Hopper’s Odyssey--From Hell to Texas : Dennis Hopper has experienced acting success, druggy exile, psychiatric wards and now he’s directing ‘Hot Spot’
A fake sawmill is perched in the middle of a cow pasture in the middle of Texas in the middle of the night. Lights bounce off the foggy blackness, the eerie glow attracting a few curious locals who wonder if it’s a football game or a UFO landing.
Bright camera lights and a machine-made fog envelop Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen embracing on a mountain of cedar chips. As the cameras reset-up for new angles on the erotica, Dennis Hopper leaves his director’s chair to ponder the scene and guzzle Diet Coke.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 12, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
First at Venice--Director Dennis Hopper was quoted in a Nov. 5 article as saying that his 1971 “The Last Movie” made him the first American to win the Venice Film Festival. In fact, John Cassavetes was the first American to win at Venice, and he did it twice before Hopper showed up--for “Shadows” in 1960 and “Faces” in 1968.
The sexual chemistry in this scene isn’t steamy enough for Hopper. There are no sexual inhibitions allowed in “Hot Spot,” his film noir with wall-to-wall sex. A crew member jokes: “Maybe a few joints would loosen things up.” Hopper laughs and looks mischievously at Johnson, who munches a Butterfinger candy bar. This set, with a few famous reformed substance abusers, is apparently squeaky clean.
This is the final week shooting “Hot Spot,” an erotic fantasy of greed and suspense. Johnson plays a sexually-obsessed, amoral car salesman caught in a love triangle between his boss’ wife, a scheming seductress played by Madsen, and a virginal accountant played by Jennifer Connelly. After 10 weeks of scorching days and some all-night shoots, Hopper will soon wrap it up under the about $10-million budget and ahead of schedule.
Hopper has been racing a ticking clock--Johnson is due to jet off to Atlantic City to pilot his super-slick speedboat in a race sponsored by Donald Trump. There have also been a few off-camera dramas.
Filming was suspended when Johnson’s helicopter whisked him off the set to help wife Melanie Griffith deliver a daughter in Austin, 52 miles northwest of Muldoon. After cutting the umbilical cord, Johnson returned 4 1/2 hours later to pass out Don Diego cigars and finish a love scene. Then, in the screening room, producer Paul Lewis and his fiancee got married before cast and crew. When ceremonies were over, the best man--Hopper--rushed everyone out to get the cameras rolling.
It’s not been an easy ride to the director’s chair. During Hopper’s 33-year career, he has traveled from triumph to druggy exile to psychiatric wards and back. Now, at 53, and sober since 1984, Hopper is no longer blackballed; he’s bankable as one of Hollywood’s busiest actors. “I once thought I’d be dead by 30,” Hopper says. “I don’t feel like I’ve left a body of work yet. Now I’m making up for lost years.”
With 13 films in five years, the reformed rebel is busy catching up. He’s exhibited acting prowess as the sadistic drug-crazed psychopathic sadist in “Blue Velvet”; the bleary-eyed boozer in “Hoosiers”; and the wacked-out biker in “River’s Edge"--roles Hopper says he’s “rehearsed for years.” Upcoming are “Chattahoochie” (set in a mental institution), “Backtrack” with Jodie Foster, and “Flashback,” with Hopper playing a ‘60s radical.
When Sean Penn handed Hopper the script for “Colors,” the aging Bad Boy returned to the director’s chair for the first time in 15 years. After that 1988 box-office hit, Orion asked him to direct “Hot Spot,” based on the 1951 novel “Hell Hath No Fury,” by the late Charles Williams. It’s the second film Hopper has directed in which he hasn’t starred.
When Hopper showed the script to producer Paul Lewis, with whom he’s worked since the 1969 “Easy Rider,” they discovered it was the same movie that Lewis planned to make with Robert Mitchum 20 years ago. Lewis tracked down the original script and, despite some protests from Orion, Hopper scrapped the new script for the original, which he revised.
“This is ‘The Last Tango in Texas,’ ” Hopper joked, between takes. “It’s a very seedy, sultry, hot piece. And it’s not just the sex--it’s the characters.”
Dressed in dusty jeans and black T-shirt, Hopper works like a man obsessed, fortified only by endless cans of Diet Coke. Except for a few hotly played holes of golf with buddy Willie Nelson at Austin’s Briarcliff Country Club, the only wildlife Hooper has seen were scorpions, a nest of copperhead snakes and a few armadillos.
It’s 1:30 a.m. and the cast and crew break for a lunch. Johnson’s private cook has graciously spared them from the standard movie chow. Tonight, it’s calamari. Hopper heads for his trailer.
“Everyone on this movie needs to prove something,” he says, rubbing his weary pale blue eyes. “Don needs a big break. (His recent features, “Sweethearts Dance” and “Dead Bang” fizzled.) ‘Hot Spot’ will prove he can act, that he’s a leading man to be reckoned with. When he concentrates and gets involved and keeps things simple, he’s really, really good. He understands his role.”
Madsen (“Star of Dixie”) will prove that she has “old star quality,” predicts Hopper. “She’s a young Lana Turner, a throwback to ‘40s films. She’s such a pro, the sky’s the limit (with her).”
He is also confident “Hot Spot” will vault Connelly, who was first seen as a young teen-ager in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” to stardom. “She’s a 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, but she can act better and she’s prettier,” he says.
And what does Dennis Hopper need to prove? “One day, I’m not bankable, one day I am. All it means is someone’s made up his mind they’ll pay me money, that I’m worth it. Four years ago, I wasn’t. . . . But I’m still the same person--the only difference is a few people believe in me enough to let me prove I can make movies that make money. (Orion production chief) Mike Medavoy said it was OK to do it at Orion, and I’m grateful.”
Hopper and his new fourth wife are scouting for a home in Austin. “I’m from Kansas, which is flat without trees. Texas is flat with trees. I enjoy the life here and friends like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. And this place holds a lot of movie memories for me.”
“Giant,” the sprawling Texas saga that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean was the 19-year-old Hopper’s breakthrough movie. Dean, who he’d first worked with on “Rebel Without a Cause,” became his close friend and mentor.
“I never saw an actor work like Jimmy did,” he recalls. “There was reality to his acting. Jimmy could do something and not show he was acting. He’d relax, let the moment happen and have real, raw emotions. He was able to do this and I couldn’t. I wanted to learn from him and not be like other actors.” Dean died in a car crash in September, 1955, before “Giant” was completed. Hopper was shattered. “His death blew my mind, affected me for years.”
In 1958, Hopper turned the set of “From Hell to Texas” into a battleground, defying iron-willed director Henry Hathaway, and walking off the picture three times. Then came the stand-off: Hathaway made Hopper shoot 86 takes of one scene until, after 15 hours, Hopper finally gave in to his authority.
“It was devastating,” Hopper says. “It had a huge effect on my life. I would have let the young Dennis Hopper do his thing, but I learned from Hathaway that the director is the director and you can’t really fight him very far. Most directors are very dogmatic, I’m not.”
After “From Hell to Texas,” word was out that Hopper was uncooperative and at 21, he was virtually shut out in Hollywood. In exile in New York, he studied the Method with Dean’s teacher, Lee Strasberg. As a way of learning to make movies, he became a professional photographer. In 1961, the outlaw joined one of Hollywood’s best-connected families when he married Brooke Hayward.
When the couple returned to Hollywood, Hopper quickly established himself in the eyes of the Establishment as a madman, an actor with a mercurial personality fueled by amphetamines, LSD and hard liquor. In the midst of that chaotic period, Hayward introduced her husband to her childhood friend, Peter Fonda, and launched a relationship that would provide the benchmark of the 1960s countercultural revolution in America.
The Hayward-Hopper marriage was soon shattered, but Fonda and Hopper joined up to make a movie that would convey the essential messages of the counterculture in a modern Western that replaced horses with motorcycles. “Easy Rider,” made in 1969 for $370,000, made Hopper the director discovery of that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to gross more than $40 million at the box office.
“Easy Rider” revived Hopper’s career in Hollywood; or, at least it gave him the chance to make the movie--prophetically titled “The Last Movie"--that would cause most of the Establishment to write him off forever.
The surreal Western, an autobiographical drug fantasy, was shot in a remote village in the Peruvian Andes. Holed up on his Taos, N.M. ranch with an entourage of hippies on mescaline, Hopper spent 16 drugged-out months editing the 46 hours of film into a 108-minute feature that won an award at the Venice Film Festival and came home to be almost unanimously reviled.
Hopper is still bitter: “With ‘The Last Movie,’ I was the first American to win the Venice Film Festival, but I didn’t work again for 10 years.”
Hopper ping-ponged from supporting player in low-budget films to an eight-day marriage with the Mamas and the Papas’ Michelle Phillips to a third marriage with Daria Halprin (star of 1970’s “Zabriskie Point”). His cocaine use, hallucinations and loaded guns led to real madness. He sums it up: “It’s amazing I have any mind left at all.”
In 1983, Hopper hit bottom. While making “Jungle Fever,” he was found alone, naked, incoherent and wandering a dusty road in Mexico. He was arrested and returned to the United States.
Seeing Hopper today, it’s hard to imagine that five years ago he was in a straitjacket in a mental institution.
“I lost about 20 years and wasted a lot of time,” he says, hurrying out of the trailer to resume directing. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Back at the sawmill, the graying statesman of hip pulls his chair next to the other troubled kid from Kansas, fellow Alcoholics Anonymous alumnus Don Johnson.
“I’m surprised Dennis and I didn’t run into each other earlier,” quips Johnson, “because we certainly had the opportunity, given our proclivities for finding the more social forms of entertainment. Amazingly, we managed to escape each other. It’s just as well, we probably wouldn’t have made it through the encounter.”
Johnson also has a “fondness” for Texas, where he sang with the Allman Brothers Band. He recalls spending a week in Austin when he was “roaring and consuming copious amounts of bourbon. But I don’t remember much. I was fairly incoherent at the time. It was about eight years ago.”
Both men’s new wives frequent the “Hot Spot” set. Hopper’s 22-year-old wife, ballerina Katherine LaNasa, is helping out as set designer. Melanie Griffith helicoptered in often from the mansion that she and Johnson rented in Austin. She spent a day giving some strippers at a local bar tips on grinding. Tonight, she’s brought her week-old baby to the set.
“If you get a good wife, you live happily ever after. If you get a bad wife, you become a philosopher,” says Johnson, loosely quoting Socrates. “Well, I’m not doing a lot of philosophizing.”
As he readies a retake of his love scene in the mountain of cedar chips, Johnson adds: “Sex scenes are my least favorite part of acting. They’re difficult because they’re incredibly technical and uncomfortable. But in ‘Hot Spot,’ they’re part of the fabric of the story. And with Dennis directing, acting is a lot easier. He cares about the actors intensely. Everything Dennis Hopper does is intense.”
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the easy rider of 1989 drives his Cadillac through the heart of Texas. During the 90-minute drive to Austin, photographer/painter Hopper shows a keen visual sense. With childlike awe, he watches the dawn light playing on the picturesque hill country.
Curious about everything, Hopper’s conversation ranges from Bruno Bettelheim to the Dalai Lama. Unlike most actors being interviewed, Hopper asks more questions than he’s asked and he’s unself-consciously at ease discussing his life on and off drugs.
What’s it like directing a movie unstoned? “It’s a lot easier,” he says. “Everything’s easier without drugs and alcohol. . . . They made me work through a fog. They made me paranoid, schizophrenic. Things got much more complicated than they really were because I couldn’t see them clearly.”
But, he insists, “getting sober to work did not make me a more talented person. Many of my contemporaries are working constantly while taking drugs and they’re still big stars.”
Actors? “Most of them are pompous. . . . Many of them couldn’t hold a normal job,” he says. “We actors are very strange creatures, we all have our paranoias and we’re all very childlike.”
He manages to open another Diet Coke while steering. “Making movies justifies my existence,” he volunteers. “I’d rather be working than anything else. Now I’m so busy working, I don’t even know who that other Dennis Hopper is anymore.”
Is he still a rebel?
“I have nothing to rebel against--I now have freedom as an actor and director. This is a real good time for me,” he says making a screeching U-turn. “But I know you’re only as good as your last movie.”