The man, the myth, the legend

Looking beyond the Castro's tribute to the late Dennis Hopper

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Hopper in Blue Velvet (top) and Easy Rider

arts@sfbg.com

FILM When Dennis Hopper died May 29 from prostate cancer, many obituaries — usually a place for polite, laundry-listed achievements — included unusually unflattering observations calling Hopper "difficult," "unpredictable," even "a pain in the ass." It takes a lot to merit such treatment precisely when people are customarily at their most hypocritically respectful. But Hopper had about 55 years to drive directors, fellow actors, wives, friends, and sundry crazy.

The wild-man tendencies that made him a longtime hipster fan favorite also got him sued, blacklisted, and nearly killed. (An incensed John Wayne reportedly chased him with a gun on the set of 1969's True Grit, likely not an isolated incident.) He burned though five marriages — one to The Mamas & The Papas' Michelle Phillips lasting eight days — and was divorcing his longest-lasting latest wife on his deathbed, solely (she says) to disinherit her.

After years of world-class alcohol and drug abuse, he cleaned up in the early 1980s. At which point the hippie rebellion icon from Easy Rider (1969) became a Reagan Republican, dumping on the counterculture lifestyle he'd lived and promoted. Yet he remained a major avant-garde art collector, as well as a modernist painter and photographer of some repute. What's not to like? Probably everything, given close proximity. Yet from a safe distance, Hopper somehow remained dead cool.

The Castro Theatre pays posthumous tribute with "Dennis Hopper: Misfits and Outsiders." The five-day mini-retrospective strictly hits popular highlights: Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), in which he appeared with James Dean (whose tic-ridden Method acting and unprofessional work habits were a major bad influence); the very dated Easy Rider, his hugely influential directorial debut; plus 1988's Colors, the Sean Penn cops-vs.-gangs drama that commercially peaked a more mainstream return to the director's chair.

There are also three disparate 1986 features that reignited his acting career: as harrowingly crazy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (a role he told David Lynch he had to play because "it's me"); the barely-less-freakish drug dealer in River's Edge (facing off against spiritual heir Crispin Glover); and as a town drunk redeemed in inspirational sports drama Hoosiers. That last, natch, snagged his Oscar nomination.

Hopper undertook more villains in films like Speed (1994), Waterworld (1995), and Land of the Dead (2005). Plus recurring TV roles (24, Crash), voice work (videogames, cartoons) and just about any other job that fell into his lap, good or ill.

The Dennis Hopper retrospective I'd really like to see might, admittedly, roll tumbleweeds down the Castro's aisles. But it would do the man's crazier side, and craziest decade, justice. For during the 1970s, Hopper was basically a Hollywood outcast, roaming the globe in shambolic distress, choosing odd projects to bedevil. Every last one is interesting, eccentric, or simply unknowable.

His directorial career imploded in 1971 with endlessly delayed Easy Rider "follow-up" The Last Movie, possibly still the most experimental feature ever released by a major studio (an appalled MGM). Hopper then fell into French obscurities like 1972's Crush Proof (costarring Pierre Clémenti ... and Bo Diddley) and 1978's Flesh Color (Veruschka and Bianca Jagger!) Good luck finding those.

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