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The 10 Best Dennis Hopper Performances

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
May 17, 2012 1:45 PM
9 Comments
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It's almost two years since the passing of one of cinema's true wild men, Dennis Hopper. The actor, writer and director was a maverick titan of cinema, a man who starred in some of the most pictures of American cinema, from "Rebel Without A Cause" to "Blue Velvet," while also writing and directing a film that arguably changed the movies forever, "Easy Rider," while maintaining a personal life that was decidedly colorful (for full details, read Peter Biskind's modern classic "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."

The actor was born 76 years ago today, and to pay tribute, we're republishing our look at the actor's ten greatest roles, which we originally ran shortly after his passing. Everyone has a favorite Hopper role, but some of his best performances came away from the beaten track: hopefully you'll find a little of both below. And let us know your own favorite turn from the actor in the comments section.

"Giant" (1956)
With a new mentor in James Dean, who he met on the set of Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without A Cause," and directed by the legendary George Stevens, in a cast that also included Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, it's hard to imagine how Hopper's career might've ended up without the opportunity to learn his craft on the set of "Giant." As he's recounted in countless interviews, Hopper and Dean spent a lot of time together and Dean would advise and critique Hopper between the multitude of takes Stevens liked to get in the can. The Hopper we see in the film — playing the son of ranch magnate Bick Benedict (Hudson) — is a far cry from the wilder, more iconic roles he would later become famous for. But nonetheless, the dashingly handsome, clean cut youth of 18 who appears in the film fits wonderfully in the epic sprawl of Stevens' soap opera about the changing values and shifting landscape of the great Texas outback.

"Easy Rider" (1969)
We all fade away, even if we want to go out in a burst of flames. Eventually, with the life of Dennis Hopper distant in the rear-view mirror, some generations will consider him a character actor who did a number of movies no one really recalls. But they'll all remember his signature stamp, "Easy Rider," which he co-wrote, directed and starred in. As a film, "Rider" is a trippy, dazed but altogether pessimistic piercing of the American hippie myth, a final word amongst final words in regards to the era's counterculture, buoyed by Hopper's tortured, self-loathing turn as a young man defeated by the fact that he simply can't turn back. But as a document, "Easy Rider" will survive long after all of us, a testament to it's fermenting of celluloid rage and defiance, combined with the stylistic flourishes that helped make a certain live-cannon style of moviemaking thrive during what would end up being the most exciting time for American filmmaking. Eventually, the storytelling of "Easy Rider" became forgotten by the likes of "Star Wars" and "Jaws" as we moved into films as a business first, second and last. In the end, perhaps Peter Fonda's laconic loner Wyatt was right — "We blew it."

"The American Friend" (1977)
Long before there was "The Talented Mr. Ripley" — though after René Clément's 1960 "Purple Noon" — there was Wim Wenders' "The American Friend," which was a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's third novel in the Ripley series, "Ripley's Game." A moody, slow-burning neo-noir, the picture starred Hopper as career criminal Tom Ripley, now working in the field of forged art and Bruno Ganz as a terminally ill picture framer whom Ripley coerces into becoming an assassin. While more atmospheric than plot driven and Hopper doesn't actually say that much, it's the absence of dialogue, and emotion for that matter, that makes the actor look inward and implicitly project forward the idea of the quiet and soulless mind of a killer (and film snobs will appreciate the appearances by the then-grizzled Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller).

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)
"One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space, you can't go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions — what are you going to land on — one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That's dialectic physics." A textbook case of art imitating life, Hopper captures the heart of darkness perfectly as a manically brainwashed photojournalist who dances on a tightrope of poetry and psychosis in Francis Ford Coppola's epic, out-of-control and meditative descent into madness cum war film. The photojournalist offers the perfect introduction for Colonel Kurtz, the barbaric war icon he idolizes. His performance, along with Martin Sheen's epic breakdown in the film's opening moments, capture two of the most memorable performances inspired by mental decay.

"Blue Velvet" (1986)
David Lynch's strange, surreal work has always been known more for its visuals than its dialogue, but the director's most quotable character is certainly Hopper's Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet." Part of the credit goes to Lynch for creating such an insane, indelible villain, but Frank is all Hopper. The actor infamously said, "I've got to play Frank. Because I am Frank!" to get the part, and he brings a frightening authenticity to one of the most disturbing characters in all of cinema, a man who would send Freddy, Jason, and Jigsaw a-running. His character's dialogue might have sounded silly coming from any other actor, but from his opening line ("Shut up! It's 'Daddy,' you shithead! Where's my bourbon? Can't you fucking remember anything?"), Frank is an undeniably evil, infinitely watchable character. We'll certainly raise a glass in honor of Hopper and Frank, and it'd be an insult if it were filled with anything other than Pabst Blue Ribbon.

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9 Comments

  • Caleb | March 29, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    What about his appearance on criterion classic "fishing with john"

  • Milan | September 26, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    Thanks for this. I would just mention The last days of Frankie the fly, although people wouldn't pick this movie as one of his performances. But, I just love it.

    Cheers to all Hopper fans!

  • Steve Belgard | May 18, 2012 10:40 PMReply

    King of the Mountain - mannnnn!!!

  • lilhuxtable | May 17, 2012 6:12 PMReply

    Never forget THE AMERICAN DREAMER!!!

  • Banchtants | May 17, 2012 4:48 PMReply

    You forgot Kid Blue. No, really - you did.

  • Alex | May 17, 2012 3:36 PMReply

    Nice picks, but no Dennis Hopper list is complete without a nod to Hoosiers.

  • Paul Redhead | May 17, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    It's only a cameo, but I'd like to put forward Jesus' Son.

    "Talk into my bullet hole and tell me I'm fine..."

  • swell | May 17, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    I mean, if Speed and Land of the Dead get listed among the ten best performances, shouldnt his grinning scene stealing in Waterworld get at least a mention. If everyone had been having as much fun as him and Kim Coates, that movie could have been a cartoonish romp instead of dazed bore.

  • yikes | May 17, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    White Star
    The Hired Hand
    The Glory Stompers
    Tracks

    your list is whack

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