Recently, I discussed a so-so new bio of the late Dennis Hopper, Tom Folsom’s “Hopper: A Journey Into the American Dream,” which I reviewed for the Buffalo News. It was an entertaining, rather obnoxiously put together book that succeeded in bringing to life the stories and drama of Hopper’s great failure, “The Last Movie,” but was, all in all, a tad disappointing.
A different chronicle of the late icon’s life, Peter L. Winkler’s “Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel” (2011), is the Hopper biography I was looking for, a serious, exhaustively researched effort that will stand, I think, as the definitive account of the life and work of the director-star of “Easy Rider.”
Unlike Folsom’s bio, nothing is left out – including every bit of his strange, messy, post-“Blue Velvet” output. This leads to some wonderfully incisive details, many of them quotes from the man himself. For example:
- On 1990’s “Backtrack” (Hopper’s original title was “Catchfire”): “True to form, Hopper reportedly turned on a three-hour cut of ‘Catchfire,’ which Vestron [the film’s distributor] reedited to their liking, but not to his … ‘I did a beautiful f—— movie,’ Hopper said, ‘ Strange, intense, slow – not Antonionini, but with a lot of wonderful, unspoken behavior between Jodie and me. But Vestron, being a schlock outfit, totally reedited and rescored the movie to go for the meat, the action.'”
- On 1990’s “The Hot Spot,” a hot, sticky, underrated Hopper-directed film starring Don Johnson, a sizzling Virginia Madsen, and a young Jennifer Connelly: “‘He [Johnson] walked onto the set every day with five people. This is all insecurity to me. I mean, who’s trying to kill him?'”
- On 1993’s disastrous “Super Mario’s Bros.,” which saw Hopper give, says Winkler, “the worst performance of his career”: “My son … Was six or seven when I did that movie, and he came up to me after he saw it, and he said, ‘Daddy, I think you’re probably a really good actor, but why did you play King Koopa?’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, he’s such a bad guy, why did you want to play him?’ And I said, ‘Well, so you can have shoes.’ And he said, ‘I don’t need shoes. So that was my seven-year-old’s impression.'”
Winkler’s text is full of these moments; I am only focusing on a few from the tail end of Hopper’s career, but the book covers everything, from his childhood and his early days in Hollywood to “Easy Rider”‘s success and his wild personal excesses.
It’s an endlessly compelling read, a scholarly but always entertaining look at an immortal, inimitable figure. As David Lynch described him, “He was one of the world’s all-time cool guys. Dennis was the strongest rebel we had.”
“Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel” is the biography that rebel deserved, an invaluable distillation of an extraordinary, painful, incredible life.