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.
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.