Observer picture archive: Dennis Hopper, 24 October 1982

When the actor and director came to London to promote his film The Last Movie, Philip French spoke to him and Jane Bown caught the moment

This article, entitled At long last – the Last Movie by Philip French, was published in the Observer on 24 October 1982

Dennis Hopper has been in London to introduce The Last Movie, the picture he directed and starred in. It won the first prize at the 1971 Venice Festival and was then withdrawn from distribution by Universal Studios after being panned by American critics. After a legal battle lasting several years, Hopper gained possession of his film, and can now show what is perhaps the best-known unseen picture of the past 20 years wherever he wishes. It opens at the ICA on Thursday.

Hopper’s appearance belies his reputation as the Hollywood outsider who carried on rebelling both with and without a cause after the death of his friend James Dean. “Maybe I once did try living up to people’s preconceptions of Dennis Hopper after a few drinks,” he remarks, taking another sip of Perrier, the strongest thing he touches now. The young of present day America, as conformist as the Eisenhower years against which he first rebelled, tend to see him “as something BC – you know, before computers.”

He’s a lean, clean-shaven man in a green rugby shirt, with neatly trimmed greying hair peeping from under the beige fedora he wears indoors and out. A pair of large sad grey eyes look very directly at you as he talks of a career that goes back 30 years.

Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider.
Peter Fonda as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy in Easy Rider. Photograph: Ronald Grant

His grandparents were wheat farmers in Kansas, and he was born, the son of a postal worker and the manageress of a swimming pool, in Dodge City in 1936, just 57 years after Wyatt Earp had tamed the town, sold his interest in the local brothels and moved on to Tombstone. The ambivalence of corrupt folk heroes like the Earps and Billy the Kid has always fascinated him; the central characters of Easy Rider are called Wyatt and Billy, and The Last Movie turns on a film company shooting a biography of Billy the Kid.

Hopper himself moved West in the late 1940s, starting acting in San Diego at the age of 13, and signing a Warner Brothers contract at 18. His second film was Rebel Without a Cause and he stood in for Dean when Sandra Dee and Nathalie Wood tested for the female lead.

The first time he saw Dean around the lot he thought him a posturing creep, and Hopper does an extraordinary imitation of the young star contemplating his coffee cup in a café and mumbling at rehearsals, but working on Rebel and Giant, he came to admire Dean immensely: “I learnt from him that you should do things, not show them, that you had to give the script reality.” His other mentors were Brando and Clift, and he spent days watching them work.

James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause.
James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Unfortunately he tried to emulate his heroes’ independence while working under the autocratic veteran Henry Hathaway on the Western From Hell to Texas in 1958. After the eighty-fifth soul-destroying take on a five-line sequence, he did the scene the way Hathaway wanted it, and left Hollywood, branded as someone impossible to work with.

Ignoring Dean’s warning that “Lee Strasberg will destroy you,” Hopper headed for New York and the Actors’ Studio. He survived, though over the next five years he did little acting, devoting himself mainly to photography, pop art and political activity. The connection between the three he now sees as “a return to reality,” for himself and for America.

He took part in Civil Rights marches in the South with Martin Luther King and lent his support to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. His foam-rubber sculptures were exhibited in London in 1964 and his photographs (there’s a selection currently on view at the Paton Gallery in Covent Garden) are, apart from their other merits, a valuable record of the early 1960s, with portraits of Johns, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Warhol and other artists as young men, and pictures from the demonstrations in Alabama.

There is also a striking photograph of John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder, the 1965 picture in which a generous Henry Hathaway received Hopper back into the Hollywood fold. Dennis had by the married Brooke Hayward, daughter of the movie star Margaret Sullavan, and that made him okay with Hathaway and Wayne.

Dennis Hopper on the set of The Last Movie in 1971.
Dennis Hopper on the set of The Last Movie in 1971. Photograph: Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The idea for The Last Movie came while shooting Katie Elder in Mexico. It’s about some Latin American natives turning the process of film-making into a deadly new religion after watching a Hollywood unit shoot a western in their remote village. But it was Easy Rider that Hopper got to direct first. The revolutionary picture cost half-a-million dollars to make, brought in over $40 million at the box-office, and caught the disturbed temper of the times. It made a star of Jack Nicholson and was “the first movie in which people smoked marijuana without going out and murdering nurses.”

The film’s success helped change the face of Hollywood, but the long knives were waiting when, in 1971, after waves of sensational publicity about the alleged goings-on during shooting in Peru, and two years in the cutting room, Hopper delivered The Last Movie. “The critics were all saying that they wanted new movies, and I tried to give them one,” Hopper says ruefully. There is some evidence to believe that Hollywood had set out to teach him and his generation a lesson.

Once again Hopper was exiled, a counter-cultural idol and the subject of malicious film industry gossip. A great gap grew between his public image and his true identity. But he continued to act in a succession of remarkable, if rarely popular, movies, usually playing lonely losers – as the failed outlaw in the Western Kid Blue, the disturbed Vietnam veteran in Tracks, Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath Tom Ripley in the Wim Wenders film An American friend, the cameraman dancing attendance on Brando in Apocalypse Now.

Dennis Hopper
‘Now when a film is over, I just put on my hat and leave’ Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

Finally he directed another film by accident, when an inexperienced director dropped out of a Canadian picture Hopper was acting in, and he took over the reins on Out of the Blue. Since then he has finished another film with Coppola, is currently working on a thriller with Peckinpah, and next year will work again with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern on Bikers’ Heaven, a satirical sequel to Easy Rider set a 100 years hence.

The cinema is Hopper’s life, and life is now going well. “Movies are like gypsy camps,” he told me. “You’re together for six weeks or so; you work, fight, love, eat together. When Dean died two weeks before the end of Giant we didn’t want to break up. Now when a film is over, I just put on my hat and leave. I don’t even wait to say goodbye.”

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