Monday, May 31, 2010

RIP Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

This weekend saw the passing of an American screen icon (alas, I am not referring to the late Gary Coleman who I fear is the Farrah Fawcett in this mortal coil double feature): Dennis Hopper. He'll of course be remembered for his numerous iconic screen roles and his wild off-camera adventures and misadventures, but to me there are a couple standout performances that I would like to point you in the direction of if you haven't been persuaded by most of the lamestream media's coverage these past few days.

The first are of course two of his appearances that you'll probably hear a lot about this week. I am speaking of his star-making directing/co-writing/co-starring turn in Easy Rider and his third act performance as the unnamed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Easy Rider was of course one of the defining films of the 1960's counterculture and with its pessimistic conclusion effectively acted as a death knell for the hippies. The fact that Hopper was essentially making what amounted to a documentary about riding around on motorcycles and doing lots of drugs and turned it into a classic is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. On a similar note, his role as the photojournalist, basically an extended cameo, showed the dark places the late 60's went to as the idealist is transformed into a bizarre sycophant and follower of a madman.

Then there's his appearances in genre fare like Speed, Land of the Dead, and of course the goddamn Super Mario Bros. movie. Hopper's trademark intensity served him well as a bad guy in movies like these; even if some of them weren't very good, you could always trust Hopper to deliver a worthwhile performance. He was just fun to watch. Seeing him play Bowser (or rather "King Koopa") in Super Mario Bros. is one of those childhood memories that I always recall fondly, namely because I'm able to say "Holy crap, that was Dennis Hopper!" whenever I get the privilege of talking about that movie. His role as the evil post-apocalyptic land baron in Land of the Dead was one of those classic George A. Romero "the real monster is us" moments and one of the many things right about that movie.

Can we also take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Dennis Hopper was Victor Drazen, the first 24 chief bad guy? It seems almost fitting that he passed the same week that the show did.

And let's not forget the ever-famous "Sicilian Scene" from the Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance.

But for all time, my favorite Dennis Hopper acting role was him as Frank Booth in David Lynch's classic Blue Velvet. My first exposure to this film was when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. We didn't have HBO and this was before naked ladies were that easily accessible on the internet, so for my kicks I would sometimes hope to come across an R-rated, sex and nudity heavy movie on IFC or the Sundance channel. One night, I was lucky/unlucky enough to get Blue Velvet. Sure the beautiful Isabella Rossellini was naked in it, but it just made me feel bad.

Dennis Hopper as Frank is one of my favorites not just for the fact that he's a great psycho villain to menace Kyle MacLachlan, but for those brief moments of vulnerability he shows when he hears songs such as the title number and this scene.

This scene always cemented my love for Dean Stockwell, and this is before he was Cavil and before I knew the genius of Quantum Leap.

For a movie that explores the dark side of small town America and the darkness beneath the facade of suburban tranquility, the outwardly evil Frank shows that even bad guys, no matter how sick and twisted, might have some small iota of goodness in them.

Dennis Hopper passed this weekend after a long illness and proved that the only thing evil enough to kill him was cancer. That's badass. He will always be remembered in the hearts of movie lovers everywhere, and I know for a fact that I'm going to get a little teary-eyed at next year's Oscar "In Memoriam" montage.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hopper. You didn't blow it.