“Dennis Hopper didn’t die… he escaped.” Satya de la Manitou
In tonight’s film, DENNIS HOPPER: UNEASY RIDER, the enigmatic actor’s self-confessed “henchman” Satya de la Manitou says of his friend: “Dennis got in trouble with the whole alphabet – the FBI, the CIA, the IRS…” And he wasn’t kidding. It’s just one of the funny moments in what is a super entertaining documentary about the life and hard times of one of Hollywood’s most rare talents.
It has been said that EASY RIDER legend Hopper's unflappable veneer belied a man constantly teetering towards his next larger than life role. An influential artist, filmmaker, musician and dyed-in-the-wool eccentric, Hopper's crammed and colourful life offers a riveting narrative and makes the film a fun watch. Director Hermann Vaske knew Hopper well and delivers a sometimes-hilarious exposé of the man (literally, in BLUE VELVET) behind the mask, and as a long time fan I wasn’t disappointed.
The film begins with Hopper’s early career and delves into his friendship with – and hero worship of – the equally troubled James Dean, who he first met on the set of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Hopper played the role as Goon, part of Dean’s group of friends, but the doco shows the former in almost every scene with the star, gazing at him and taking in his every move, the subtlest nuances in his delivery. Hopper was reportedly shattered by news of Dean’s death at the age of 24, leading to a long-time disillusionment with the Hollywood scene that saw him withdraw completely at a time when his career looked like to be at a high.
Up next is a celebration of his work in EASY RIDER and APOCALYPSE NOW, as well as a little more detail about the experimental picture Hopper made in 1971, THE LAST MOVIE. The story of a film crew member in Peru who discovers that villagers, stunned by having a location crew in their midst and having no conception of what a film is, later set about ‘filming’ a killing with mock cameras and boom mics made of sticks, it has been majorly mocked. Looking at it now though, it is easy to see why, over time, it has evolved into a cult item among cinephiles, and I found this section of the doco absolutely fascinating.
But Hopper is not just remembered for his creativity and talent, but for the regimen of self-destruction that by the early eighties, had reportedly reached a daily intake of half a gallon of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine. Pretty epic by anyone’s standards, and coupled with Hopper’s volatile personality, it could have been a recipe for disaster. The fact that he gave it all up and remained pretty much sober until his death in 2010 is damn impressive, as is the fact that it did nothing to dim his shine. Explaining Hopper’s continued success, his friend, artist and film director Julian Schnabel says: "He represented freedom and rebellion and the outsider. He was rebelling against the ordinary. If someone said he couldn't do it, he tried."
Indeed, one of the things that Hopper was known for was his complete commitment to the characters he played. Actor Isabella Rossellini is shown reliving a fond memory of catching a glimpse of Hopper crying during a scene in BLUE VELVET - an aspect of the movie that director David Lynch decided to keep, although it hadn't been included in the script.
Hopper's big personality also resulted in tension with his co-workers, and that too is included in the film. Actor Diane Kruger recounts the moment during the shooting of APOCALYPSE NOW when Hopper was so high that he got lost for 10 days in the jungle, whilst director Roland Klick happily confirms, "Sure, he was also an asshole”. But a talented, original asshole, and it is at that intersection where the magic seemed to happen.
With archive footage and interviews with directors such as Wim Wenders, Isabel Coixet and Alex Cox, actors such as Rossellini, Kruger, Michael Madsen and Harry Dean Stanton, photographers such as Anton Corbijn and architect Frank Gehry, DENNIS HOPPER: UNEASY RIDER tells a great story, of an even more interesting man. As an outsider, it’s fascinating to watch how drug and alcohol abuse, along with an unpredictable and contrasting personality, didn't stop Hopper from reaching the global acclaim that still defines him. RIP, uneasy rider, you were one of a kind.
DENNIS HOPPER: UNEASY RIDER premieres Thursday 17 August at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Watch the trailer here
Remote record here