FILMS

Born to be wild

Dennis Hopper recycles his bad-boy image

Brian D. Johnson February 12 1990
FILMS

Born to be wild

Dennis Hopper recycles his bad-boy image

Brian D. Johnson February 12 1990

Born to be wild

FILMS

Dennis Hopper recycles his bad-boy image

His head, which seems big for his body, sits on shoulders that are hunched and tense. His deep-set eyes, flickering between humor and paranoia, seem to guard dark secrets. Dennis Hopper—actor, director and self-made legend—has the look of a man who has been to hell and back. He learned to act with James Dean in the 1950s and took a blissful LSD trip with Jack Nicholson in the 1960s. Then, in the late 1970s, he began a long, dizzying descent into drugs and madness that climaxed with straitjacketed incarceration in a mental institution in 1983.

Hopper has since recovered his sanity, his sobriety and his career. Immaculately dressed in a sandstone-grey suit, he sipped a Perrier at a Toronto hotel recently and discussed his new movie, Flashback. It is a comic fable about a 1960s rebel trying to market his own legend in contemporary America. And the parallels to Hopper’s own Hollywood rehabilitation are striking. Asked if he still considers himself a rebel, Hopper said, “I don’t have a lot to rebel against.”

He may have exhausted the possibilities. Over the past 35 years, the highlights of Hopper’s career have coincided with some significant milestones in the cult of the American outlaw. In 1955, he appeared with James Dean as a juvenile delinquent named Goon in Rebel Without a Cause.

In 1969, he directed and starred in the born-to-be-wild biker movie, Easy Rider, which became a monument to the dead-end hippie dream. And, after the failure of his own dream project,

The Last Movie (1971)—a surreal story of a stunt man among Peruvian Indians—he fell from Hollywood grace. He consumed large quantities of rum and cocaine; there were tales of guns, knives and orgies. According to a Vanity Fair profile, Hopper’s life became “a kind of oneman lab test of just how far-out you can get, how far-gone you can be, and still come back.” In the sobering light of the 1980s, Hopper came back with a vengeance. Drug-free, he exorcised his demons with a scorching portrayal of a sadist in Blue Velvet (1986). That character—manically clutching a gas mask to his mouth between bursts of profanity—became one of the decade’s most indelible screen images. That same year, he received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a derelict who

helps coach a basketball team to victory in Hoosiers. As a director, Hopper then scored a box-office hit with Colors (1988), an inflammatory drama about Los Angeles gangs.

Now Hopper has come full circle. In Flashback, a sentimental farce, the actor plays his bad-boy image for laughs. He portrays Huey, a yippie prankster who craves yuppie recognition. After spending two decades underground, Huey has turned himself in, hoping that his

arrest might generate enough publicity to get his autobiography published. Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland plays the FBI agent charged with escorting the prisoner to trial. With some psychedelic sleight of hand, Huey gets the agent drunk and switches identities with him. As both characters become fugitives—chased by a corrupt sheriff—they uncover secrets about each other’s past. And Flashback turns into a magic-bus buddy movie, a creaky nostalgia trip into the Age of Aquarius.

The plot holds about as much water as a tab of blotter acid. The direction, by Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri, is pedestrian. And

Flashback’s regression from comedy to cloying sentiment betrays the 1960s spirit that it pretends to enshrine. But the comic scenes are genuinely funny. And, with Sutherland serving as his unflappable straight man, Hopper delights in a role that seems to have been written for him. In one scene, his character even makes a coy comment on the Hopper legend: “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.”

Despite appearances, Hopper maintains that the script—including that line—was written well before he was cast. He had no experience in comedy but clearly relished the opportunity. And, as a veteran of protest marches that took him from Selma, Ala., to Berkeley, Calif., Hopper had some empathy for retired radicals. “I felt really sorry,” he said, “for all these guys who found themselves out on the street with nowhere to go—becoming curiosities at dinner parties.” There was no particular model for his character, he added, but Huey bears an obvious resemblance to yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, who died last year.

For his part, Hopper has survived some outrageous odds. Shortly before committing himself in 1983, he made a risky artistic statement: a daredevil stunt known as the Russian Suicide Death Chair. Before a crowd at a Houston race track, Hopper strapped himself into a chair surrounded by a circle of dynamite sticks. When they were exploded simultaneously, he was left unharmed.

Now living in Venice, Calif., with his fourth wife, Katherine, a 23-year-old ballet dancer, Hopper seems eager to put the past behind him. “I don’t sit around reflecting on the Sixties,” he said. “And I don’t have any desire to drink or take drugs.” He even expresses remorse about the influence of Easy Rider, a $500,000 movie that grossed more than $50 million. The film’s heroes were glorified drug dealers, hippie cowboys packing cocaine on motorcycles. “In a sense,” said Hopper, “I’m responsible for cocaine being a popular drug.”

Cocaine burned a huge hole in Hop52 per’s own career, and he is anxious to 1 make up for lost time. He has just I finished directing a movie titled Hot ° Spot, starring Don Johnson as an amoral Texas drifter. Hopper costars with Diane Keaton in Running Mates, a comedy about a U.S. presidential candidate due out next fall. And Hopper’s fee has risen dramatically, from just $60,000 for Blue Velvet to $800,000 for Flashback.

In Flashback, Hopper’s character offers a whimsical prophecy: “Once we get out of the Eighties,” he says, “the Nineties are going to make the Sixties look like the Fifties.” Asked if he actually believes that, Hopper smiled and said, “It’s a good movie fine.” Riding easy at last, he has learned to respect the solid white line between life and art.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON