auteur, who’d written the screenplay and was also directing. It was a wonderful experience. It was wonderful, a great role to play.” His agency had told him to turn it down because Frank Booth “had no redeeming qualities.” But Hopper said, “David Lynch is a great director, even if nobody in the world sees this film, the people in the industry will see this film and I wanna play this part.” And he was right. “You know,” Hopper added, “I’d just got out of recovery, I hadn’t worked in quite a while, so to get that part to play was really wonderful.”
After James Dean died, Hopper decided he was the natural heir to Dean’s legacy. “He [Dean] was also a guerilla artist who attacked all restrictions on his sensibility,” Hopper said. “Once he pulled a switchblade and threatened to murder his director. I imitated his style in art and in life. It got me into a lot of trouble.” Hopper started refusing to take direction from film directors. He got away with it until he clashed with director Henry Hathaway on From Hell to Texas (1958). As a result, he was blacklisted from working in major movies until Hathaway hired Hopper for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). “Henry Hathaway taught me a great lesson, a lesson I don’t think I was able to accept until that point in my life, but one I’ve never forgotten,” Hopper said. “Don’t fool with the director! He’s the man in charge, and he gets what he wants. Just imagine what a mixture of styles and effects you would get if everyone was doing his own thing as an actor in a movie — what confusion!”
As a director, Hopper looked for something that was socially and personally relevant, which he was only free to do when he could exercise creative control over films, which only happened three times — with Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie (1971), and Out of the Blue (1982). “I’m a social-protest painter,” Hopper said when he was promoting Out of the Blue. “I can’t help it. I don’t know much about the past, I’m not really interested in the future, or in space. I like to make things about what I see.”
“I love acting, it’s what I chose as a profession,” Hopper said. “It’s something I love, something I appreciate.” He said he was a “compulsive creator.” He said the creative drive “comes out of a lonely, sad place. It’s a way of looking for acceptance, which is almost impossible to find. Acting comes out of that place, too.” “I as a child was very, very unhappy and very lonely,” he said. “The only way I could stop being unhappy and stop being lonely was to become something like an artist that would be, you know, so creative and so beautiful that everybody would, uh, say ‘Wow!’”
“I do it [painting] totally out of an ego problem, that’s all,” he told Lynn Barber in 2001. “It’s always been about wanting to prove something,” he said in 2005. “The desire, the determination to be great. If I was determined to be a genius at 19, then I’m still as determined now.” On another occasion, though, he admitted it was more complicated than that. “You have to want to express something, to create something that lives beyond your own lifetime. It’s a pretty lonely concept, an object you’re leaving after you’re dead.”