This is part two of my conversation with author Peter L. Winkler whose new book, “Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel” is now available. The book brings you inside the world of one of cinema’s most beguiling characters. For part one of this interview click here.
John: And that leads to “The Last Movie” which I guess there could have been a good movie there, I have not seen it, but it seems to be just a film where Hopper was just out of control. I know it won an award at the Venice Film Festival but it just got ravaged by every critic at the time.
Peter: Dear reader, I have suffered for you, you need not suffer, I have seen the film three times so you don’t have to!
Peter: Universal actually put out a VHS video tape of “The Last Movie” in 1993, unfortunately, not letterboxed but panned and scanned. You can find used copies at Amazon.com if you’re interested. The movie’s flaws were not the result of Hopper’s alcohol and drug consumption. The script for “The Last Movie” was written in 1965 by Hopper’s friend, Stewart Stern, based on an idea Hopper had. It was going to be Hopper’s first directorial effort before “Easy Rider,” but in 1965 nobody was interested in anything Hopper had to say or offer as a project. As he said, “I was looked on as a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard,” so it had to wait until after “Easy Rider.” After “Easy Rider,” Hopper had the clout to get the film made. As long as he stayed on schedule and within the budget, Universal Pictures gave Hopper creative carte blanche. He even had control over the final cut. Away from Hollywood, away from any executive supervision, Hopper was able to do what he planned to do on “Easy Rider” but wasn’t allowed to. He went down to Peru and the first thing he did was practically throw away Stern’s script. Hopper improvised the film’s action and dialogue on location. Hopper came to the set every day, the script suggested some ideas, from that he would come up with his own. If something occurred to him on the spot they would shoot it. But I don’t think there was, surprisingly, a lack of discipline, because the movie was shot in about three months, and it was made within budget, which was about $850,000. I don’t think Hopper’s creative decisions were adversely affected by his drug intake. Brooke Hayward said, “Dennis is a demonic artist, like Rimbaud. Nothing matters but his work.” Paul Lewis, who produced “The Last Movie,” said, “We weren’t doing anything that interfered with what we thought was our work. So, like, you know, it was always the work. The work was the most important thing, and the drugs and the alcohol and all those things are secondary to it.” Hopper made exactly the film he wanted to make. Hopper improvised and gave the film a non-linear structure in the editing room, along with cinematic devices like starting the film with a countdown leader and inserting title cards saying “Scene Missing,” which rubbed the viewer’s nose in the fact that it’s a movie, everything’s artificial, nothing in a film is real, you’re watching actors, you’re not watching characters, which of course robs the viewer of any sense of involvement with the characters in the film. This was the one film he directed where he got to do exactly what he wanted to do. If the film is ever released on DVD, it should be of interest to people who are interested in Hopper’s career because here, if you will, is the pure Hopper.
Peter: Oh absolutely, it is. And by the way, he never disowned it, never said, oh that was a mistake, it wasn’t good. He never disowned it creatively, he always embraced it. Hopper took “The Last Movie” to the Venice Film Festival, where he claimed it won a award in competition with films by Bergman and Kurosawa, but the fact is, his film won no award. From 1969 to 1979, the Venice Film Festival suspended awards after a political controversy erupted when a West German film was awarded the Golden Lion in 1968. Subsequently, films were not entered into competition. There is even an entry on the festival’s website for “The Last Movie” that says it was entered out of competition. So it could not possibly have won an award. I have no idea where Hopper got the idea that it did. Maybe he confused it with the award for best film from a new director he received at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 for “Easy Rider.”
John: Sounds like he was trying to change history.
Peter: He did that some times, yeah.
John: During this period, I guess we’re talking about the late 70’s, early 80’s his drug and alcohol use increased. Even when he made some good films like “The American Friend” and “Apocalypse Now” he seemed to do it in a maze of drugs. He entered rehab around that time too.
Peter: When “The Last Movie” was released in September 1971, it became a critical and commercial disaster. It ended his career as a director and might have ended his career as an actor if he had stayed in Hollywood. Hopper reacted to it by going into exile in Taos, New Mexico, where he had purchased a very impressive adobe home that formerly belonged to Mabel Dodge Luhan, who was a patron of the arts in the pre-World War I and post-World War I period. That’s where he lived while he did all the post production and editing on “The Last Movie.” He lived in Taos until about 1985. Hopper went into exile there and was forgotten in Hollywood. Although the revelations of his drug use, drinking, and excessive behavior that came out in articles that were written about the making of “The Last Movie” would have impeded his career in Hollywood in any event, his real mistake was in committing the unpardonable sin of making a film that was a commercial failure. As John Gilmore observed, Hollywood will tolerate heinous behavior from people if they are successful, if their movies make money. “The Last Movie” flopped, and studios are perfectly happy to make movies with compliant mediocrities and don’t need troublesome or temperamental geniuses who are a costly pain in the ass. Hopper lived in Taos from ’71 to about ’85 and his drinking and drug use took on epic proportions. It was terribly self-destruction behavior. As he later said, he should have directed twenty other movies but he didn’t because of what was going on in his life. Yeah, he worked sporadically as an actor; he worked for people who were so far outside the Hollywood system, or not even in Hollywood, like Phillipe Mora in Australia…
John: in “Mad Dog Morgan.”
Peter: Yes, or Wim Wenders in Germany, people who weren’t plugged into the Hollywood grapevine, who weren’t deterred by the failure of “The Last Movie” or stories about Hopper behaving badly. By the early seventies, some of Hopper’s earlier work, “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Giant, “Night Tide,” and other things were showing up on television quite regularly and he had developed a following among some of the new young directors. They were willing to hire him. He acted in “Apocalypse Now” in 1976, which wasn’t released until 1979.
John: Actually Coppola used him twice, later on in “Rumble Fish.” It was a small role but it was a nice performance.
Peter: Yes, he did use him again in “Rumble Fish.”
John: Hopper did get to direct a few other films of which “Out of the Blue” I found to be the best. It’s a very haunting film. A critic, no less than Jonathan Rosenbaum, called it a punk remake of “Rebel.”
Peter: “Out of the Blue” literally came out of the blue for Hopper. He couldn’t have been in worse shape, he was there in Taos, and Paul Lewis, who was the unit production manager on “Easy Rider” and had become friends with Hopper and produced “The Last Movie,” called him. Lewis was the executive producer of “CeBe,” this little film being made in Vancouver, Canada, which was released as “Out of the Blue.” “CeBe” was a drama about a teenage girl who kills the alcoholic father (Hopper) who sexually molests her and is rehabilitated through the efforts of a benevolent, court-appointed psychiatrist (played by Raymond Burr). Lewis hired Hopper, originally as an actor, and constantly complained that the footage the director shot was terrible, unusable, and asked Hopper to look at it. Hopper said he’s a first time director, just leave him alone. After two weeks, Lewis told Dennis Hopper that he was leaving the production, but not to worry, all the actors’ salaries were in escrow. Hopper finally looked at the footage and agreed to take over direction of the film. He revamped the script, he brought in American actors he knew, and he directed it in a kind of drug-fueled frenzy in about five and a half weeks. That was the one film he directed in that period. Hopper only returned to directing in 1987, after his comeback in “Blue Velvet.” He then directed much more conventional Hollywood films, which were all works for hire.
John: If I got the timeline straight wasn’t it sometime after “Out of the Blue” that he began to get himself straight, but not before he was institutionalized?
Peter: Hopper went down to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1983 to play, of all things, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in a movie called “Jungle Warriors,” a West German production with kind of a grab-bag cast. He went to his hotel and he claims there were three complimentary shots of tequila on his dresser, and of course what does an alcoholic do with three shots of tequila, he down them one after another, and then he freaked out! He claims later that they were doped with LSD. He freaked out, he became delusional and he really did go crazy. He was flown back to L.A. and hospitalized. After that, he went to a rehab facility, and when he came out of rehab the first time, he decided his problem was alcohol. So he stopped drinking but he kept doing cocaine. He substituted cocaine for alcohol and he became just as addicted to cocaine as he was to alcohol, because he would get addicted to anything because he had an addictive personality. After about another year, he started to have a repetition of the incident in Mexico. He became delusional, he started to hear voices. As he said, when the telephone wires start talking to you, you know you’re in trouble. So, he voluntarily committed himself to the psychiatric ward at Cedars Sinai and there he was, and there he might have been for a year or more when Bert Schneider, who put up the money for “Easy Rider,” found out Hopper was there and visited him. He said, “What the hell are you doing here?” Hopper said, “I can’t get out!” Because California has a law that says you can’t be released if the doctors deem you not responsible for your own safety, which is what they decided. Schneider said, “Bullshit” and got Hopper signed out, he took him to his house, he went for some therapy and that’s when he stopped drinking and doing hard drugs, although he still smoked marijuana. He did “Blue Velvet” in 1986 and that launched his career resurgence. Then a year later he directed “Colors” with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, which was one of the four films he directed after his comeback in Hollywood.
John: Once he got through “Blue Velvet”, he did “River’s Edge”, there was “True Romance”, there were some big films, for “Hoosiers,” he was nominated for an Academy Award but he did thirty or forty films and most of them were low budget. It seemed he was doing it for the money.
Peter: He received an Academy nomination for “Hoosiers.” He did “Blue Velvet,” “Hoosiers,” and “River’s Edge” in quick succession, “River’s Edge” being one of his favorites. Then he became typecast as Frank Booth, the psychotic villain in “Blue Velvet.” When Hopper played Napoleon in “The Story of Mankind,” with Vincent Price, Price said, “Dennis, I think you will excel at playing villains.” Hopper, who wanted to be a star of course, scoffed at Price’s advice, but that’s what happened. After “Blue Velvet,” he became typecast. There were some exceptions like “Carried Away,” but for the most part he was stuck with being Hollywood’s go-to guy for crazy.
Hopper said, “The ’90s, especially, was a difficult time for me work-wise. To survive, I needed to take on every job I was offered. The unfortunate thing was that, well, I got married, and I couldn’t turn anything down at one point because of financial needs. I’ve always had a family and always had to work. All those marriages keep you working. I’m on my fifth wife. There’s no escape. And, for every divorce, there’s a price to pay to lawyers and everyone, including alimony. I think I did a lot of damage, very honestly, to my career because I never had the opportunity to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I should wait for something else.’
“What happened is I became hopelessly typecast. By the ’90s, all I was getting offered was psychotic nuts. Then, after ‘Speed’ and ‘Waterworld,’ even those roles started drying up because the moment I appeared on the screen, everyone knew I was the lunatic. So even that started working against me. A lot of the time, I was taking shit and trying to turn it into gold.”
John: (laughing) I think you point out in the book that he lost his baby face over the years with all the drugs and alcohol, picking up this rougher rugged worn look.
Peter: If the spectrum of Hopper’s film career can be spanned by two roles, then his performances as Jordan Benedict III in “Giant” and Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” represent its polar opposites. Hopper made “Giant” barely a year after leaving high school. He plays an idealistic character, and Hopper really exudes what Oscar Wilde called “all the hope and joy and glamour of life before him.” By the time that he played Booth, Hopper’s face mapped the changes wrought by the last thirty years of his roller-coaster life. Gone was any trace of his boyish softness and tentative gestures. Hopper’s Booth is all hardness and seething anger. Hopper’s head, with its broad expanse of forehead, looks disproportionately large on his short body, almost like a bobblehead doll, magnifying his malevolent presence. His most expressive feature became his brows, which knit together above the bridge of his nose with each explosive outburst he made.
John: Was there a political shift to the right in Hopper in his later years?
Peter: Hopper surprised many of his fans when he was on David Letterman’s show in 1988 and disclosed that he was voting for George H. W. Bush for president and had become a Republican. To the boomers for whom “Easy Rider” was a part of their coming of age, Hopper remained frozen in their minds as the character he played, Billy. They assumed that Hopper was locked into his political affiliations of the late 60s, when Hopper said that he was as far to the left as you could be. They couldn’t reconcile that with his transformation into a country club Republican. Hopper’s political right turn was hardly exceptional. It was closer to the norm for the 60s generation. By 1988, as they were approaching middle age, many of them made the same political right turn that Hopper made. Hopper himself said he made the natural curve rather gracefully. Hopper voted the Republican party ticket until 2008, when he voted for Barack Obama. Hopper became disenchanted with what he called the lies of George W. Bush’s administration. He resented the Republicans’ campaign tactics against Obama and decided to vote for Obama when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Through his wife, Victoria Hopper, who was a big Democratic Party fund raiser, Hopper met Obama, who offered Hopper his condolences on the recent death of his mother. Hopper was very touched by that and was also influenced to support Obama because Hopper participated in Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery and in some of the other civil rights marches.
John: He also seemed to be having quite a bit of his art, paintings, photography work displayed at shows during this period. I got the impression from the book that he was more interested in this at this point in his life than making movies.
Peter: He was creatively frustrated with his movie work. He was frustrated because he didn’t feel that he had ever gotten the great part that he wanted, he didn’t even feel he had directed the great film that he wanted to make. He kept hoping it would happen, but he never got a great role as an actor or the opportunity to direct another groundbreaking film like “Easy Rider” or “The Last Movie” after “Blue Velvet.” He was stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. After “Blue Velvet” put him back on the map, people showed interested in mounting exhibitions or retrospectives of his paintings, photographs, and sculpture. It was his photography that drew people’s interest, because he had photographed so many people who became celebrities in their own right. Hopper campaigned indefatigably to establish his legacy as a serious artist. He travelled all over the world to participate in the preparation, opening, and promotion of retrospectives of his art. He felt he had achieved some success at establishing his legacy as a serious artist before he died.
John: So he does sound like he found acceptance there as opposed to Hollywood.
Peter: Yes, he did. Despite living and working in Hollywood for most of his life, he was never embraced by the business, even though some of his friends were studio executives. He was never invited into the inner sanctums of the business, as opposed to the world of fine art, where he felt welcome.
John: Well, I want to thank you, it’s a fascinating book, well, I actually have one last question. Are there any future books, anything you can share with us?
Peter: (laughs) I’m not working on anything now. I can think of a number of subjects that could become books, but whether those are something a publisher might buy or consider marketable is always a big question mark, so I can’t really say I am hard at work on my next book.
John: How long did it take from start to finish. You mentioned it took six months, you had a deadline but the entire process, how long did it take you?
Peter: You mean from the proposal, getting an agent…
Peter: I was contractually obligated to deliver the manuscript in six months. I reviewed some of the emails I sent myself with file attachments for backups, and now see that it actually took closer to eight months to complete the book.
John: As I said it is a fascinating read and a fast read because it’s so interesting and I am glad it’s out there. Thank you for your time.
Peter: It was a pleasure to do the interview and I am delighted you enjoyed the book. I wanted it to read as fast and furious as Hopper lived his life. The reader reactions such as yours and the reviews on Amazon have been very good. Once again, let me thank you for having me on your excellent blog.