Dennis Hopper was a master curator. While known across the globe for his extremely surrealist, wild, hip and very “method” acting capabilities in both Hollywood and international films, Hopper was also among the first artists who had the intelligence and networking skills to interlink the art world with the film business. This is the primary focus of Peter L. Winkler’s 2011 biography Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel. Through the literary prism of the biography, Winkler makes considerable use of Hopper’s archives, personal memory and reflections from his contemporaries to paint a new portrait of a Hollywood icon – one that transcends the media-saturated portrayal of a drug abusing hellcat to depict an artist with a precise eye who created multi-faceted iconic imagery which is recycled and imitated to this day.
What is so stimulating about the opening chapter of Winkler’s biography, entitled “First Light”, is its documentation of Hopper’s childhood in the US state of Kansas. Winkler includes quotations from Hopper himself such as: “Most of the time I spent alone. […] I watched more than anything else. Wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbours, no kids.” (p. 3) In describing a young child watching the mystical Kansas horizon line, hunting with his dog, watching the daily procession of flatcars loaded with farming equipment, Winker establishes Hopper as an artist from the beginning of his life. The depiction of a young boy taking in his surroundings with an acute awareness and the ability to translate his documentations back into his own paintings, games (and therefore early acting training) is radical in that Hopper received no tailored academic training or support from his family. As Winkler documents Hopper’s memories of moving with his family from Kansas to San Diego in his teenage years, he establishes two integral thematic concerns that frame the rest of the book. Firstly, San Diego opened Hopper’s eyes to the layout, dynamism and vibrancy of the American metropolis that he would later document extensively in his photography and painting. Secondly, San Diego provided social avenues into serious acting classes and art schools in which Hopper could establish meaningful mentor relationships with actor/curators. An example of this is Hopper’s friendship with the couple Vincent and Mary Price, which is described in the following terms: “The first time I ever saw abstract paintings. Vincent gave me a painting […] and he said he thought I would eventually become a collector.”(p.11) This opening chapter of Winkler’s book shifts what may be the reader’s narrow-minded, tabloid-limited understanding of Hopper to one that demands a higher level of intertextuality to understand the epic spectrum of his work.
To allow this book to work within the preconceived traditional expectations of a biography, Winkler establishes his own pattern to approaching each chapter. For every chapter that delves deeply into the critical process of Hopper’s work, the next few are devoted to stating the facts of the actor’s personal and working life, revealing juicy details that complement the artist’s established reputation. It is not until Chapter 4, titled “Hardly Working”, that Winkler returns to his overall focus of documenting Hopper’s role as master curator in his time. Winkler distinguishes Hopper from most contemporary actors/writers/painters in that Hopper defines himself as a self-educated artist. “I used to go to MoMA every day to look at Cézanne and Matisse, go through the whole collection. It had to do with that Kansas horizon line […] with nothing to look at I had to become visually creative.” (p. 61)In this period of time, when Hopper was establishing himself only as an actor within the Hollywood studio system, he did not limit his artistic vocabulary to what the studio instructed him to do, say or behave. Through the use of extensive quotations from Hopper, Winkler establishes an ironic paradox of this specific period in the artist’s life: that despite being cast as teen rebels (in films such as Rebel Without a Cause [Nicholas Ray, 1955] and Giant [George Stevens, 1956] alongside James Dean) in his professional life, in his personal life Hopper was a rebel with a cause. As Hopper mentions “I was calling myself an artist but I was still interpreting. A fine artist [is] not an interpretive artist because he creates a one-of-a-kind thing in his special view.” (p. 69) By establishing this artistic conundrum between the artistic practices of fine art and acting, Winkler provides a rationale for Hopper’s rebelliousness against Hollywood, an institution that did not favour the actor’s enthusiasm for crossing between the two worlds. The chapter also establishes what is absolutely instrumental in understanding the aesthetic construction of Hopper’s first film Easy Rider (1969), as Winkler provides key details into how Hopper transferred the stylistics of still photography to celluloid film. As Ed Ruscha stated, “Dennis always responded to city anxiety […] the frustrations of urban life.” (p.75) The inclusion of Ruscha’s insight into Hopper’s photographic approach helps to realign the reader’s interpretation of Easy Rider as more than an intense political statement about American myth, legend and history.
The middle section of the book is devoted to deconstructing Hopper’s first and second feature films, Easy Rider and The Last Movie (1976), with the intention of re-analysing each work with a fresh and modern stance. Whilst standing as the most well-known film between the two, Winkler does not fondly or nostalgically reflect on Easy Rider’s cinematic significance. After extensive documentation of the film’s production history, Winkler devotes the rest of his chapter to his own opinions of its dated understanding of gender and macrosocial politics. As co-star and co-writer Peter Fonda remarks, “it reflected the anarchy of the individual, which I think is beautiful, rather than the anarchy of society.” (p. 130) That statement is at odds with Winkler’s own blunt proclamations, such as “Easy Rider is just another cheap commodity.” (p.134) The author, however, does give space to careful, delicate attention and critique with respect to The Last Movie. Perhaps the fact that the film has only been seen by a handful of independent/avant-garde filmmakers (such as Wim Wenders) and Hopper enthusiasts – it has yet to find DVD distribution – provides a reason as to why Winkler analyses The Last Movie in greater detail.
Winkler devotes the last half of his biography to scrutinising Hopper’s acting process, especially roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Rumble Fish (1983), as well as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). The significance, Winkler believes, of delving into the psychological nature behind his memorable, distinctly improvisational acting style is due to the great degree of crossover and overlap between the characters he plays and Hopper’s personal life. The remainder of the biography reads much like a gossip column, in which the author prefers to align Hopper’s crumbling personal life with his resurgence as an actor in Hollywood. As for Out of the Blue (1980), Colors (1988), Catchfire (1990) and The Hot Spot (1990), Hopper’s last four directorial efforts, Winkler favours supplying excerpts from (mostly negative) critical reviews of the time, which largely ascribe the poor distribution of Hopper’s work to his inability to embrace contemporary movie-goers. The concentration on negative reviews from the period prevents Winkler from analysing each film through the artistic prism seen earlier in the book. A cited review of Out of The Blue states: “The best moments of [the film] have both the beauty and the banality of found art, as when Mr. Hopper is seen working atop of a garbage heap, surrounded by hundreds of seagulls to the tune of Neil Young’s ‘Thrasher’.” (p. 223) Through closer analysis of the information included, the reader can pick apart the more constructive readings of Hopper’s work that complement Winkler’s overall approach – rather than become sidetracked by Winkler’s opinion stated as fact.
Content found in written biography is a delicate balance: a biographer may either take the road of over-indulgent, personal fact or gossip, or a distanced stance focussing on the artist’s work and public reception of such work. Winkler’s biography is an entertaining and informative read. Despite the occasional opinion statement about Hopper’s film work that will likely sit uncomfortably with the artist’s fans, Winkler’s book is well researched and direct in its approach. His assemblage of quotations and excerpts from documentaries and interviews from a vast range of Hopper’s contemporaries delivers an electric reading of the life and times of master curator Dennis Hopper.
Peter L. Winkler, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (London: The Robson Press, 2011).