Deep-dish Dennis Hopper is served up in Thom Hoffman’s stylishly made docu-portrait, “Dennis Hopper: The Decisive Moments.” The exposure of the nasty details in Hopper’s wildly roller-coaster career won’t be a surprise to those who have followed his adventures in and out of (and back into) Hollywood, but could be cautionary to younger eyes who know the thesp best from frolics like “Speed” and “24.” A terrific fest item (and centerpiece in Cinevegas’ extensive Hopper tribute) and a fine vid library title, pic could go beyond its Dutch theatrical run in April to other Euro territories.
A sign of Hopper’s durability across 50 years is how he is associated with the emblematic films of four decades: “Rebel Without a Cause” in the ’50s, “Easy Rider” in the ’60s, “Apocalypse Now” in the ’70s and “Blue Velvet” in the ’80s. And who but Hopper could have worked with Andy Warhol (“Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of”), then turn around and do a Henry Hathaway Western with John Wayne (“The Sons of Katie Elder”)?
Still, Hoffman’s film fails to fully take into account that Hopper has averaged nearly three features a year as an actor, and that his experiences make him one of the few to have witnessed classical Hollywood’s collapse, to have helped birth rebel Hollywood and then to have been a star of the American indie movement starting in the ’80s.
Hopper sits down for a lengthy one-on-one with Hoffman (himself a major Dutch thesp) and is a compelling if not always reliable narrator of his own life.
In light of Marlon Brando’s death, it’s interesting to spot Hopper’s adoration of James Dean, who, in turn, worshipped Brando. This was the chain of key Method influences, and Hopper directly acknowledges the acting technique’s impact on him.
By the late ’50s, when he was starting to make a name for himself in “Rebel” and “Giant,” Hopper was one of the first Hollywood thesps to groove on the emerging art world in Los Angeles, and Hoffman prominently places filmmaker Bruce Conner and painter Ed Ruscha in the pic to comment on how radical art affected the actor.
His rebel label first stuck in a famous fight with Hathaway during lensing of “From Hell to Texas” (1958), but Hopper perpetuates the myth that he was unemployed as an actor by the studios for the next eight years. In fact, in the seven years following “Texas,” his work included a terrific Columbia Western (“The Young Land”), a Phil Karlson pic for MGM (“Key Witness”), and reunited with Hathaway on “Katie Elder.”
Observers and colleagues-friends like Paul Lewis and Fred Hoffman help enormously to round out the portrait, especially during the hair-raising period following the triumph of “Easy Rider.”
There are choice clips from his wild second film, “The Last Movie,” (Sam Fuller, playing a director, screams: “I want balls when you die!”) which Hopper describes as his experiment in doing on film what abstract expressionists had done on canvas.
But it is Hopper’s death-defying plunge into drugs and booze that, ironically, turns the sum of his career into something triumphant and, in retrospect, incredible.
Even though he basically lived on chemical substances in the late ’70s, he was somehow able to act in “Apocalypse Now” and then magnificently in “The American Friend” by Wim Wenders (who has the toughest and most tender comments of all in this docu).
Friend and artist Julian Schnabel remarks on Hopper’s stunning return to fame in “Blue Velvet” — after having gone nearly mad and winding up in detox in Mexico — that “there’s a child that’s been reborn in him.”
And even though Hopper half-jokes that his rebel side is retired, the child at play that Schnabel talks about is vividly on view. The actor is appropriately last seen here in exultant form at a Dutch museum opening of his photographic art and films.
Lensing is quite fine, as is the elegant insertion of archival material, chapter headings and a lively handling of talking-head subjects. Hoffman’s brief V.O. narration clips are in unsubtitled Dutch in the vid version screened.
A quibble: Hoffman for some reason chooses to illustrate the Hopper’s memories of his Nebraska upbringing with picturesque shots of California’s Mojave Desert.