Since Dennis Hopper died over Memorial Day weekend at the age of 74, I've been thinking about his legacy. There's no denying that as an independent filmmaker (Easy Rider, The Last Movie), a keen-eyed portrait photographer and an art collector (who supported then-unknowns Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol and was an early advocate of Basquiat, Banksy and Julian Schnabel) he was a game-changer.
But as an actor, rather than draw me into his character he intimidated with those opaque ice-blue eyes and monotonous "hey, man" rants that made me shrink from the screen. There are a couple of exceptional performances, though. He was fascinating as the enigmatic title character in Wim Wenders' The American Friend and compelling as the acid casualty in The River's Edge, unsettled by his encounters with teen alienation. As to his gargoyle performance as the psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, I was never a fan.
Hoping that the Turner Classic Movies tribute to Hopper on Tuesday June 8 will change my mind about his early, mainstream Hollywood flicks, but as I remember Rebel Without a Cause and The Sons of Katie Elder, Hopper was a serviceable supporting actor, memorable mostly for his eyes, watchful and haunted. Also looking forward to reconsidering Easy Rider -- which I haven't seen for about 10 years -- to see if it's more than a just counterculture travelogue set to good Byrds music. When Easy Rider came out, Ellen Willis astutely observed, "But in fact, what was Easy Rider but another superromantic account of individual rebellion against the straight world, depicted as every northern liberal's fantasy of the implacable south?" (Here's a link to her review in the New York Review of Books. Hat tip: Movie City News.)