Dennis Hopper bio follows erratic course of artist’s high-low life
One of the most enduring cinematic images of the hippie-dippy 1960s is of Dennis Hopper’s defiant biker Billy tooling down the highway – flowing long hair, floppy bushman’s hat and bandito mustache – astride a souped-up Harley chopper. The film was 1969’s “Easy Rider,” and Hopper was not only its co-star (with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) but was also the movie’s co-writer, director and most dedicated, lifelong rebel.
In a film career that began with roles in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and 1956’s “Giant,” opposite his fated mentor James Dean, and that forged indelible characters in pictures such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Velvet,” “Hoosiers” and some 115 others, Hopper always maintained his bad-boy edge and air of earnest rebellion.
And the life of this most unpredictable of showbiz players is ably and almost too thoroughly surveyed in “Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel” (Barricade Books, $26.95), author Peter Winkler’s sporadically entertaining and exhaustively researched biography of one of the movie world’s most original and enigmatic characters on-screen and off.
In a career that spanned half a century of highs and lows, Hopper proved himself an artist always eager to push back boundaries. An award-winning actor, writer and director, a painter and photographer, a discerning collector of modern art, a notorious lady’s man and an eclectic counterculture figure, Hopper was definitely a Hollywood original, and publishers assert that this is the first book to chronicle his erratic life and career.
Winkler is certainly thorough and painstaking in detailing Hopper’s life trajectory – from his lonely childhood in rural Kansas through a career of some 200 on-screen roles (earning Oscar and Emmy nominations) and seven directing credits to his death last year from prostate cancer at age 74. Unfortunately, the author never interviewed his subject and most of the quotes in the book (even those of Hopper’s colleagues and co-stars) come from second-hand sources.
Winkler provides a encyclopedic tour of Hopper’s acting life, recounting his seminal early roles opposite Dean (with whom he clashed over the worth of Lee Strasberg and The Actors Studio in New York) through his “Easy Rider” period and the comedown failure of 1971’s “The Last Movie,” to the drug-fueled weirdness of his roles in “Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Velvet” and “River’s Edge,” to his late-career comeback as the reigning villain in big-budget actioners such as “Speed” and “Waterworld.”
In his personal life, Hopper’s world was no less erratic and eventful, and Winkler duly covers his long-standing romance with Natalie Wood; his five marriages (including his efforts to divorce his last wife even in the midst of terminal cancer); his sometimes quarrelsome friendships with Dean, Fonda, Elvis Presley and John Wayne; his drug and alcohol addictions and his mystical sojourn in Taos, N.M.; his emergence as a respected artist and photographer and his forward-looking patronage of modern artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein.
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