Sunday, 30 May 2010

Dennis Hopper, last of the great mavericks

Dennis Hopper's death at 74 is sad, but also something of a miracle that Hollywood's most notorious drug addict lasted for so long. For me Dennis was one of those rare actors who was always good to watch no matter how bad the movie was, and he did star in some stinkers. There are many stories about his bizarre and colourful life, and it's likely a few of them are even true.

Some of my favourites include the tales of his prima donna behaviour on the set of the 50s western From Hell to Texas. Thinking himself the new James Dean he pitted himself against old-school director Henry Hathaway, refusing directions, going all method-actory, and generally acting like a rebel without a clue. His performance wasn't much good, but he did get himself a reputation as an idiot. He might never have worked again if John Wayne hadn't helped him out in the late 60s by giving him small roles in his westerns.

Then there was his behaviour on Apocalypse Now, a movie that didn’t need a drugged out wild man going insane in the jungle to make its points any clearer. A lot of his scenes were too incomprehensible to make the final cut, but what remained was nicely odd. And then of course there was his umpteenth comeback and his definitive role as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. David Lynch asked him why he thought he could play the role. Chillingly Dennis said, "You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth." The film provides possibly my favourite movie scene in which Frank glares at Dean Stockwell as he mimes In Dreams followed by the wild car ride and his confrontation with Kyle Maclachlan.

Of all the stories, my favourite, and so in all probability one that never actually happened, is of the making of The Last Movie, the film that destroyed his career for the second time in the 70s. I can't remember now where I read this version, but the general idea was that after the success of Easy Rider, the studios were keen to cash in on independent anti-establishment movie making. So they hired the drugged-up hippy Dennis to make a movie even though they didn’t understand the pitch he provided on the back of an envelope, figuring that they didn't understand Easy Rider and that made a fortune so clearly the incomprehensible The Last Movie would be a masterpiece too.

Dennis headed off with all his best mates to Peru armed with a sack load of Hollywood money, and the executives left him to it, giving him the independence within the system he demanded. After three months they'd yet to hear anything about progress and so some executives started to worry that Dennis's choice of Peru for a location might in some small way be connected to its closeness to the source of illegal substances.

An executive was discharged, and he arrived to find that not much filming was going on, but a fun party was now well into its third month. The executive started on his report telling the studio to pull the plug. But several days later, and several obliging hippy groupies and several strange looking cigarettes later, the executive was firmly of the opinion that the film was a masterpiece and that he should stay to monitor progress. Another executive was sent to find out why the first executive had suddenly started saying 'cool' and 'dude' a lot. A week later he reported back using cool and dude a lot saying that the film was a masterpiece and that he should stay to monitor progress too. And so it went on. After six months half the studio were down in Peru monitoring progress when the studio finally decided to withdraw funding.

Dennis returned and in his rare sober moments he edited the footage he'd managed to shoot when the actors had accidentally strayed in front of the camera lens. It took him about two years and in the end he produced something that made slightly less sense than you'd expect of a movie made by a bunch of drug addicts in the drug capital of the world. The studio executives gathered to watch and they sat through about four hours of disjointed, improvised, plotless nonsense. Not one of them understood a single moment, but at the end they all rubbed their hands with glee and declared they'd got a film that would make them a fortune. If they in their corporate suits didn't get it, then clearly zoned-out hippy culture would.

Sadly, just as the movie was about to go on general release common-sense prevailed and they realized that just because they didn't understand it, it didn't mean the film was any good. The Last Movie was largely withdrawn from circulation and has been seen only rarely since. Legends have grown up around the film as to whether it really is an undiscovered masterpiece or a lot of nonsense. I saw it once many years ago and it's classic cult fodder, being pretentious, incomprehensible, badly made in a good way, and gloriously daft. And the party scenes are some of the most authentic ever filmed. If anyone does understand this movie, I'd suggest they seek help before it's too late. But well done to Dennis Hopper for being a maverick and for making a maverick movie within the system.

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