Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
January 19th, 2011

Dennis Hopper

(1936 - 2010)

It is customary at the end of each year to look back and remember important figures who have died. For Busted Halo's Faithful Departed, instead of a laundry list of well-known deceased people with their accomplishments, we ask our writers to reflect on the spiritual impact that people who have passed away had on them. While most of our subjects had no explicit religious connections, we focus on their ability to touch souls. In these reflections you can see through the eyes of each writer how they experienced the sacred in people. Click here for all the Faithful Departed.


It is fitting that the first film Dennis Hopper appeared in was Rebel Without A Cause, yet it is even more appropriate that he was not cast in the titular role. That iconic leather jacket was, of course, worn by James Dean who would subsequently co-star with Hopper in the film Giant, where once again Hopper played second fiddle to Dean’s leading man.

The reality is that Hopper was the authentic “rebel without a cause” in lowercase. He appeared in some of the most significant films of the past half century — including the paean to the 1960s countercultural movement Easy Rider, which he also co-wrote and directed — but he was always overshadowed by his more affable co-stars, such as Dean, Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson. Ironically, it was because Hopper was such an authentic iconoclast, because he was so willing to knock over societal tables and chairs, that he never became the movie star that he often promised to be.

American film is business first, art (a distant) second, and while there is always room for truth, if it hurts the bottom line, it need not apply. Too often, Hopper was a little too true, a little too real to be digested easily with popcorn and soda. Dean was angry but not that angry and after all how bad could he really be if Liz Taylor and Natalie Wood fell in love with him? Nicholson loved to upset the status quo, or did he? How much of what Nicholson did could be taken seriously when that Cheshire grin was always flickering, letting us know that it was all in good fun.

Hopper was a little too true, a little too real to be digested easily with popcorn and soda.

Dennis Hopper was the real deal, and while the American public would like to think that it’s come a long way from the saccharine plasticity that pervaded its films up to the time of Easy Rider, they don’t really like their movie stars to be too real; they like them to be larger than life, and more importantly they like their stars to make them feel safe. Dennis Hopper never made anyone feel safe.

He spent the latter part of his career working nearly non-stop, always in character roles, and earned an Academy Award nomination along the way (fittingly in the supporting actor category), which served as further evidence that while audiences did, in fact, want to see Dennis Hopper, they didn’t want to see too much Dennis Hopper.

Hopper never became the leading man, but rather was always cast as the guy on the margins. His intensity and insistence on the truth in his performances, his unwillingness to flinch in the face of societal expectations of conformity both on and off camera prohibited him from every attaining top billing. Hopper represented a truth that society did not want to look at — or at least didn’t want to look at for more than one-third of a movie — and so while he never became a movie star, perhaps that was the whole point after all.

The Author : Jake Martin, SJ
Jake Martin, SJ, is a comedian and writer. He is a regular contributor to America Magazine and is currently studying theology in Berkeley, California.
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  • Lee Stanley

    Wonderful – and insightful article on Dennis Hopper. I directed a film that Dennis starred in (Held For Ransom – 2001, not my best) – under the worst of circumstances (Florida Everglades) and I loved the man. Why – because, as you so clearly expressed, he was true to himself. Not 5 minutes on the set and Dennis was yelling and screaming at his assistant of 40+ years. I took him aside and asked him what the problem was and how could I help? He ended up smiling back at me – from then on whenever Dennis had a ‘Hopper Fit’, we would get together until he was ready to smile. He was a pro’s pro – I liked his directness, and he told me he liked the same in me. When filming was complete, my crew would not applaud his exit. He came to me and said, “I guess I’ve been a real pain in the ass, Lee.” My response – “I love perfection – and thank you for sharing your forty plus years of talent and passion with me.” We hugged, he had tears in his eyes – and we hugged again. The film industry lost a great actor, a great artist – and someone we could all learn from.
    Lee Stanley
    Author: “Faith in the Land of Make-Believe” {Zondervan (03/11)}

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