Among the keepers of the collective memory of Hollywood, the story goes that some kind of curse has haunted the lives of the people who appeared in Rebel Without a Cause.
There was James Dean, of course, dead in a car crash before the picture even opened. And Dean’s actor buddy, Nick Adams: dead from an overdose of sedatives in the sixties. Then Sal Mineo: victim of a fatal stabbing in the parking garage of the downscale garden apartment his dead-end career had reduced him to. Most recently there was the mysterious death of Natalie Wood: what did happen on the yacht the fatal night she went overboard? And finally there is Dennis Hopper. He played a teen-gang member called “Goon” in Rebel. Hopper’s still alive, yes, but even he admits that after what he’s been through, by all rights he ought to be dead. The bizarre trajectory of Hopper’s life since Rebel, the moments of triumph followed by the precipitous descents into darkness and madness, might as well have been wrought by a particularly malevolent minion of the curse, one determined to toy with him, turn his life rather than his death into his punishment. Whatever the cause, curse or no curse, Hopper’s life has become a Hollywood odyssey of legendary proportions, a kind of one-man lab test of just how far-out you can get, how far-gone you can be, and still come back.
From the beginning Dennis Hopper wanted to be a Hollywood legend.
“In the fifties, when me and Natalie and Dean and Nick Adams and Tony Perkins suddenly arrived … God, it was a whole group of us that sort of felt like the earlier group—the John Barrymores, Errol Flynns, Sinatras, Clifts—were a little further out than we were. I mean we heard of the orgies that John Garfield used to have, the Hollywood roulette. It seemed wilder. So we tried to emulate that lifestyle. For instance, once Natalie and I decided we’d have an orgy with a girlfriend of hers and Nick Adams. This was our big orgy, you understand? And Natalie says, ‘O.K., but we have to have a champagne bath.’ So Nick and I went and got all this champagne and we filled the bathtub full of champagne and we said, ‘O.K., Natalie, we’re ready for the orgy.’ Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming. We take her to an emergency hospital. That was our orgy, you understand? I mean it seemed like none of these things really worked out.’’
“Why did she start screaming?” I asked Hopper, feeling I must be missing something.
“Well, because it burned her pussy. Set her on fucking fire, you know. It was a very expensive burn.”
Eventually Hopper would have his fill of real Hollywood orgies. And eventually there would be many “expensive burns” of one sort or another. Because that first botched attempt at Hollywood decadence was only the beginning of a prolonged orgy of self-indulgence and self-destruction: the wild life as a would-be successor to James Dean in the late fifties; expulsion and exile from Hollywood in the sixties following a celebrated on-set rebellion that ended in shattering humiliation; return from exile with the astonishing triumph of Easy Rider in 1969; a ride on the crest of the New Hollywood counterculture wave; the spectacular failure of his dream project, The Last Movie; the mysterious failure of his eight-day marriage to New Hollywood dream girl Michelle Phillips. Then exile again—this time to the D. H. Lawrence ranch in Taos—a period in the seventies characterized by weird scenes of guns and psychedelic intrigue, culminating in a long slide into cocaine and madness that climaxed in forcible, straitjacketed institutionalization. And now, at fifty, amazingly, recovery. Not only personal recovery (three years of drug-free sobriety), but rediscovery by Hollywood: an acting career resurrected amid critics’ awards for Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, and, for the first time in fifteen years, an assignment to direct a major Hollywood feature.
Fitzgerald called the trajectory of American desire the quest for the “orgiastic future” always receding from the grasp. Is it only an accident that in a life dedicated to the pursuit of the orgiastic extreme Hopper’s account of his final descent into straitjacketed madness begins with one final orgy?
It was 1983. Hopper was living in Taos, and his habits had already begun to take a toll on his sanity. “I was drinking a half-gallon of rum a day, plus another fifth of rum, and going through a half-ounce of cocaine every few days.” Not surprisingly, he began to be convinced that there was a contract on his life—that somebody wanted to kill him. He decided to flee Taos.
“I thought I was the best actor in the world, pound for pound—I mean the best young actor. I didn’t think there was anybody to top me. Until I saw James Dean.”
“I got my cousin, my brother, and all the people together as an armed escort to get me down to Albuquerque, and get me on an airplane. Airplane went to Los Angeles. I saw some people in Los Angeles and proceeded to have an orgy with some women that I knew. And at that point started shooting cocaine [for the first time]. And I shut myself up in a hotel for like three days, went through vast quantities of cocaine, shooting it every ten minutes, and vast quantities of women. And then got on an airplane and went down to Houston. And at that point got involved with one of the heads of the Mafia in Texas. To ask him about the hit I thought was out on me. And I assumed he wasn’t answering correctly, I pulled a knife on him in a parking lot.”
“You pulled a knife on this guy?”
“Yes, and he told his people to leave me alone; it was O.K., I was obviously crazy and was not to be harmed.”
He sighs ruefully. “You know, the only thing I can tell you about this is people do have sympathy for crazy people. It’s like … don’t hurt the child. It’s weird. I mean obviously I was crazy, but that’s … that’s compassion. In its own way.”
That was then, four years ago, Hopper’s last orgy.
This is now: a sunny morning in Hopper’s Venice, California, home, a bright, open, loftlike two-story ultracontempo cube of a place he’s built in the midst of a downand-out section of Venice known as the War Zone. Hopper’s sitting on a couch as he’s telling me the story of his descent into madness, calmly sipping coffee, smoking Marlboros, surrounded by the fruits of his three years’ recovery. On the coffee table in front of him are copies of yesterday’s Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety open to the full-page ads Orion has taken out urging Oscar consideration for Hopper’s work in Hoosiers (in which he plays a redeemed alcoholic with old-fashioned mainstream tearjerker power). Just the day before, the L.A. Film Critics gave him their Best Supporting Actor award for both Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. On the cluttered desk next to the couch is a tall stack of scripts that have been sent to him for acting or directing consideration. The one on top is a screenplay called Colors, about L.A. gangs and gang cops, which Hopper has been signed by Orion to direct—his first big directing assignment since the disastrous wreck of The Last Movie (kind of a hippie Heaven’s Gate), fifteen years ago. All that’s needed for it to be a “go project” is Sean Penn’s signature, expected today.
On the other side of the couch are a couple of cartons of Hopper’s new book: a lavish Twelvetrees Press edition of his photographs called Out of the Sixties, a coffee-table book that has been receiving respectful notices. He’s just had a show in New York at Tony Shafrazi’s SoHo gallery, complete with an S.R.O. opening-night party to which the hippest of the hip world—David Byrne, Jim Jarmusch, and the like—came to pay their respects to Hopper, now a kind of elder statesman of sensory derangement and avant-garde decadence. (What was in that weird gas mask he wore in Blue Velvet? a fellow artist asked Hopper at the Shafrazi party. “I thought of it as maybe an amyl-nitrite-like vapor,” Hopper replied, and they proceeded to conduct a knowledgeable discourse on the psychosensory effects of various inhalants.)
Perhaps the most resonant object in the clutter on Hopper’s coffee table is a schmaltzy souvenir program from the recent Lew Wasserman gala, the big black-tie, A-list affair celebrating the fiftieth anniversary in show business of Wasserman, head of MCA and Universal Pictures, one of the legendary titans of Old Hollywood. According to Hopper it was Wasserman—along with the other top executives at Universal—who hated The Last Movie so much they virtually suppressed it, ending Hopper’s Easy Rider renaissance and sending his career down the tubes again. Hopper went to the Wasserman bash at the invitation of his old friend Jean Stein (daughter of MCA founder Jules Stein). He escorted her and Jennifer Jones, and they all got their pictures taken with Wasserman. Hopper’s presence at the Wasserman affair was a kind of symbolic reconciliation with the Hollywood establishment he hates and loves, a ritual of re-entry for the now sober onetime prodigal wild man and rebel without a pause.
The West Beach Cafe, Venice. We’re having breakfast and talking about James Dean. In a certain respect Hopper’s life has been one of Dean’s last legacies.
They met on the set of Rebel Without a Cause. This was Hopper’s first major film, he was only eighteen, five years younger than Dean, still showing baby fat, but it’s not as if he were lacking in self-confidence. Just the year before, he had won a scholarship to the National Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego (“I did Montano in Othello, Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice”). There he was noticed by Hollywood types, got himself an agent and a part on the TV doctor drama Medic—playing an epileptic boy—and suddenly he was a hot prospect.
“January fifth Medic was released,’’ he recalls. “January seventh seven studios wanted me for a contract. I went to Columbia Pictures, got in a terrible fight with Harry Cohn.”
“What kind of fight?”
“I told him to go fuck himself. He told me I was the most naturalistic actor since Montgomery Clift. He said, ‘What have you been doing?’ I said, ‘Playing Shakespeare.’ He said, ‘Oh my God. Hey, Max, give him some numbers, put him in school, take all that Shakespeare out of him—I can’t stand Shakespeare.’
“I stopped sweating and said, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ I was kicked out of the studio. So I went to Warner Brothers. Nick Ray said he would use me in Rebel, with the possibility that I would get Giant. They put me under contract for seven years.”
And so when he arrived on the set of Rebel, he was already pretty full of himself. When he was very young, growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, he’d read a book about the legendary Hollywood exploits of John Barrymore. It was what he wanted his life to be like. Now it seemed he was on his way.
“I thought I was the best actor in the world, pound for pound—I mean the best young actor. I was really good, I had incredible technique, and I was very sensitive. I didn’t think there was anybody to top me. Until I saw James Dean.”
Hopper couldn’t believe his eyes. “Strange things were coming out of him, he was doing different things every time I saw him. Because he was working internally and I was working externally. He wasn’t repeating. I didn’t understand how he was arriving at those conclusions, because he was having real emotional feelings, real emotional reactions … So during the ‘Chickie-run’ scene I literally picked him up, threw him into the car, and said, ‘What are you doing?’ You know, ‘How can I do it? Do I have to go to Strasberg? Do I have to go to New York?’
“He said, ‘No, no, take it easy. Just listen to me and I’ll help you along.’ He said, ‘Do things, don’t show them. Stop the gestures. In the beginning everything will be very difficult because you’re used to acting. But pretty soon it will be natural to you and you’ll start going, and the emotions will come to you if you leave yourself open to the moment-to-moment reality.’”
The emotions still come to Hopper when he talks about the last time he saw Dean, at the close of the shooting of Giant. Hopper (playing rancher Rock Hudson’s sensitive son Jordy) had just done his big scenes with Hudson and his climactic scene with Dean (he punches Hopper out).
“That night we were downtown in that old restaurant Sinatra used to go to, Villa Capri. And Dean said, ‘I saw what you did today.’ He said, ‘I wish Edmund Kean could have seen you. And John Barrymore.’ Because, he said, ‘today you were great.’ And I started to tear up. Like I am now.”
Indeed, Hopper’s eyes do look moist.
“And tears started coming down my face. He said, ‘It’s very sweet. You’re showing appreciation for what I’m saying, but when you really become a fucking actor you’ll have to leave the room to cry.’ He said, ‘Then you’ll be there.’ Terrific. Then he died.”
Later Hopper tells me, “The most personal tragedy in my life was Dean, you know. I was nineteen years old and I had such admiration for him; I had dreams tied up in him and suddenly that was shattered. That was the first major thing that really affected me. It affected me for years after. I mean it really did. Even now I still, you know, I question … I mean I can go to Europe, I’m going to Sweden, I go into a nightclub and there’s James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe on the wall. Going to Paris, there he is … And yet I just feel rather cheated personally. I feel cheated personally and I just … it leaves me sort of empty and not … ”
He looks up from this maudlin reverie and laughs, and says, “And so join the club, Dennis.”
Olympic Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Hopper is at the wheel of his two-tone tan Seville, a car whose pimpmobile aura he explains somewhat ruefully by saying, “I bought it when I was so high on drugs I thought it was some kind of tank.”
In the backseat is Sean Penn. The two of them have just come from the Orion Pictures office in Century City, where they’ve succeeded in persuading Maria Conchita Alonso to play opposite Penn in Colors. (Although Penn has still not quite signed on for the film.) They’re heading over to the Paramount lot to screen the as yet unreleased work of a cinematographer they’re interested in for the project.
There’s an eerie quality to the experience of driving around Hollywood with Hopper and Penn. As Hopper has aged, his appearance has come to converge in a strange and startling way with the age-ravaged look James Dean created for his character in the final scenes of Giant. The years have hollowed out Hopper’s face so that his brow and cheekbone have a squinty profundity strikingly similar to Dean’s.
And so in the front seat is the Ghost of J.D. Past, and in the backseat is Penn, the Ghost of J.D. Present. Not only does he too have a look of squinty profundity, he’s got the dress (torn jeans, authentically distressed leather jacket) and the mannerism (sardonic reticence masking emotional violence) down.
And beyond the superficialities of bone structure, there’s an obvious unspoken affinity between the aging Bad Boy in the front seat and the aspiring Bad Boy in back.
“Just after Sean and Madonna got married,” Hopper recalls later, “David Geffen called me and said they wanted to meet me because they would like me to direct them in a movie. They’d liked Out of the Blue [the Canadian feature about a self-destructive punkette who kills her mother and father that Hopper directed in 1980, during his Hollywood exile], so we had this meeting. And I noticed Sean had a Charles Bukowski book with him, and I said I know a Bukowski property called Barfly that you should do, that you’d be perfect for the lead in, that Barbet Schroeder had Bukowski write for him as a screenplay. And Sean said, ‘Will you direct it?’ And I said, ‘There’s no way to get this from Barbet Schroeder—I ended up enemies with him when I told him he couldn’t direct traffic.’ So we had a meeting in which Bukowski said no to me. He wanted Sean to do it really badly—with Barbet—but Sean said, ‘Unless Dennis directs, I’m not going to do it.’ This was really incredible to me, Sean being that kind of stand-up guy.
“And so,” Hopper concludes, “I just came back two months ago from having this picture fall through that I was going to direct in Philadelphia and Sean said, ‘I got another script—read this one,’ which was Colors. I read it and loved it. I saw L.A. It’s an older cop and younger cop. We’re gonna do it with real gang people, as much as we can.”
As we turn onto Robertson from Olympic, Sean points out some gang graffiti on the wall of a building, which he and Hopper decode knowledgeably for me. They’ve been spending nights riding around with L.A. gang cops.
“Ever been arrested by the Beverly Hills police?” Sean asks Hopper.
“No, but I’ve been taken in by the L.A. sheriff’s office,” Hopper says. “They can be rough—they don’t have any of those review boards watching over them.”
Sean asks Hopper if he has a print of The Last Movie he could screen.
Hopper says he’s only got one copy on cassette, which Sean should come over and see. “Ron’s just seen it—what did you think?”
“Well, I was surprised at how religious it was,” I say, hedging. “I noticed there was a reference in it to the Gospel of Thomas. You were involved in that back then, right?” The Gospel of Thomas is an apocryphal book of Christ’s sayings that was popular among the commune dwellers of the sixties.
“That book was given to me by a prostitute junkie that I knew in New York,” Hopper says, almost predictably. “She gave it to me … and at that time I was really an agnostic. And it turned my head around as far as religion … [Thomas] says there’s only one law you have to abide by, that is ‘Don’t lie and don’t do what you hate.’ Don’t lie and don’t do what you hate and all things will manifest themselves before heaven … A lot of the imagery from Easy Rider and The Last Movie came from that. All the disciples around Christ except for John and Thomas became hedonists, because they took literally ‘Love your brothers and sisters’ … and it became big orgies and stuff. And John and Thomas said, Man, that’s not what it’s about. And they went off into Egypt and wrote what are now known as the Gnostic Gospels.” (This rather garbled gospel according to Hopper is, to say the least, closer to the spirit than the letter of Gnostic theology.)
As we approach Paramount the conversation continues on the spiritual path, Hopper speaking about the religious aspects of the A.A. program, which got him off alcohol and drugs.
“That’s what I like about my twelvestep program. You’ve got to have a higher power. You can’t get yourself sober, and no other human being can get you sober. The only thing that can get you straight is a higher power, a belief in a higher power than yourself.”
At this point the irrepressibly mischievous bad boy peeks out from behind Hopper’s piety.
“Right now,” he says, deadpan, “Sean’s my higher power, because he got me a picture to direct.” He laughs. “I haven’t started praying to him yet, though.”
We pull into the Paramount lot, past the guardhouse, to the parking area. Hopper parks his Seville next to a beautifully restored white Thunderbird convertible.
“It’s a ’56,” says Sean, “just like the one I got Madonna for her birthday.”
“Natalie had one like that,” says Hopper.
Harry’s Bar and American Grill, Century City. The following day. Hopper has reason to celebrate. Sean Penn finally signed to co-star with Robert Duvall in Colors. Hopper’s just come from getting the go-ahead to begin shooting from Orion Pictures heads Mike Medavoy and Eric Pleskow.
“At that time everything was so staid and locked-in. In most major studio productions actors were just directors’ puppets, and you had to do every line reading, every gesture, their way.”
“Pleskow’s a funny guy,” says Hopper. “He was giving me shit about my suit.” Hopper had shown up at Orion wearing a suit instead of his usual black corduroys and black T-shirt. A brown suit with a tan shirt and a brown tie.
“‘Hey, look at you,’ Pleskow says. ‘You look like a man with a job. Color coordination. A new briefcase.’
“‘The briefcase is old,’ I tell him, and he says, ‘Sure, Dennis, you haven’t used it since you went to Harvard.’
“Funny guy,’’ says Hopper. “Some people don’t get his sense of humor, but I do.”
In this tolerant mood Hopper agrees to tell me the painful story of the on-set rebellion that shattered his Hollywood career, a story he was unwilling to recall for me a couple of days earlier. Perhaps it’s easier to contemplate that defeat now that he’s got his chance to direct again signed and sealed.
He tries to put his aborted personal rebellion in the context of the larger struggle over the fate of American film acting that was going on at the time. The actors of Hopper and Dean’s generation weren’t rebels without a cause. They had a cause. They wanted to bring to their work in Hollywood films the same internalizing techniques they’d learned back East at the Actors Studio. Brando and Clift had achieved sensations on-screen with the Method, but it was fiercely hated and vigorously resisted by most of Hollywood’s old-line directors, because it threatened to displace the locus of control of the film from the director to some mysterious process within the actor that the director couldn’t command.
“At that time everything was so staid and locked-in,” Hopper recalls. “In most major studio productions actors were just directors’ puppets, and you had to do every line reading, every gesture, their way. Then Brando demanded the right to block his own scenes. Dean demanded to block his own scenes. Montgomery Clift. The three of them demanded that kind of thing. They were the only ones. And so you had these people coming in and blocking their own scenes and making their own moves and doing their own emotional things and not repeating the same thing over and over but doing it differently from a close-up to a long shot and yet knowing enough to still have something they could match, and cut to. This was unheard of. So it was a major fight.”
“And you tried that.”
“I tried that and they kicked me out.”
It happened on the set of From Hell to Texas in 1958. His antagonist was veteran studio warhorse Henry Hathaway.
“The part was the weak son of the bad man, and I didn’t want to do it, but the studio said go on and do it. He was a big-time director, Hathaway. He’d come up as a carpenter, then as a propman and director.”
He was, in other words, the embodiment of the old Hollywood hierarchy to Hopper. And for Hathaway, Hopper was the embodiment of the new challenge to directorial authority.
“We fought and fought throughout the whole picture,” Hopper says. “He wanted me to imitate Marlon Brando in timing and gestures, and he gave me his line readings and his approach to acting.”
Hopper meanwhile was fighting for his own internally generated line readings.
“I walked off the picture three times. And then he’d take me to dinner and be real charming. The next day he’d come on the set and say, ‘Forget that, it’s fucking dinner talk.’ On the set he was a monster, screaming and yelling.”
The battle came to its bitter climax on the final day of shooting.
“I had a ten-line scene with my father,” Hopper recalls. “And Hathaway came on the set and said, ‘You know what those things are over there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, those are film cans.’ He said, ‘Yeah, those are film cans. There’s enough film in there to shoot for four months. And you’re going to do the scene my way. You’re gonna pick up the coffee cup and put it down. You’re gonna read the lines this way. And you can do it that way or you can just make a career out of this one scene in this one movie because I own 40 percent of this studio.’ He said, ‘We’re here now to stay. We’ll send out for lunch, send out for dinner, we’re here. Sleeping bags will be brought in. This is it.’”
That was it for Hopper too. He took up the challenge and in take after take after take did the lines his way rather than Hathaway’s. And, each time, Hathaway would call ‘‘Cut” and tell Hopper to do it over again. After four hours of this, word began to spread of the epic actor-director psychodrama going on on Hathaway’s set.
“We started at seven in the morning. About eleven o’clock Steve Trilling, who was then head of production for Warner Brothers, called and said, ‘What’s going on over there? Just do what Hathaway says and get back over here.’”
Hopper continued to do take after take his way.
“At two o’clock in the afternoon Jack Warner called and said, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ He said, ‘Do what fucking Hathaway says and get back over here.’ Dinner came.”
About ten o’clock, after fifteen hours of this agony, Hopper began to lose it.
“I couldn’t figure out another way to do the scene. By this time all the executives from Fox—Warner, everybody— were all there. It was big news. ‘You want to see Hathaway and Hopper freaking out? Come on over.”
Finally, Hopper’s will was broken. “I said, ‘Just tell me what you want.’ And I broke down and started crying. I said, ‘Just tell me one more time what you want.’ I did the scene. I said thank you very much and I walked out of the studio. And I was dropped by Warner Brothers. And that was the end of my career in Hollywood.”
No studio would hire Hopper after the Hathaway debacle, and so he went to New York, where he studied with Strasberg, did stage and quality TV work, hung out with Thelonious and Miles, took portraits for Vogue, and met Brooke Hayward. She was a princess of the Hollywood establishment, daughter of the actress Margaret Sullavan and the powerful producer and agent Leland Hayward. Her father couldn’t stand Hopper, but she married him anyway, because, she says now, “he had a very sweet quality about him then.” The marriage, like most of Hopper’s life, was cursed by bad luck and his own self-destructiveness. In 1961 a fire destroyed their Bel Air home and burned 15,000 poems Hopper had written and hundreds of his paintings (his estimate).
The way Brooke Hayward tells it, Hopper suffered during this period from his obsession with James Dean. He felt compelled to live up to the Dean legend. “We’d go to these parties where you’d have the creme de la creme of Hollywood, and he’d tell them that when he ran things heads were going to roll—they’d be in chains. Someday he’d make a movie and the old dinosaurs would all be slain. As it turned out he was sort of right, with Easy Rider, but that was many years later.” During the mid-sixties ‘‘he met with one failure after another,” she says, until there came a final crushing disappointment. ‘‘He had put together a movie that had great promise, one he was going to direct, and it failed to come about at the last minute.”
This was the original version of The Last Movie. Hopper had co-written a script Hayward calls ‘‘brilliant,” and he’d signed Jason Robards to star, but just as they were about to leave for location an accountant advised Phil Spector to withdraw his backing, and the film fell through. ‘‘It would have been a wonderful film, and it would have made a lot of money,” Hayward says. ‘‘The film that he made later with that title was just not comparable. It was tragic, quite tragic. It destroyed some huge central part of his ego. If it had been made then, he wouldn’t have fallen into the abyss.”
The abyss for Hopper became a nightmare for Hayward. She recalls that he drank more, started doing LSD heavily, went into violent rages that made her frightened for herself and their young daughter. She also says he became so difficult to work with he was almost fired from Easy Rider while it was being shot. By then she’d left him. I asked her if she’d seen Blue Velvet, if the terrifying character he played, Frank Booth, was anything like the real Hopper in this dark period.
‘‘That’s the way you would have seen Dennis behaving any number of nights in the sixties,” she says.
Back in Venice, at Hopper’s place again. I try to draw him out on what it was like back then, the wild sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll scene that was L.A. in the late sixties: Hollywood Babylon on acid.
‘‘After all,” I say, ‘‘if the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as Blake tells us it does, then you must have accumulated a lot of wisdom from a period like that.”
‘‘I heard more about the orgies in the sixties in Hollywood than I actually participated in,” Hopper avers. ‘‘I did have a lot of scenes with two women and myself … on the road of excess.” He laughs. ‘‘There was a lot of free love … ”
A lot of free love. What did that actually mean? I ask him.
“Well, everyone was going through a period of time where you didn’t have to be tied down …. So there was … I mean love-ins were people making love.”
“There actually were love-ins?”
“Yes. I never participated in the exhibitionistic part of it. The ceremonies. But it was happening. And during the time of LSD it was like, well, you didn’t know if you were inside, outside, or alon … and it didn’t really matter.”
“How early did you get into psychedelics?”
“I was a late bloomer in the acid thing,” he says. “I’d taken peyote when I was a kid. There was a period of time in the fifties when I had an apartment and there was peyote cooking on the stove all day and night like it was a pot of coffee, and people would come by and we’d partake. I did that for about five years until I had a very bad trip and stopped. I wasn’t doing acid until I got the part of an acid dealer in The Trip, the one that Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda buy from. I thought, Well, if I’m dealing it, I better understand what it is.”
He tells me about what may have been his most memorable acid trip in the sixties, the one he took with Jack Nicholson during the filming of Easy Rider.
“We’d finished our shooting in Taos, and we had a Sunday afternoon off, so Jack and I went up with some of the guys and we ended up … we took acid at D. H. Lawrence’s tomb and we lay down in front of the grave …. And then later that night Jack and I ended up with this beautiful young woman, and she took us up to a hot springs. And we were up there naked, enjoying the water and so on, a big full moon … and later Jack said, ‘Let’s run a little.’ And so we had her drive the truck and we ran in front of the truck in the lights. And I remember Jack saying to me, ‘We’re geniuses, you know that? We’re both geniuses. Isn’t it great to be a genius?’”
For a brief moment there at the end of the sixties, Hopper was a certifiable Hollywood genius. It’s hard to remember now, but Easy Rider, which Hopper directed as well as co-starred in, was more than a countercultural phenomenon. It was an astonishing box-office phenomenon, so much so that it altered the economics of Hollywood production for some time afterward. It was made for less than $400,000 and grossed more than $50 million. Coming on the heels of several devastating big-budget flops, the Easy Rider phenomenon shifted the studios’ attention to small, interesting, risky productions, and the brief brave new world of “The New Hollywood” was bom.
There’s something else easily forgotten about Easy Rider: that it wasn’t some simpleminded rhapsody to free love and drugs; that, in fact, it took a remarkably dark view of the consequences of the liberation-at-any-price ethos. That it embodied an almost moralistic critique of the counterculture. Seen now, nearly two decades after its release, the scene that emerges most powerfully is the one toward the close of the film when Captain America (Peter Fonda) suddenly announces to his cosmic-biker buddy Billy (Hopper):
“You know, Billy—we blew it.”
It was a fairly prophetic line about the counterculture back then, when few questions were raised from within about its liberating power. I asked Hopper how that line had gotten into the movie.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Peter said he never understood why I had him say that line. He asked me on the set and I said, ‘Just do it.’”
“Well, why was it there?”
“Well, Christ, they were criminals, they smuggled drugs, they used amoral means to buy their way out of the system.”
“And so because of the illicit source of their liberation it was corrupt?”
“That’s why we blew it. The counterculture blew it, they blew their inheritance.”
It was not long after Easy Rider that Hopper himself really blew it. Blew all the credibility and clout he had accumulated in his brief reign as a Hollywood genius. Went from certifiable genius to merely certifiable. Blew it so totally he couldn’t work in Hollywood for a decade.
It all began to go wrong down in Taos after he came back from shooting The Last Movie in Peru. I happened to be at Hopper’s place for a week in the very midst of it all, and I caught a glimpse of it happening right before my eyes.
This was back in 1971, shortly after Hopper’s weeklong marriage to Michelle Phillips came to an end, an event he still recalls with evident bitterness:
“We got married on Halloween,” he says, “had a big wedding, two hundred people or so. And we were married for eight days. I got Michelle a job with Leonard Cohen as a backup singer, and she called me from Nashville and said, ‘I’m not coming back. Music is my life.’ And I said, ‘Well, what am I going to do? I’ve been fixing up the new house [in Taos] for you.’ And she said, ‘Have you ever thought about suicide?’ I paused for a moment and I said, ‘No. Not really.’ That was it. That’s the simple truth.”
“You didn’t see this coming, this side of her character?”
“No. She was asked by Michael McLean once [Hopper’s longtime manager] … Michael came up to her and said, ‘You know, you’re amazing, Michelle. First you had John Phillips, and then you had Dennis, and then you had Jack [Nicholson], then you had Warren [Beatty], and … How do you do that? How do you make all these people fall in love with you and how do you leave them?’ She said, ‘I do everything for them. I fulfill their every fantasy. I become a very important part of their life and then I split.’” (Michelle Phillips didn’t reply to a phone message asking her to comment.)
The Last Movie would be more than a movie. It would be The Truth. Nothing less than the Gnostic Gospel of American film.
In the aftermath of the doomed wedding, an aura of romantic tragedy hung over Hopper’s place when I was there. An entirely appropriate aura: the sprawling adobe ranch house was, after all, the place where D. H. Lawrence spent his last years, enjoying the hospitality of Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was the enthusiastic heiress whose Greenwich Village salon had been the breeding ground for America’s pre-World War I Ur-counterculture: the matrix of radical and literary bohemians that included John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger, and the Armory Show artists.
In fact, in taking over that ranch in the desert in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Hopper had inherited one of the shrines of the Gnostic, Utopian strain of American culture. And he was doing his best to live up to its legacy. When he came back from Peru with the raw footage of The Last Movie, he holed up in Taos and surrounded himself with an earnest little commune of film editors, mystics, cosmic cowboys and cowgirls. It wasn’t exactly a Dennis Hopper cult, although there was a bit of reverent sycophancy in the entourage. But they weren’t devoted to Hopper so much as to his cause. To The Last Movie. To a belief in its greatness, to an almost messianic faith that if they could only carve out the right combination of frames from those forty-six hours of film, make the right magical juxtapositions of images, they would have truly created something more than just a movie. It would be a movie to end all movies, a movie that would pierce the veils of deceit that shrouded the consciousness of ordinary moviegoers and show them the emptiness of the illusions that ordinary movies had them in thrall to. The Last Movie would be more than a movie. It would be The Truth. Nothing less than the Gnostic Gospel of American film.
Among the disconnected memories I have of the week I spent down there while this was going on (most of the time waiting around for Hopper to emerge long enough from the editing room to give me an interview I never wrote up) are the following:
—The Room No One Would Touch. This was, as I recall it, a child’s room elaborately done up in frilly little-girl coverlets, flowered wallpaper, and the like. Hopper had had it readied for Michelle Phillips’s daughter, but the marriage didn’t last long enough for her to take up residence. Never occupied, never dismantled, it continued to gather dust for months, summoning up melancholy echoes of the musty wedding chamber in Great Expectations.
—The Penitentes. It was close to Easter then, and the hippie mystics at Hopper’s house were whispering excitedly about whether the Penitentes would “really do their thing.” The Penitentes are a legendary, secret order of Hispanic Catholics said to haunt the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They’re said to have taken the Spanish missionaries’ Gospel stories a bit too literally and to go in for the practice of actually crucifying one of their number every Easter, a bloody ceremony which was outlawed but is rumored still to be conducted in secret. Talk about the Penitentes and other spiritual matters was often stimulated by
—A certain White Powder. Not cocaine. The drug of choice around Hopper’s hearth back then was something said to be “organic” mescaline, a psychedelic which was snorted much like cocaine but which produced effects much less linear, more on the order of awe and wonder at the Mystery of Being. This was unfortunate for
—The editing of “The Last Movie,” a process which I was privy to now and then, and which seemed to suffer from too many instances of people gathering around the moviola and gazing with awe and wonder at the nonlinear juxtaposition of images. And from too much reverence for Hopper’s
—Sterile and derivative Pirandellian effects, which to my mind ruined what was a potentially powerful film.
That was my problem with The Last Movie, both back then, when I saw a rough cut of it, and again just recently, when Hopper ran a cassette of it for me.
The film begins with a provocative enough concept. Hopper plays a stuntman named Kansas who’s in Peru with a movie company shooting a cliche Western. When the movie company calls it a wrap and heads back to Hollywood, he stays behind with a Peruvian girlfriend and watches as strange things begin to happen. The local Indians, who have been watching the moviemaking with awe and wonder, gather on the abandoned set at night and—using elaborate wicker imitations of cameras and sound booms, with flaming torches for light—proceed to re-enact, in a ritualistic way, the making of the Western they’ve just seen. Only—like the Penitentes perhaps—they’ve taken things a bit too literally: they use real bullets and real guns in their gunfights, and when it comes time to hang an outlaw they demand that Kansas play the part of the condemned man, which looks to be a terminal role.
There’s some hauntingly beautiful footage in The Last Movie, particularly that of the Indians and their torchlit wicker moviemaking. But the whole film is marred by heavy-handed intercutting of segments designed to make sure we know that this movie about the making of a movie is itself—stop the presses—just a movie.
“The thought was,” Hopper tells me one afternoon in Venice, “to deliberately alienate the audience, tell them they’re idiots sitting there watching a movie. Every time I got them involved in the movie as a story, I’d come back and say, ‘Ha. Ha. Ha. You’re only watching a movie.’”
Which, he concedes, “is not a very pleasant thing for an audience. It was self-defeating.”
While I found these sophomoric and condescending effects annoying, I was curious about the source of Hopper’s evident rage against illusion. The Last Movie is a stridently moralistic, even puritanical, condemnation of moviemaking—at one point an Indian priest in the film condemns the mock moviemakers as “doing the work of the Evil One.” In fact, it all reminded me of the seventeenth-century Puritan tracts denouncing theatrical illusion as a demonic rival to God’s creation.
It seemed to me that something more was going on than Hopper working out his anger at Hollywood hypocrisy and the wounds he had suffered at the hands of Henry Hathaway. Where did it come from? A strange story Hopper told me about his childhood one afternoon in the West Beach Cafe might have some bearing on this.
When Hopper was six years old his father left their home in Dodge City to serve in World War II. Soon afterward, Hopper says, “the report came back that my father had been killed. So during the length of the Second World War, I thought my father was dead. But in point of fact my father was in the Office of Strategic Services and was not dead.”
“Your mother told you he was?”
“My mother was the only one who knew. I thought he was dead, my grandparents thought he was dead, everybody thought he was dead. But my father was actually in China, Burma, and India. He was fighting with Mao. He took the surrender from the Japanese in Peking.”
This story sounds hard to believe, but why would he make it up? And if it is true, if he suffered the agony of fatherlessness for those crucial years for the sake of some intelligence-agency cover story, it might be the sort of thing that would leave him with a lifelong rage against illusion.
Santa Monica Boulevard. We’re driving back from Orion to Venice, and Hopper is telling me about the career-shattering blow he suffered from Universal when he brought them the finished print of The Last Movie. It was the second time his dream project had been cursed by misfortune. The first time it had been aborted before filming. This time it was strangled at birth. Hopper had just gotten off the plane from the Venice Film Festival, where his cut of the film had been voted best picture. And so he was totally unprepared for the hostility with which it was greeted at Universal.
“It was unbelievable to win the festival and come back and have them tell you, you know, they’re not going to distribute the movie. It was very bizarre.”
“Why did they … ?”
“Because I made fun of the audience and I didn’t end the picture with a dramatic ending. They wanted me to kill the guy at the end. They didn’t care how I killed him, just kill him at the end and make a linear film out of it, and I refused.
“And Wasserman said, ‘O.K., if you’re not going to re-edit it, then we’re going to distribute it for two weeks in New York, two weeks in L.A., and two days in San Francisco and then we’ll shelve it.’ And they did what they said they were going to do.” Hopper proceeded to go on The Dick Cavett Show and denounce Universal for suppressing his magnum opus.
He has some regrets now that he burned his bridges to Hollywood so completely then.
“I should have said, ‘O.K., I’m going back to Los Angeles like a normal person and say I’m going to make movies, it’s not the end of my career.’ But I didn’t do that. That was a major mistake. I should have come back to Los Angeles and made myself visible. So there were all these stories about Hopper this, Hopper that. You know, some true, some fiction. But I wasn’t the only one that was taking drugs during that period. I mean lots of people became very successful and still are successful and still drink and do drugs. But I wasn’t here, I wasn’t visible, I didn’t come back and fight. I went to Europe and became an Ernest Hemingway expatriate, and then I went to New Mexico and I never came back and faced up to the fact that I could live here.” He sighs. “These last two years have been incredible. I’ve been so happy to be here, so happy to be working. I’d be happy being here the rest of my life and working here. That would be my wildest dream. It always sort of was.”
“My brother and I went down to the high school once we uncovered all this. And I had a poncho on and he had a poncho on and underneath we had automatic weapons, machine guns.”
Those stories Hopper talks about, the ones that were “some true, some fiction,” many of them centered upon guns rather than drugs. Tales filtered back from Taos about some kind of strange range war Hopper and his people were waging against hostile forces.
When I ask him for more details, he launches into an epic of the armed struggle he had to engage in on behalf of the hippie homesteaders down there.
“Some guys had been threatening my brother and his family—they were going to kill his kids and rape his wife and so on. And a lot of hippies had been beaten up while hitching, and their women raped in the communes. And coming back from the hot springs with a couple of friends of mine, some guys jumped us. I pulled a gun and they ran and we found them on this dirt road and we threw them against a fence.”
But suddenly the odds changed; local allies of Hopper’s antagonists, including the police, came onto the scene.
“By that time there were like 140 farmers with pitchforks—it was like a bad movie, like Zapata or something. The police arrived and they arrested me and let the kids who attacked us go. Then there was a lynch situation at the jail that night and they had to sneak me out the back.”
This commenced a tense period in which Taos was divided into heavily armed camps of Hopper’s hippies and angry locals.
“I called Los Angeles and got a bunch of guys, ex-Marines who were stuntmen, to come up, and my brother and I went into Sierra Sporting Goods and bought every gun they had.”
Finally, Hopper says, the source of trouble was traced to the local high school.
“My brother and I went down to the high school once we uncovered all this. And I had a poncho on and he had a poncho on and underneath we had automatic weapons, machine guns. And he stood at the door and I went up to the podium during an assembly and I said, ‘Look, we know what you’re doing. And that may be fine for now, but there’s a lot of people coming back from Vietnam and they’re going to have long hair and they’re going to look like me in this poncho and so on. But underneath they’re going to have one of these’—and I whipped out a machine gun. And my brother whipped one out at the door and said, ‘Everybody stay where they are—we’re leaving now.’ And we walked out. And at that point the trouble stopped. It stopped. It was a crazy move, but it worked.”
Clearly, by this time Hopper had broken through to a place where his life was more like a movie than most movies he’d acted in.
Which may help explain his inability to distinguish between hallucination and reality when the serious madness began. By that time, in the early eighties, he hadn’t worked in a Hollywood production for a decade, with the exception of a small role in Apocalypse Now as a whacked-out photojoumalist. He was still popular in Europe, he played a memorably menacing character in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, he turned the low-budget Out of the Blue into a raw, black-hearted, grimly authentic contemporary punk Rebel Without a Cause. But he was slipping deeper into the life of a heavy cocaine user, with the inevitable treacherous intrigues with dealers and gangsters.
“Did you ever get into dealing yourself to support your habit?” I asked Hopper one morning at his Venice place.
“No,” he said, “I could always get it for fifteen dollars a gram, the very best stuff too, so there was never a financial problem.”
Still, by the early eighties he seems to have fallen into the company of a dangerous enough collection of coke-world associates to have given some substance to his delusions when he suddenly decided there was a contract out on his life.
It was about this time, he says, that at a retrospective of his work at Rice University he strapped himself into a contraption known as the Russian Suicide Death Chair. Dynamite sticks were attached all around the chair in a special configuration that was supposed to ensure that the person in the chair would remain untouched when they exploded. Some kind of vacuum effect used by czarist aristocrats after the 1917 revolution to fake their deaths, Hopper claims.
“I thought it was worth risking because there was a contract out on me anyway,” he explains.
The trick worked, he says, but it seemed to propel him to a terminal level of madness. It was then that he fled to L.A. and began shooting cocaine.
Why, after all these years, this sudden Penitentes-like need to nail himself? I asked Hopper.
“I think because I always knew that was the absolute bottom, the lowest, and something in me needed to hit bottom.”
It was shortly after that, down in Mexico, on the set of a movie called, appropriately enough, Jungle Fever, that he began his final descent into madness.
“I had been given a large sum of money to act in this movie—I was going to play the head of the D.E.A. in Mexico. All right? And I got into my hotel room on the set outside Cuernavaca and I became convinced that there were people in the bowels of this place who were being tortured. And being cremated. That people had come to save me and they were being killed and tortured and it was my fault.”
He began experiencing uncontrollable visual and aural hallucinations.
“I saw holograms, heard people talking. Went out, took all my clothes off, and walked out into the jungle in the night, following these lights …. I thought I was in the middle of this war … and then in the daytime, when the sun was coming up, proceeded to walk into Cuernavaca naked. And when the police tried to get me dressed, I refused. I said, ‘No, kill me like this.’ Finally, they got a robe on me and took me to a little jail … and then I heard friends of mine being lined up outside and machine-gunned … And they took me to a hospital and I wouldn’t take any injections, because I thought they were going to kill me, and then I thought my lungs had been replaced with these… other things and … it’s kind of crazy.”
Kind of crazy indeed. Some people from the film crew finally rescued him from the hospital and got him to the airport in Mexico City.
‘‘They put me on the airplane with a couple of stunt guys, and on the airplane I thought we were being filmed. O.K.? Now I’m like Manson and the camera’s everywhere.”
(When he says he’s ‘‘like Manson,” Hopper is referring to a jailhouse interview he did with Manson once, when contemplating a film on his life. Manson told Hopper that throughout the lurid and bloody ‘‘Helter Skelter” days, he always thought he was not really committing crimes but acting in a movie, with cameras everywhere, always on him.)
“And so,’’ Hopper continues, ‘‘while the plane was still on the runway, I thought the wing was on fire and that was the signal for me to go and open the escape hatch and walk out on the wing. Which Mexicana Airlines did not find very funny.”
When he finally got back to L.A., his friends checked Hopper into Studio 12, a drug-and-alcohol drying-out place for film people.
Shortly afterward, he went on some kind of mad tear, clipping the hedges of the place.
“That’s when they called in the guys with the straitjackets and they started giving me this Prolixin [an antipsychotic drug], and I was one of the 5 percent who when they get Prolixin get Parkinson’s disease symptoms. So I was shaking. I was frozen. And I couldn’t think. It was three months like that, not being able to make sentences.”
Frozen and shaken (and still hallucinating plots against him), he checked himself out of Studio 12. “A woman friend of mine from Taos came down in my car and we’re driving back to Taos, and on the way there I told her that I was going to kill myself because I obviously couldn’t … wouldn’t be able to act again … I couldn’t even pick up a cigarette.”
Fortunately for Hopper, the woman took him to a doctor who gave him Cogentin—which counteracts the Prolixin-induced parkinsonism.
“I put my hand in my back pocket and I said, ‘Oh my God’—it was the first time I was able to do that in three months. So that was the beginning of my starting to come back. That’s when I decided it was obviously alcohol and not cocaine. So I stopped drinking and started doing cocaine all day long.”
He maintained this version of a reform regimen for a year before he started having serious hallucinations again and checked himself into Century City Hospital’s Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Program.
‘‘Again I was hearing voices. People came to see me. After they left I’d hear them being tortured and murdered. And so they started putting me on antipsychotics again and moved me to CedarsSinai Psychiatric.”
Hopper tells the story of this ordeal with amazingly matter-of-fact detachment, even though it was only three years ago that it looked as if he were heading for a terminal stay as a mumbling, incoherent semi-vegetable in the Cedars-Sinai psych ward.
‘‘I might still be in that ward if Bert Schneider [his longtime friend and producer of Easy Rider] hadn’t found me,” Hopper says. “I checked myself in, but the only trouble about checking yourself in is you can’t check out if the state finds you not responsible for your life. “
And the state indeed found Hopper not responsible for his life.
“I had no family that would check me out. My father’s dead, my mother’s remarried and has her own life somewhere else. And it was decided that I was to be in Cedars-Sinai for at least two years.”
For a time he was so far out of his mind he was content with that. ‘‘They had me on Thorazine and all kinds of bullshit and I was walking around like a zombie. . . . But then Bert found out I was there. He came down and saw me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ I said, ‘Oh hell, I can’t get out of here.’ He said, ‘Bullshit.’ He signed me out and got me up to his house. He said, ‘You have to see a shrink for a while,’ and I said I didn’t know whether I could drive a car. He said, ‘You can drive a car. Just take the car and go. ‘ So he got me started. I started going on the [A.A.] program, and I got rid of the fucking psych pills. I started working right away. And that was it.”
Hopper’s place, Venice. Hopper has a visitor, his old friend and actor buddy Dean Stockwell, who collaborated with him on what is arguably the single most brilliantly perverse scene in recent American cinema—that strange interlude in Blue Velvet in which Hopper’s sadistic gas-masked psycho, Frank Booth, is “serenaded” by Stockwell’s lip-synching lipsticked whorehouse owner. Together the two of them manage to transmute the treacly “candy colored clown” sentiments of the song into an anthem of psychosexual menace.
It’s Friday night, and Hopper and Stockwell are settled in for an evening of watching television (the 49ers-Rams game) and drinking coffee. Hopper spends some time on the phone with his mother, arranging a visit. Then he takes a call from his daughter Marin (Brooke Hayward’s child). She’s getting married this spring, and they discuss plans for the wedding.
Then Stockwell gets on the phone and calls home to check on his kids. That accomplished, the two of them discuss scheduling a round of golf on Sunday. Another wild weekend with Dennis and Dean.
This is sobriety with a vengeance, this new, subdued Dennis Hopper.
Only once did I see the mask slip.
It happened one afternoon after a tense encounter at Marcia Weisman’s house. She and Hopper have been friends for a quarter-century, since the time he was part of the wild and crazy California artists’ scene and she and her then husband, Fred, were on their way to becoming renowned collectors. That afternoon, Hopper, Marcia, and a woman visitor we’ll call Joan were talking about whom to invite to a party they were planning, a reunion of the now famous artists associated with the Ferns Gallery in the early sixties.
The trouble starts when Joan expresses reservations about inviting a certain well-known artist who is notorious for his incorrigible behavior at parties—getting drunk or stoned, misbehaving badly, then collapsing into a stupor. Hopper tells Joan that the reprobate artist’s presence is essential to a meaningful reunion. He offers to take responsibility for the guy to make sure he doesn’t act up or OD. Joan persists in arguing against inviting him.
At the wheel of his Seville, on the way back down Coldwater Canyon Drive, Hopper is steaming. There’s a certain type of person typical of the eighties, he says, who has indulged in what might be called excessive behavior and has now made a clean switch, and having gone straight is quick to condemn those who are still on the road of excess. Addressing such a person out loud in a voice full of corrosive sarcasm, Hopper says, “Go back to it, man! Get back out, get drunk, get high, shoot up!” He’s practically shouting now. “You know, stop the bullshit, telling me this guy can’t come to the party, he’s gonna be drunk, he’s on drugs. Oh, boy, I found that really going to the other side. Damning people, your friends, snubbing them because they’ll recognize you.
It was the only time I saw him lose his subdued, postdrug cool, and I got the feeling that in defending the troublemaker artist Hopper was really defending a version of his former self.
Still, it’s not as if he doesn’t have regrets about his past.
I asked him if he believed that an actor had to live a life of extremes in order to be a good actor.
“I did once. I did believe that. I don’t know now.”
I asked him if he regretted the life of extremes he’d chosen.
“No. No, but it wasted a lot of time. Wasted a lot of time and alienated a lot of people.”
He spoke again of the argument about excluding the drinker-drugger artist from the party.
“I mean I think you can be justified in being an alcoholic and drunk and taking drugs if you’re an artist, you know? I mean if you look at the great artists, most of them were.. .So that’s a hard thing—’Let’s not ask him to the party.’ But if just asking someone to a party becomes such a big deal, you can imagine what it is like if somebody wants to hire somebody as an actor when stories have been circulating.”
He laughs ruefully. “No wonder I didn’t work. Good God, man, you know, I thought everybody was doing it.”
“You thought everyone was doing the same thing you were doing?”
“I’m not sure. They were certainly doing a better job of maintaining, I guess.”