In 1969 Easy Rider hit movies screens around the world and started a revolution. A change to the way movies would be made, acted in and presented. But the revolution didn’t stop there, it also affected Dennis Hopper. In a way that would cause his talented, paranoid, and creative spark to burn so brightly that he almost turned it all to ash.
Written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, Rider was a rebellious film during a time in America where rebellion was being stamped out by the establishment and rednecks alike. Long hair was considered dirty and reprehensible and the message that the film finally conveyed as the end credits rolled was that while rebelling might be good for your soul, it would ultimately kill those who tried to march to the beat of a different drummer.
And in a nutshell, that pretty much describes Dennis Hopper’s life. He was a man who marched to his own accompaniment and he paid the price for the privilege.
Folsom’s book on Hopper pretty much starts with the film that Hopper swore was going to really change how Hollywood and the world looks at films. A western shot in Peru on an almost inaccessible mountain top that had no end. Hopper obsession with the film and his reluctance to get rid of any part of it, eventually doomed it to a quick and dirty death.
Like Orson Welles (Hollywood’s other Wunderkind) Hopper gained a reputation as an artist without direction, while simultaneously being known as a brilliant actor who over indulged in recreational drugs.
The book also recounts Hopper’s fascination with fellow actor James Dean and his life-long friend-ships with child actor Dean Stockwell and Robert “Bobby” Walker Jr.
But the “meat” of the book deals with Hopper’s battle to finish and edit his own film and his drug use which spiralled out of control. We see that Dennis Hopper was a man of vision and talent and ego. One who was not afraid to take full credit for things that he had participated in. He was also a man who held grudges against some (Peter Fonda was refused entrance to Hopper’s funeral) but was forgiving toward others.
It is interesting to note that in his career after Easy Rider, the only role that shot him to the top of his profession was the crazed Frank Booth in David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet. As the gas sucking sociopath, Hopper is terrifying and not too far removed from his personal behaviour as chronicled by Folsom. Despite the role re-launching his career Hopper never came close to matching his performance or getting another part like Booth again.
By the time you finish the book, you have a great sense of waste. Waste of talent and energy by Hopper as he careened from one drug induced fiasco to the next. You also felt sad for the man who worked not just once, but twice with John Wayne and Henry Hathaway but who felt that he was better than what “old Hollywood” was doing with him.
If ever an actor could earn the title of being an “outlaw” actor, it would be Hopper. He catered to and hung around the fringes of law-abiding society whilst still interacting and attracting the “stars” of the art and acting world. He was a living dichotomy who played to that image when he could and lived it when he couldn’t
Folsom’s writing about Hopper’s “life” is fleeting in its coverage of the childhood of Hopper and scant on his early years in Hollywood. We get tales, but short ones and it is not until Easy Rider and The Last Movie that we learn very much about Hopper the performer, actor and man.
An interesting read, but one that makes you feel like washing your hands after you put the book down (or in my case, the Kindle device down) and checking that you’ve not become contaminated by the many illegal substances being overindulged by the main players in the book.
This is a walk down the drug-addled seamy side of Hollywood. If you doubt it look at who the characters are who inhabit the pages of this book. Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell, et al; a real cornucopia of recreational performing folk who had to get “dried out” so they did not die in the throes of a bad fix or a mental breakdown from too many stimulants too often.
- Tom Folsom: Storming the Gates: My Gonzo Misadventures in Dennis HopperLand (huffingtonpost.com)
- Written Interview: Terry Southern (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- Dennis Hopper: Wild Rider (disinfo.com)
- Top 10 Motorcycle Movies (mrmovietimes.com)
- T Magazine: The Roots of Dennis Hopper’s Style (tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com)