The Id and the Odyssey

The lives and deaths of Dennis Hopper

For the general public, Dennis Hopper was identified to the end with the '60s counterculture, thanks to his career-making role as a hippie biker in Easy Rider. So when he died this past weekend, you're forgiven if you were surprised to read that he spent the last few decades of his life as a Republican. Unlike many famous figures who moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, Hopper never underwent a big public conversion. The man who once "was probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist" voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he didn't make a stink about it at the time; the closest he came to giving his past persona a public burial came when he disavowed the drug abuse that just about wrecked his career in the 1970s. When no less a leftist than Abbie Hoffman criticized celebrity ex-dopers for issuing atonements that "look like cartoon confessions extracted under threat," the old radical nonetheless singled out Hopper's renunciation as one of a few "sincere" repudiations "by people I know and admire." This was in 1987, seven years after the actor started quietly casting his ballots for the GOP.

Not many people could vote for Reagan while maintaining the admiration of Abbie Hoffman, but Hopper's cultural impact was much larger than his private political sympathies. In virtually all his roles, including the roles he played in the gossip columns, Hopper exuded an individualism too explosive to be reduced to mere ideology, be it left, right, or libertarian. It was the individualism of a talented actor eager to play eccentric characters and the individualism of a self-destructive rascal who alienated his colleagues, the individualism of the counterculture's cosmic cowboys and the individualism of a Kansas Republican. It was the individualism of someone willing not just to stare into the abyss but to fall into it, climb out, then merrily dive back in.

Born in Dodge City, Hopper started acting onscreen in the mid-1950s, playing small parts in cowboy movies and JD flicks. He was blackballed after battling director Henry Hathaway on the set of 1958's From Hell to Texas, so he fell into TV work and low-budget films. Even after he started getting roles in respectable movies again, he continued to do lowbrow pictures for people like Roger Corman, the B-movie producer whose young actors and directors would become some of the most prominent names of the New Hollywood of the late '60s and the '70s. Hopper himself would help usher in that New Hollywood by directing, co-writing, and co-starring in Easy Rider, a 1969 release that at first seemed to be just another biker picture but eventually revealed itself as something more.

A central theme of the western is the tension between the sometimes lonely freedom of the road and the sometimes suffocating security of the rooted community. Easy Rider took place in a modern western landscape, not in the days of the frontier, but it grappled with the same idea. J.F.X. Gillis has argued that the film is, despite its reputation, a deeply conservative movie with parallels to Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." In their stops along the road, Gillis argues, the protagonists "were given choices, opportunities to find meaning in their lives beyond that gas tank filled with money, beyond the pleasure of the brothel or the bottle, beyond the aimless wandering, meaning offered through spiritual commitment. Could there be a more conservative theme? The rancher and his family, the commune: first they were given a model of a meaningful life, then they were given an invitation to build that life. Invited to stay and join a family and find God, they refused."

"If this narrative had been Medieval, could there be any doubt at all of the theme or the moral teaching intended?" Gillis asks. "Sinners wander the countryside on a secular quest, encountering God's message but failing to acknowledge Him. They seek worldly pleasure at the expense of spiritual fulfillment, finding treasure and discussing it under a tree, only finally to die a horrid death by the wayside." That might not match the popular understanding of the movie's message, but it isn't far from at least one of the filmmakers' views. "My heroes are not right, they're wrong," Hopper's co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda said. "Liberty's become a whore, and we're all taking the easy ride."

Easy Rider was a hit and Hopper suddenly had Hollywood clout, which he burned through rapidly. He fell into disfavor again, and then he had another comeback. Along the way he had several memorable roles: as the amoral Tom Ripley in The American Friend, a crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now, a deranged '60s burnout in River's Edge, an alcoholic seeking redemption in Hoosiers, a cold-blooded hit man in Red Rock West, a post-apocalyptic dictator in Land of the Dead. But only one Hopper part would become as iconic as his character in Easy Rider: Frank Booth, the violent, impulsive, scenery-chewing sociopath at the center of Blue Velvet—a film written and directed by another unexpected Reaganite, David Lynch. If Easy Rider is the story of some footloose travelers who can't bring themselves to settle down, Blue Velvet is about a boy returning to a rooted community only to find that it too contains demons.

In 1984, it was possible for Gene Siskel to contrast Easy Rider (which, he informed us, "trashed establishment America") with the anti-Communist thriller Red Dawn (which was "nothing less than a military manifesto for our nation's youth"), concluding that "After more than two decades of pervasive liberalism, the Hollywood film industry is suddenly producing popular pictures that can only be called conservative." As it happens, Red Dawn director John Milius is a self-described "Zen anarchist" and a product of the same New Hollywood that gave us Easy Rider, but it's easy to miss those sorts of nuances when you're looking through the distorting prism of the Culture War. In retrospect, the New Hollywood was too big to be contained by either the counterculture or the left; it included John Milius as well as Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood as well as Jack Nicholson, Hopper the budding Republican as well as Hopper the hippie. In the best movies of the period, the animating idea wasn't some clichéd battle between the hipsters and the squares. It was the concept that powered those westerns of an earlier era: the tension between the home and the road, and the happiness and horrors to be found in both.

In that tug of war, Hopper embodied the most extreme sorts of rootlessness, playing a series of unconstrained ids and the wrecked shells they left behind. Sometimes, as in Hoosiers, the Hopper character managed to climb back into the community; other times, as in Apocalypse Now, he stayed out on the edge. His great gift was to make those excesses exciting and perversely attractive, even when his characters were at their darkest and most damaged.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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  • ||

    Do you know what the man is saying? Do you? This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, with fractions. What are you going to land on, one quarter, three-eighths, what are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something — that’s dialectic physics, OK? Dialectic logic is there’s only love and hate, you either love somebody or you hate them.
  • The Gobbler||

    I'm just a little man.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Any truth to the legend that Hopper ad libbed those lines while stoned?

  • Ragin Cajun||

    There's mines over there, there's mines over there, and watch out those goddamn monkeys bite, I'll tell ya.
  • ||

    More proof, as if it were needed, that there are no small parts, just small actors. Brando and Martin Sheen may have been the leads, but Hopper and Robert Duval stole that movie.

  • ||

    Sheen was pretty bloody good in that movie.

  • ||

    Not as good as Duval or Hopper. Duval was fucking brilliant. He absolutely captured a certain kind of Army officer. Those guys do exist, though they are rare.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Sheen had to play to a character whose was inwardly tormented. He had to act subtly - and did a great job. Duval got to play a big mouthed guy who had some great lines.

    Think of The Godfather, and who made a bigger impression in that movie. (If you say Duval, I call bullshit). They were both very good actors, and they played the roles they were given.

  • ||

    Duval had the harder part to play than Sheen. He had to play a guy who was totally over the top but still believable. It would have been very easy to fuck that roll up and make the character into a joke. Duval pulled it off perfectly.

    As far as the Godfather, that movie was an is always about Micheal. Pachino got all the best lines and got to steal the movie. I don't think the Godfather has a small part that steals the movie the way Duval and Hopper did in Apocalypse.

  • ||

    It had Diane Keaton making me hate her so much that I wanted Michael to beat her senseless. Does that count as a small part that stole the movie?

  • ||

    She was annoying and stupid in that movie. Sometimes in a great movie there will be one actor who is just awful in every scene. And it stands out all the more because the movie is otherwise so good. A good example of this is Sarah Holcomb playing the Irish girlfriend in Caddyshack. That movie is one of the great screwball comedies of the 20th Century. But every scene she is in is just painful. Keaton is that way in the Godfather. I love that movie and could watch it a thousand times. But I cringe during every scene Keaton is in in both Godfather movies.

  • ||

    Huh. I thought she was supposed to be the uber annoying WASPy wet blanket girlfriend everyone hated. So all this time I thought she nailed it.

  • ||

    Keaton had a hard time hitting that sweet spot of "innocence betrayed" that lies between ignorance (not understanding the world) and stupidity (not being able to understand the world.) I don't hate her performance as much as most people (she is fine in the wedding scene) but it becomes unbelievable as the movie goes on because the character never wises up.

  • ||

    You give her too much credit. Whether she had trouble hitting that "sweet spot" is irrelevant; the point is that she made her character so incredibly annoying that you literally start to want to see Michael beat some sense into her. That's a pretty extreme reaction to cause with your character.

  • ||

    Part of that is the way the wrote the movie. In the book she leaves Michael and goes back to her parents after he whacks Carlo. Tom Hagen then goes up and finds her and talks her into coming back. He gives a pretty good speech explaining why Micheal had no choice but to whack Carlo since he had betrayed the family. The scene makes Kay look like less of a dumb ass. Since it was cut, she just looks completely stupid in the movie.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yes - in the book, she is a far more likeable character. In the movie, she comes off as a dumbass harpy. A big part of the problem is the role; she really isn't given a chance to be anything but an idiot.

  • ||

    The best part of the book that didn't explicitly feature in the movie is Sonny's enormous penis.

  • ||

    There is one part of the wedding scene where Sonny's wife is speaking Italian and spreading her hands apart to show how big something is. It is pretty obvious from the context what the something is.

  • ||

    Yeah, but it's not that same as his quest to find a women deformed enough for him to get all the way inside.

  • ||

    diane keaton ruins my sundays. guarnteed turn on your televsion and on a sunday afternoon there is at least 2 diane keaton movies showing and they are always the same. shes always in a long sleeve turtleneck, pants, glasses and a lot of what i like to call "smoke machine" affect clouding up the screen to try and make her sexy.

    vomit....

  • The Gobbler||

    I liked Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.

  • ||

    AMC occasionally shows The Godfather Epic, which is the first two movies edited together chronologically with deleted scenes. It's fun to watch if you are fairly familiar with the series.

  • ¢||

    DON'T SAY SURPRISE FUCKHEAD!

    It's not unexpected at all that artistically serious types like Lynch and Hopper aren't Hollywood-proper, ideologically.

    The culture is unobservable from its own POV. Those guys see things. QED. PBR.

  • christian louboutin||

    to see some of Paris Showgirls nightclub because he was fascinated by their clothes,and an example,he became the main inspiration footwear designer :"In Showgirls gave me a very great impact.If you like high heels,it is truly the ultimate high-heeled shoes - it is all the legs,how they implement their own body decoration.They are the ultimate icon."Despite many objections christian louboutin online,he decided to leave school so early,he claims that his determination was watched with Sophia Loren,and she introduced her sister to enhance a television interview that she had to leave school.

  • BakedPenguin||

    David Lynch is apparently still very proud of becoming an Eagle Scout. It's one of the few biographical details he's let out.

    And Milius wrote one of the Dirty Harry movies; it wouldn't surprise me if he were conservative.

  • ||

    Milius is a huge gun rights guy. Has an enormous collection of weapons. I am not sure he is a proper conservative. But he sure as hell isn't a liberal.

  • ||

    Walter in The Big Lebowski is based on Milius.

  • ||

    Him and Copola originally wanted to film Apocalypse Now in 1970 in Vietnam with hand held 10 millimeter cameras. Watch the documentary "Hearts of Darkness" sometime. There are some really funny interviews with Milius. He seems crazy as hell and a great guy.

  • ||

    Yeah, I've seen that. Insanely troubled production. And it didn't help that most of the cast and crew were stoned out of their gourds.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Or that a hurricane came along and destroyed one of their biggest sets.

  • ||

    The hurricane was caused by drugs.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Dunno if he still reads us now, but I'm told Milius was a Reason fan back in the '80s.

  • ||

    And Flight of the Intruder.

  • ||

    Ooh, and Extreme Prejudice.

  • ||

    Don't forget Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, dipshits.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Jesse mentioned Red Dawn in the article, dumbass.

    Oh, and he wrote two Dirty Harry movies - the original, and Magnum Force.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Uh... just to be clear, John Milius wrote two Dirty Harry movies, not Jesse Walker.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I know Milius had a hand in the first one, but he wasn't one of the credited writers. Maybe he was a script doctor?

    Btw, libertarian life-extension gurus Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw have a story credit on The Dead Pool.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I wasn't even aware he was involved, until I saw the listing on imdb. Script doc sounds likely.

  • ||

    After Obamacare starts, seeing a script doctor will be free.

  • ||

    Bullshit, Saccharin Man! Not this one, anyway. Free in two weeks and counting.

  • Beezard||

    Let's not forget Conan the Barbarian...probably the most (awesomely)right-wing movie I can think of. And to add to the weirdness, Oliver Stone wrote part of it as well, though I think most of his contribution got tossed.

  • Beezard||

    Let's not forget Conan the Barbarian...probably the most (awesomely)right-wing movie I can think of. And to add to the weirdness, Oliver Stone wrote part of it as well, though I think most of his contribution got tossed.

  • Beezard||

    *hiccup!*

  • ||

    Hoppper I think genuinely loved freedom and genuinely thought about things and changed his mind over time. And on top of that he was actually willing to pay a price for his beliefs. He probably would have had a more lucrative and successful career had he played the Hollywood game better and been more willing to tell people what they wanted to hear.

    That is rare enough in a person. But it is almost unheard of in a Hollywood actor.

  • ||

    "Heineken? Fuck that shit! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON!"

  • ||

    Raymond: Do you want me to pour it, Frank?

    Frank Booth: No, I want you to fuck it. Shit, yes, pour the fuckin' beer!

  • Franklin Harris||

    "It was the individualism of someone willing not just to stare into the abyss but to fall into it, climb out, then merrily dive back in."

    Actually, Hopper left that to stuntman Grant Page in Mad Dog Morgan.

    See the final second of this trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfIn7idUj6w

  • ||

    I want Hopper's art collection.

  • Chad||

    Mine is so much better. Ask me about it sometime.

  • Buck Longrod||

    Hopper the budding Republican

    He supported Obama in 08 after McCain chose the Bimbo.

  • ||

    He remained on the right though - he divorced his wife as he was dying to prevent her from using his money for liberal bullshit.

  • ||

    I didn't know being in a stable marriage with several children made you a bimbo. I guess societal standards have changed.

  • Buck Longrod||

    If that is your criteria for voting on a ticket then it doesn't.

  • zoltan||

    I doubt Buck Longrod thinks Sarah Palin is a bimbo due to her family life. You don't seem smart enough to understand that her policy positions and ridiculous demeanor are what influences people's negative opinions about her.

  • ||

    Well, she did endorse Rand Paul.

  • SIV||

    Sarah Palin is for jury nullification.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I've always heard "bimbo" referring to a woman of low intelligence, not loose sexual morals. Had he called Palin a "slut", I could see your point.

  • ||

    I've always taken "bimbo" to mean a woman who makes indiscriminate choices in sexual partners because of her low intelligence.

  • ||

    bimbo

    a. A fellow, chap; usu. contemptuous.
    1919 Amer. Mag. Nov. 69/1 Nothing but the most heroic measures will save the poor bimbo. 1924 WODEHOUSE Bill the Conqueror xx. 285 The bimbo Pyke arrived. 1936 R. CHANDLER Killer in Rain (1964) 53 There's a thousand berries on that bimbo. A bank stick-up, ain't he? 1947 WODEHOUSE Full Moon v. 90 Bimbos who went about the place making passes at innocent girls after discarding their wives.

    b. A woman; esp. a whore.
    1929 Amer. Speech IV. 338 Bimbo, a woman. 1937 Detective Fiction Weekly 3 Apr. 20/2 We found Durken and Frenchy LaSeur, seated at a table..with a pair of blonde bimboes beside them. 1952 S. KAUFFMANN Philanderer (1953) xii. 194 Not that you were just a bimbo to me... I've discovered that I'm a little in love with you, too.

    DRAFT ADDITIONS MAY 2004

    {sm}bimbo, n.2

    * derogatory. A young woman considered to be sexually attractive but of limited intelligence. (Now the usual sense.)
    1927 Vanity Fair (U.S.) Nov. 67/2 Among some of Conway's more famous expressions are: ‘Bimbo’ (for a dumb girl); [etc.]. 1976 ‘W. ALLEN’ Without Feathers 33 Sure, a guy can meet all the bimbos he wants. But the really brainy women{em}they're not so easy to find. 1988 Stage 4 Aug. 17/5 The empty-headed hair-twisting bimbos who describe themselves as ‘singer, actress, and model’. 2002 Empire Dec. 156/4 The Mangler 2..gets points for the most gratuitous jiggle of the year as bimbo prefect Daniella Evangelista flees the killer dressed fetchingly in a Hawaiian luau outfit.
  • Zeb||

    The last seems to be the relevant one here.

  • ||

    I always took bimbo to have a sexual component to it. It is only applied to women. And I would hazard to guess that Palin is smarter than most of her critics. And she is certainly smarter than many politicians out there, although that has to be the most back handed compliment ever given. The over the top criticism of her has long since crossed the border over to bizarre.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I think you're giving her too much credit, although I think she's not as stupid as she often gets labelled.

    However, she set herself up for a lot of criticism by being totally unprepared for many of the questions put to her during the campaign. You're running for Vice-President, you should damn well spend 16 hours a day for a couple weeks memorizing answers, as well as devising strategies to deal with unusual questions. Giving meandering, 90 word, one-sentence paragragh answers to puffball questions does not make you look intelligent.

  • ||

    As opposed to our current President who seems utterly unprepared in the actual job. She was running for VP for Christ sake. All you have to do is give a good speech and go to funerals.

  • BakedPenguin||

    As much as I hate it, appearances matter in modern politics. And she really seemed like she prepared less for her press interviews than I have for some job interviews.

    And at this point, I'd definitely take her over Hopey McChangey or Doltin' Joe Biden. Short of trying to take out Putin with nukes, I can't see how she could possibly do a worse job.

  • SIV||

    Her uncomfortableness with questions may have been a reflection of her opinion of the McCain platform she was obligated to defend

  • Robert||

    Apparently when it started (I think there's an occurrence of the word in Red harvest by Dashiell Hammett too) there was nothing particularly female about it, and it seemed to be applied more often to males. See also the Fleischer cartoon character Bimbo.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Idea for the next big Tea Party rally: Sarah Palin and Victoria Jackson sing a duet of "I Am Not a Bimbo."

  • Zeb||

    It doesn't make you not a bimbo.

  • Anomalous||

    In True Romance he has a great monologue about the racial makeup of Sicilians.

  • Vito||

    So you see, way back then, uh, Sicilians were like, uh, wops from Northern Italy. Ah, they all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but, uh, well, then the Moors moved in there, and uh, well, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin' with Sicilian women, huh? That they changed the whole bloodline forever. That's why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. You know, it's absolutely amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that, uh, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene.

  • Feck||

    Back in the 60's I ate so much pussy my beard looked like a glazed doughnut.

  • Paul||

    No one mentioned his role in the TV show Crash.

    I didn't see much of it beyond an episode here and there. Was it truly not worth mentioning it?

  • ||

    Not speaking ill of the dead and all that ...

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I just want to remind everyone of Hopper's glorious work in Super Mario Bros.

  • Paul||

    I believe it to be his best work.

    I also find it shameful no one mentioned Waterworld, the Ishtar of post-apocalyptic movies.

  • Paul||

    It should also be mentioned that the cult-classic Space Truckers has been completely overlooked.

    All of these are movies which are masterpieces compared to The Last Movie

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Also, Land of the Dead. Hopper impressed me. That was a shitty movie, and it shouldn't have been possible for anyone to put a good performance in, but he did it somehow.

  • I, Kahn O'Clast||

    I had the chance to work with him during the filming of Swing Vote.....

    Fun happenstance during the filming: Three of the neighbors' kids came over and told Mr. Hopper that their Granddad was a big fan and wondered if they could take his picture. He insisted that they come over and pile on his lap so that they could give their Grandfather a truly personal picture to enjoy. He was very warm and engaging and funny..

  • GileadBalmer||

    I have always thought Hoppers best work was playing a crazed kid gunslinger with Chuck Conners on the Rifleman TV series.

  • jfxgillis||

    Jesse:

    Thanks for the link and the kind words!

    On substance, in the parlance of current political language, and considering this venue, I'd say "Easy Rider" proposed a paleoconservative rather than, or in opposition to, a libertarian vision.

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