In typical Dennis Hopper fashion, the most compelling moments of Tom Folsom’s “Hopper: A Journey Into the American Dream,” a biography as fascinating and frustrating as its subject, involve screwing up.
Fitting, since the line most associated with the Hopper oeuvre is “We blew it,” those three immortal words from his culture-defining 1969 kick-down-the-doors-of-Hollywood classic “Easy Rider.”
From beginning to end, the actor-director’s life was a cocktail of greatness and error, genius and terror. So it makes sense that his career high-point, “Easy Rider,” would be followed soon after by his most epic failure, “The Last Movie.”
Folsom’s book features hundreds of interviews, many new details, some silly attempts at stylistic cleverness, and, ultimately, a sadly rushed wrap-up. But it is the section on “The Last Movie” where Folsom shines. It’s what makes “Hopper” an important read, and it’s a reminder that failure is captivating.
(I should point out that I’ve never had the chance to watch “The Last Movie” in full. When I refer to it as a failure, I mean commercially, yes, but also in terms of legacy. Note that the entire film – all 108 minutes – is on YouTube, but the video and audio quality are sub-snuff film.)
By the time we reach the “Movie” segment of “Hopper,” we’ve seen Dennis rise from sad beginnings in Kansas to friendship with James Dean, a wild affair with Natalie Wood (who was also involved with their “Rebel Without a Cause” director, Nicholas Ray – talk about an awkward set), battles with filmmaker Henry Hathaway, a warning from John Wayne to “get off that loco weed,” and, of course, “Rider.”
It’s hard to bring much new to the “Easy Rider” saga, since every story, from friendship (and eventual falling out) with Peter Fonda to the infamous test filming at Mardi Gras and even the butter knife fight with Rip Torn has been told many, many times before, most memorably in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
Here, it is all prelude to the disastrous follow-up: “High off his phenomenal success, having spun what began as a chaotic shoot in the midst of Mardi Gras into one of the greatest box office smashes in moviedom, our hero embarked on his overdue masterpiece, ‘The Last Movie.’ ”
It was to be “the great American art film,” a postmodern Western about the collision between fantasy and reality that occurs when a Hollywood film is shot in a Peruvian village. The villagers fail to understand that a movie is … just a movie.
It was a concept that caused another deranged mastermind, Phil Spector, to opine, “Hollywood taught everybody around the world how to make movies. Now they’ve all passed us by. That’s why Hollywood has to make a great art film – to show the rest of the world. ‘The Last Movie’ will be that film.”
Dennis Hopper, on the road to darkest Peru (Paddington Bear would have been proud), “surviving on beer and dark chocolate.” What could possibly go wrong?
Think Quixote-meets-Kurtz, and you’re almost there. Early in the shoot, a curious reporter arrived to this scene:
“In filthy Levi’s, a couple joints stashed in the pocket of his work shirt, a hat mashed on his head, boot on the gas, Hopper wheeled his truck down the treacherous Peruvian mountain path, terrifying [the] Life journalist sitting shotgun, and commenced his far-out tale. ‘It’s called ‘The Last Movie’ and it’s a story about America and how it’s destroying itself.”
The film, of course, almost destroyed its director-star, and Folsom explains why in messy detail. The executives involved didn’t understand it, of course, this greasy film from the “ragged and unwashed” star whose prior success so mystified them.
One of them was the “King of Hollywood,” Lew Wasserman, and he “didn’t get this ‘Easy Rider’ phenomenon. Why didn’t the kids like ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’? It had Julie Andrews for chrissakes! Don’t the kids like Mary Poppins anymore? Who was this filthy, unwashed, long-haired cowboy freak who’d been running around telling Hollywood he’d bury them, put them in chains?”
It could never end well, and it did not. Hopper struggled in the editing room and chafed under the studio’s gaze, especially regarding the ending. The film that some hoped would serve as the gateway to a new kind of cinema was dumped by its studio, making only $5,000 and finding itself ripped to shreds by Pauline Kael.
“ ‘The Last Movie’ was sentenced to a death,” Folsom writes, “as primitive as the villagers killing the stuntman, perhaps more savage. Hopper referred to it until the end of his days as ‘assassination time.’ ”
Indeed, the odor of the film’s failure wafts over all that comes after it. We see paranoid Hopper, on the run and arrested. We watch as – dear God – he arrives in the Philippines to shoot “Apocalypse Now,” even staying at the Kurtz temple (!) and remaining in character as the chatterbox photojournalist.
We witness Hopper perform the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act” at a Texas speedway. (That one’s on YouTube, too.) Then, a naked Hopper wanders down a road in Mexico, where he “began to masturbate on a tree.”
Finally, resurrection, in the form of “Blue Velvet’s” Frank Booth and the drunken basketball coach in “Hoosiers.”
Mind you, all of the above is brushed off in 20 or so pages. The rest of Hopper’s life, including Nike commercials, golf, Republicanism, “Speed,” marriage, “Waterworld,” divorce, Banksy, cancer and death? That’s about 40 pages.
I’m not sure it’s Folsom’s fault that some of the most gripping aspects of Hopper’s life, including his art collecting, seem brushed off. Perhaps that is inevitable when covering the journey of a man as larger-than-life as Hopper. But whether it is his fault or not, it means it is hard to know just how much better we know Folsom’s subject by book’s close.
It’s sensible, of course, that “Hopper” seems to jump erratically from scene to scene and moment to moment; this quasi-cocaine psychosis fervor feels utterly appropriate. But it makes for a jagged read. It means much is left out, and a great deal is glossed over. (I know 1994’s Navy comedy “Chasers” ranks low among Hopper’s directorial efforts, but not even a mention?)
Still, Folsom’s biography warrants strong praise, and puts forth a significant argument that Dennis Hopper’s importance as a figure who stood at the crossroads of old and new Hollywood, and came out alive – barely – has great meaning. Hopper may have “blown it” along the way, but he did it on his terms.
Even his great failure, “The Last Movie,” comes off here as a heroic swing for the fences. Folsom’s focus on the film as the key point of Hopper’s life brings to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s knowing line from “Hearts of Darkness,” the documentary on the making of “Apocalypse”:
“We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
Dennis Hopper may not have had too much money or equipment, but he, too, got lost in the jungle. That he lived, loved, battled, collected and cashed in is noteworthy, but I think his greatest success is that the film so close to his heart didn’t stay buried. It’s on YouTube, right now, awaiting your click.
“The movie’s in their hands now,” said Hopper after “The Last Movie’s” release. Hopper may have passed on, but I think he’d be thrilled to know his beloved film has finally ridden off to freedom.
Hopper: A Journey Into the American Dream
By Tom Folsom
320 pages, $26.99
Christopher Schobert is a frequent contributing book and movie critic to The News.