It’s definitely gauche to casually mention the passing of famous people on one’s homepage, Facebook, or Twitter, which doesn’t stop anybody from doing it. This weekend Gary Coleman passed away, and considering how much suffering he must have had in his life, it seems to me that anyone working as a writer or comedian who reduces Gary’s life to “What you talking about, Willis?” or “Guess he had a diff’rent stroke [faaaart!]” should consider a career change. If you take the easy joke at a time like this, guess what? You’re not funny. Sometimes the stronger man resists the easy joke, or better yet, opts for a little sensitivity. I can remember being a toddler and coloring in a Different Strokes coloring book, and I only feel sadness when I think of how hard things got for the kid in that book. People just aren’t respectful — not that I’m one who’s completely free to challenge that issue. You guys have read my stuff by now.
But Dennis Hopper is another case entirely. There will be no joking here, internet. Even most of his fans probably don’t realize the extent of his worldwide importance to movies. Look at his list of credits — it’s insane to contemplate!
He started out with small roles in classics like Nick Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause, George Stevens’ Giant, and John Sturges’ Gunfight At The OK Corral. He moved into larger smaller roles, making increasingly bigger impressions, in movies like The Sons Of Katie Elder, Cool Hand Luke, Hang ‘Em High, and True Grit. Then he helped kickstart the American independent film movement with Easy Rider. Then he went down to Australia to have a hand in their growing film industry with Mad Dog Morgan. Then he became the eminent character actor we all know and love, in movies as important as Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, and as unimportant as My Science Project (although I still love it — not least because it was the first movie I ever saw Hopper in.)
He could be credited as a kind of godfather to the directing careers of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and Sean Penn, among others, and while he collected paychecks in big-budget movies like Speed and Waterworld, he stayed true to his independent roots by giving affecting performances in underrated-to-this-day small films such as Jesus’s Son. Arguably Hopper’s last great screen appearance was in George Romero’s Land Of The Dead. It’s not a movie that stands with the absolute best work of either artist, but it’s hilarious, knowing, and fun. By that time in his life, Hopper had somewhat ironically become an arch-Republican, but he was still rebel enough to lampoon the greedy war profiteers who were running that party at the time. It’s a good bet that Dick Cheney and Karl Rove never saw Land Of The Dead, but if they had, it’s nice to think of them wincing with recognition. (Too bad people like that don’t have half the self-awareness of a guy like Dennis Hopper.)
My favorite Hopper moment remains his swan song in True Romance. Again, in that movie, Hopper set our expectations of him on the ear by playing a gruff but affable blue-collar guy, a cop-turned-security-guard who now lives in a trailer with a big dog as his only companion. Even estranged from his son for years, he still won’t give up the kid to the gangsters who come looking for him. Here’s what I once wrote about that scene. If there’s an afterlife, I hope that Dennis Hopper is savoring those Chesterfields there, taking a few pictures of the locals, and still getting in a good laugh at the rest of us.