Iconoclast. Hellraiser. Lunatic. These adjectives and more can be used to describe the one and only Dennis Hopper (1937-2010). A true all-rounder, he was not only an actor, but a writer, director, artist and photographer. His was a truly unique life, at times incredibly fraught and self-destructive. Stories of his alcohol and drug abuse are legendary. Like Keith Richards, he seemed to have nine lives.
However, in regards to the man’s screen persona, this gave his performances a truly unique edge and quality. Here are twenty films from a wide cross section of Hopper’s career that are definitely worth your time.
20. Waterworld (1995)
Directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Kevin Costner, this was notorious for its budget blowout. Cynics labelled it “Costner’s Gate”, in reference to the infamous, studio bankrupting disaster that was Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”.
Overall, “Waterworld” was a reasonably enjoyable, if somewhat bloated, action film set in a dystopian future. A key element to what made it work was Dennis Hopper. He plays Deacon, the gleefully psychotic leader of the Smokers, a marauding gang in a post-apocalyptic near future. Not a subtle performance, Hopper totally chews up the scenery here, and appears to be having an absolute ball doing so.
While flawed, you could do infinitely worse than this film. Hopper’s worth the admission price alone.
19. Flashback (1990)
Gleefully taking the piss out his “Easy Rider” persona, Hopper plays Huey Walker, a Sixties radical being escorted cross country by a straight laced, by the book FBI agent (Keifer Sutherland).
This film is a fun ride, directed with freshness and economy by Franco Ammuri, that gives its two stars the space to bounce off each other, sharing a really strong chemistry. In cinematic terms, this is what you would call ‘a nice surprise’.
18. The Hot Spot (1990)
Stepping behind the camera and not in front of it in this instance, Hopper directs this steamy, laid back take on film noir. Featuring Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and, in one of her last teen roles, the wonderful Jennifer Connolly, this was Hopper having fun with a genre he knows and loves very well.
“The Hot Spot” was stylish noir done with a sense of class. It also featured a great blues soundtrack. Underrated, this one.
17. Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
Shot in Australia by director Phillipe Mora, Hopper plays the titular legendary Australian outlaw. A classic ‘individual versus authority’ tale, Hopper totally gets under the skin and nails the character perfectly.
Apparently, he was quite a handful on set by this stage in his career, but the results are truly up there on screen.
16. Tracks (1976)
As a result of the debacle of “The Last Movie”, Hopper was on the outer with Hollywood in general. This was not the first time this had happened. He had crossed paths in a corrosive and negative way with old school Hollywood director Henry Hathaway, who had him blacklisted from films in Hollywood for a number of years.
In this second ‘wilderness period’, Hopper made some very interesting films of varying quality. One of them was “Tracks”. Directed by Henry Jaglom, this was one of the absolute first films, a few years before “The Deer Hunter”, “Coming Home” and “Apocalypse Now”, to directly address the Vietnam War and its effect on America at large.
Hopper plays a soldier who is escorting the body of a war buddy to his hometown burial. This is a film full of anger and rage about the negative effect on war upon the individual. “Tracks” is an underrated entry in Hopper’s canon.
15. Hoosiers (1986)
Directed by David Anspaugh, this is a beautifully told tale of the underdog rising above adversity, in this case a basketball team and their coach (Gene Hackman). In what was a quality cast, Hopper really shone as Shooter Fitch, a former basketball player and father of one of the kids on the high school team.
This was a case of not knowing where the performance finished and the real life Dennis Hopper took over. His character in this film is an alcoholic trying to rise above his illness. A raw and candid performance, it saw Hopper receive his first and only Oscar nomination.
14. The American Way (1986)
A gleefully anarchic one fingered salute to Eighties America, especially politics, “The American Way” sees Hopper playing the leader of a bunch of technological pirates who continually broadcast anti-establishment material over mainstream television channels.
Funny, heartfelt and with a serious bone to pick with the world in general, “The American Way” is something of a lost gem. Hunt it down if you’re in the mood for something different that really taps into what makes Hopper great.
13. Giant (1956)
Re-teaming with his “Rebel” co-stars James Dean (his final film) and Sal Mineo, this was an epic yet intimate look at a family facing the shifting sands and times of the world around them. Hopper plays the son of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
This film, directed by George Stevens, was ahead of its time in the way it was a parallel to what would happen with the changing of the guard in Hollywood in a little over ten years from the time it was made.
12. Rebel without a Cause (1955)
The first time that many noticed Hopper on screen. He played one of the goons in the gang harassing James Dean’s character, Jim Stark. Looking back now, it’s remarkable to see Hopper before his gargantuan drug and alcohol abuse irreversibly changed both his voice and physical appearance.
An iconic film that truly spoke to a disenfranchised generation, it would not be the last time that Hopper would cinematically find himself in this particular position and moment in time.
11. The American Friend (1977)
Set in Germany and loosely based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, this is an absolute gem of a film. Directed by Wim Wenders, who would go on to greater acclaim with “Paris, Texas” (1984) and his magisterial “Wings Of Desire” (1987), described by Time Magazine as ‘one of the best films of the Eighties’, “The American Friend” has a beautifully rich sense of characterization to it.
Hopper plays Tom Ripley, a wealthy American based in Germany, who pushes a terminally ill man, played by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, into becoming a hitman. This is a film that’s all about the mood and atmosphere rather than a linear beginning/middle/end story arc. Hopper proved to be a great fit for the role and the film.