Today we mourn a great actor and remember a great career. There was just something so peculiar about Dennis Hopper, something so distinct. With all his great performances, he had it in him to be counted amongst the celebrity A-list, but you don’t think of him in the same company as the Jack Nicholson’s, Al Pacino’s and Dustin Hoffman’s because he was more aloof, less accessible to the public eye. We don’t know what we know about Hopper because of his interviews or his time in the headlines, what we have are his performances. There’s an unmatched intensity in those performances, coupled with his unique voice, his chilling sneer and the believability of his (usually) frightening actions that truly has the power to affect an audience. He’s appeared in some big films, Easy Rider (which he also directed) is probably the most iconic, but there are a few that I hold closely to my heart for various reasons. I’m sure everyone has their favorites, but here are mine:
SPEED – This might not be the most critically praised film in Hopper’s filmography, but it certainly had its part in my childhood. There are a few films that I always watched when I was home sick from school, this was one of them. I really loved it as a kid and I didn’t really know why. That was back when I still thought Keanu Reeves was cool and Sandra Bullock was worth talking about, so I assumed they were the primary reason I was so into the story. In retrospect, it was Hopper that held that film together. At its core, it’s sort of a silly film, but having a villain as great as Howard Payne really improves the quality ten-fold. He’s such a dick, you can’t not hate him. Everything he does is just so upsetting, but made all-the-more upsetting because of how much he appears to be enjoying it. “Pop quiz, hot-shot!”: Does a movie like this get remembered at all without a talent like Hopper in the credits?
BLUE VELVET – I’m not a huge fan of this film or David Lynch by any means. I have nothing against them, but neither are really my thing. The most noteworthy aspect of this whole film though is Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth, probably the most evil villain this side of Darth Vader. Every line Booth utters either shocking or funny and oftentimes both. It’s all quote-worthy and anyone who’s seen the film will likely have something derogatory to say about Heineken and only the best about Pabst Blue Ribbon. I’d probably prefer the former, but tonight, I’ll drink the latter in honor of this performance, which is, for my money, one of the best in cinema history.
APOCALYPSE NOW – Unlike the above film, this is one I truly love. Everything about it is great. Hopper, playing a crazed photojournalist, keeps this level of quality up and then some. Essentially, he’s a hype-man for Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. The Kurtz character is one of my favorites, but I doubt he’d be as effective without Hopper’s build-up. Hopper’s involvement also makes this film seem that much more real (though Apocalypse Now is notoriously deficient in actual facts). He belongs to the Vietnam era and to the jungles of the mind and soul that are on display in this film. Most actors just pretend (that’s not a knock, it’s the nature of the profession), but Hopper truly seemed to be living his life onscreen. There, he is immortal.
Rest In Peace.