Dennis Hopper: Two sides of a Hollywood legend

Dennis Hopper, who has died aged 74, was more than just a hell-raising actor – he was also a gifted photographer. His biographer, Robert Sellers, considers an extraordinary career

Monday 31 May 2010 00:00

It was the sheer fact that Dennis Hopper was still walking the planet, having ingested enough booze and drugs to fell the inhabitants of an African game reserve, that fuelled his legend. Now that this legend has expired, perhaps medical experts can at last examine his immune system just to make sure it's actually human.

At his nadir, which for Dennis was about every Tuesday, he was consuming, on a daily basis, half a gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine. When that lot didn't work he took more extreme measures to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight; pulling a knife on a Chicago mobster, blowing himself up with dynamite. That's right, Dennis hired a speedway track in Huston, Texas, surrounded himself with 20 sticks of dynamite and – boom. Or setting up a hippie commune in Taos, Mexico, tough, bandit country and absolutely the last place you'd want to huddle round a campfire with guitars singing "Mr Tambourine Man". Dennis took to carrying a pistol everywhere and his home resembled the Alamo, with machine-gun nests on the roof.

Dennis was always the first to admit that his story was one of enormous potential that was largely squandered, undermined by a rebellious nature and self-destructive hedonism. That rebellion started young, as a kid growing up on a farm in Kansas, snorting gasoline fumes from his grandfather's truck.

Arriving in Hollywood, with an ego the size of Jupiter, Hopper made his film debut alongside James Dean in 1955s Rebel Without a Cause. Both lost souls from dysfunctional households, they gravitated to each other, smoked dope and took joy rides. When Dean died, Hopper saw himself as the natural inheritor of his rebellious mantle and, revelling in his nickname of "Dennis the Menace", gave it to Hollywood with both barrels; so they dropped him. Dennis didn't make another Hollywood movie for seven years.

Frustrated by the deliberate stifling of his film career, Dennis turned to art and photography for creative stimulus, beginning with abstract subjects such as landscapes. His cutting-edge conceptual art became established round the world, with exhibitions in major cities. At home in the dining room stood one particularly interesting work, a white plastic box, eight feet long, that had an aluminium shaft sticking out of it, and two very large balls. It was called The Perpetual Erection Machine. Before Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, there was Dennis.

Allowed back into the Hollywood playground, Hopper remained public enemy number one; on the set of True Grit John Wayne chased him round the studio with a loaded pistol. To the Duke, Hopper represented everything bad about America, a wet liberal, drooling over Civil Rights and fanning the flames of anti-war hubris. He must have loved Easy Rider.

Directed in 1969 by Hopper through a haze of marijuana smoke, it was the flag-bearer for the counter-culture movement. But Hopper demonstrated psychotic tendencies on location. He'd hold crew meetings with a couple of hand-guns, loaded, on the table. It was the kind of atmosphere he liked. Refusing to change his clothes for six months, he punched a hole in a coffee table with a local drug-dealer's head and dropped LSD with Jack Nicholson at the tomb of D H Lawrence.

Hopper dropped so much acid he forgot marrying the Mamas and Papas' Michelle Phillips. It only lasted eight days. Michelle took umbrage at his firing guns in the house and handcuffing her because he thought she was a witch. Michelle made a dash for the airport; Dennis drove his car on to the runway to stop the taking off.

After the success of Easy Rider, Dennis was the hottest ticket in town but predictably blew it with 1971's The Last Movie, a vanity project that was jeered by audiences and plunged Dennis into a self-created abyss of drink and drug-induced psychosis that lasted 15 years.

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Snorting his way through vast quantities of cocaine, and shooting up speedballs (coke and heroin mixed), the lethal combination that killed John Belushi, it was a miracle that Hopper's heart and kidneys hadn't divorced themselves from the rest of his body. It was his mind that went Awol. In Mexico he cracked, wandered naked into a jungle and spent the night having visions of alien's landing and a third world war apocalypse. In the town next morning, he screamed at police to shoot him dead. Sent back to LA Hopper was transferred to a psychiatric hospital. Film-making pals got him out, and he went cold turkey, grasping for a new life without drink and drugs. He'd bottomed out. Customarily for Dennis, his rock bottom was more rock bottom than anyone else's.

It's an extraordinary life story that should make a great film, but the only problem is no one would believe it. Once asked if Hollywood should make the Dennis Hopper story, he said, "I'm not playing that. I already did it. It's a bitch!"

R obert Sellers is the author of 'Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson', published by Arrow Books

Questioning what you see

*With its layered and jarring perspective, underpinned by faithful observation, 'Double Standard', left, one of Dennis Hopper's most celebrated photographs, provides a nostalgic insight into his vision, writes Lewis Blackwell.

Taken in 1961, it owes much to the work of Robert Frank and other outstanding documentarists of the time and yet has an individual stamp that hints at where Hopper's own work as an actor and director would go.

There is a questioning of what you are seeing, how you are seeing, and what it is worth – the sort of nagging uncertainties that would leave producers in rage and despair, but ensured that Hopper was able to reinvent himself several times over, whenever he sobered up.

Originally encouraged to further his photography by his friend and fellow maverick actor James Dean, who he met on the set of Rebel Without A Cause, Hopper was never far from a camera – it served not only as an unrestricted creative outlet but also as an income generator during the many resting periods of his movie career.

The best of the photographs, along with his paintings and sculpture, are set for reassessment with a major retrospective – which will now also serve as a tribute – at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, opening in September. The likely affect of this on prices for his prints would have been appreciated by Hopper the astute art dealer, too. Demand for copies of his book Photographs 1961-67 is already rising fast.

Lewis Blackwell is formerly worldwide creative director at Getty Images. His books include 'Photowisdom: Master Photographers On Their Art' (Chronicle, 2009)

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