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All I wanted was to be Free: Remembering Dennis Hopper
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-06-01 07:43:39
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All I wanted was to be free

And that’s the way it turned out to be…

‘Ballad of Easy Rider.’  Roger McGuinn of The Byrds


Dennis Hopper, who died on Saturday at the age of 74, was an unusual breed of actor and director.  It is extraordinary to think what he did cover, featuring with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, to the classic numbers of Apocalypse Now and the epic Easy Rider, in which he played the long-haired biker Billy alongside Peter Fonda’s Wyatt (Captain America).  As Peter Biskind would claim in an analysis of Hopper’s effort, the film had ‘seismic’ impacts on the Hollywood establishment, taking film making into territory occupied by John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary.  A review in the Film Quarterly (1969) by Harriet R. Polt ventured that Easy Rider combined a motorcycle journey with elements of the ‘latter-day Western’ while eschewing most of the ‘idiocies’ of both genres.  A rough masterpiece was born.


Drugs, banging on the door for years with seductive clamour, had been given a spectacular entrance.  The hippy drive for mind expansion, filmed via a road journey through the American expanses, was given a forum.  In Hopper’s own words, ‘At every love-in across the country people were smoking grass and dropping LSD, while audiences were still watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson’ (LA Times, May 30).  


Life began to imitate art, and Hopper’s excessive indulgence in drugs and alcohol took its toll, inducing moments of madness that crippled his projects.  Cocaine was taken to ready him for another round of alcohol. 


Hopper always had an exaggerated sense of his acting, hamming his performances, lacing them with that degree of madness befitting the asylum.  By his own admission, brilliance came in moments, which was sufficient.  His acting skills were served poorly by much chaff amongst the precious wheat. 


Acting commissions still came his way, though these were haphazard affairs – he proved incapable remembering his lines in Apocalypse Now.  A revival did take place, when he returned as the sadistic nitrous-sniffing Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  Psychosis would remain a consistent subject, keeping him company as a vengeful police officer turned bomber (Speed), or the photographer in Robert Altman’s O.C. And Stiggs.


In a sense, he was the more honest showman, the figure who brought out a countercultural revolution more confronting than the sugar, one dimensional narratives churned out by the dream factory in Los Angeles.  It was all the more fitting, given that the only ‘ism’ Hollywood had ever really believed in, as Dorothy Parker quipped, was plagiarism.  Through his creative ventures in such places as Taos, New Mexico, where the ‘herds’ mingled, he could find earthy freedom and creative gusto.  Films such as The Last Movie racked up mileage on the cult meter but did nothing for American audiences, who stayed away in droves.  European consumers obligingly differed, and the film won the Grand Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.  Hopper was simply reaffirmed as the consummate ‘rebel genius’ working in his own captivating idiom.


Beyond acting, he proved to be a versatile photographer, and became an avid collector, something unusual in the Hollywood business.  He promoted such painters as Ed Ruscha.  He delved into the pop universe of Andy Warhol.  He painted and sculpted prolifically.  He was the first American to exhibit at Russia’s famed Hermitage Gallery in St. Petersburg.


Then came his politics, which confused and bewildered those in the hippie cosmos.  He came out in favour of Ronald Reagan during the 1980s and certainly had a certain fondness for the Bush family (at least for the father).  All of these point to the personality and presence of a figure who always proved an uncomfortable fit in the Hollywood machine, a rare talent who not merely remade cinema in his country, but transcended it.  That was the price of freedom.




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 
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