Saturday, May 29, 2010

My meeting with Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper on the road in Easy Rider.

I met Dennis Hopper -- who died Saturday at the age of 74 -- once. It was at some bygone Denver International Film Festival, where Hopper turned up, probably to receive an award. The thing I remember most about Hopper was that he was wearing a blue pin-striped suit that made him look more like a banker than an easy rider. By this time in his life, Hopper had put drinking and drugs behind him. He was clean and sober. Very clean.

I was a little intimidated because I was one of a handful of critics who hadn't gone wild over Blue Velvet, a picture in which Hopper played the purely evil Frank Booth. Prior to meeting with Hopper someone had told me that he was upset about the way I'd reviewed Blue Velvet. I figured if Hopper had a bone to pick with me, he wouldn't be shy about saying so. Reticence was not a word normally applied to Hopper.

Besides, if you review movies and do interviews, you have to be prepared to confront those you've criticized. I won't lie, though. Although my objections to Blue Velvet had nothing to with Hopper's acting, I was nervous.

So, there in the crowded lobby of a downtown Denver hotel was the rebel, the renegade, the man himself.

I did a double take. Instead of a ferocious madman, Hopper looked as if he were getting ready to attend a conclave of investment bankers. He'd obviously turned some kind of page in his life.

Right away I told Hopper I'd heard that he was upset that I had given Blue Velvet a negative review, and, if so, I'd be happy to talk about it with him. Was it true?

He shook his head, signaling that he wasn't angry. I felt better even though I didn't think Hopper was about to become my new best friend. But then he surprised me even more.

"You know,'' he said softly, almost to himself. "I'm not sure I even know what I thought of that movie."

That's an honest response or maybe Hopper was just being gracious. Ever since that day, though, I've had a soft spot in my heart for a guy who could go so far over the top with a performance, you felt as if the only possible reaction was to look up and wave goodbye.

So bye, Dennis. You left some exceptional work (Colors behind the camera and Hoosiers in front of it) and some exceptionally weird work (Apocalypse Now and, of course, Blue Velvet). You went from being a rebel who sometimes seemed the indulgent and self-pitying artist to a disciplined guy who survived a business that has killed off lesser men. That's a whole lot of something, even if we didn't always know exactly what.

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