ennis Hopper in person is
- disconcertingly normal. At a press conference for his new film, The Hot Spot. the portrayer of some of recent cinema‘s most memorably deranged and psychotic characters — think of mad mobster Frank Booth in Blue Velvet or the one-legged, fun-toting, rubber-doll-loving dope dealer in River‘s Edge -- displays nary a twitch or tic.
The man who‘s been through four marriages. blown at least two careers and consumed enough booze and drugs to finish off halfa dozen other people. appears affable and relaxed. undeniably clear ofeye and steady of hand. Is this fair? Has he any right to look so spruce and in the pink?
Well, Hopper‘s been off the booze since 1984 and he now drops references to painters not acid. But he remains the ultimate Hollywood maverick. a film maker whose career as both actor and director has always gone against the grain.
His new picture. appropriately enough. is afilm noir. that most subversive of movie genres. With their alienated. compulsive protagonists. their mood of paranoia and their obsession with society‘s dark underbelly. these classics ofthe 40s and 50s were defiant protests against the escapism and optimism of mainstream Hollywood.
‘Film makers madefilms noirs to say “we‘re human beings, we have a dark side too,“ says Hopper. ’You better watch out who you‘re screwing, they may be screwing you — that‘s a basicfilm noir —- Dennis Hopperism.‘
Hopper‘s The Hot Spot, though surprisingly set in the present, perfectly captures the spirit of those old chestnuts. Everyone in the film has dark secrets, everyone is driven by unfathomable devices and desires.
The movie‘s leading character, played by Miami Vice star Don Johnson, is Harry Madox. a brash amoral drifter who fetches up one day in a small Texas town and sweet-talks his way into a job as a car salesman.
As Harry is soon to discover, beneath the town‘s placid surface lurk violent emotions and illicit passions. Attracted to Gloria, the demure young woman who runs the car lot‘s loan office. Harry yet finds himself irresistibly drawn to his boss‘s duplicitousfemmefatale of a wife, Dolly.
‘A man caught between two beautiful women in a spiral going down darker and darker -- a classic film noir situation,‘ says Hopper.
The Hot Spot is based on a novel, Hell Hath No Fury, by the American pulp crime writer Charles Williams, who committed suicide in 1975. Hopper originally had a script of the book. written by Mike Figgis (the British director of lnternalAffairs). but when it came to make the movie he used a screenplay written almost 30 years earlier by the author himself and his common-law wife Nona Tyson.
‘All that I added to their script was to make the cars new. I left the movie pretty much the way it was, figuring that a small town in Texas hasn‘t changed that much since the 505, except a lot more people have left.’
Born in Dodge City, Kansas in 1936, Hopper began his movie career as a teenager in the 50s. acting alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Everything looked promising. But while making From Hell to Texas in 1957 he had a now-legendary bust-up with veteran director Henry Hathaway, refusing to imitate Marlon Brando for his role in the film. Hathaway dubbed the young Hopper ‘uncontrollable‘, with the result that the actor didn‘t work again in
Hollywood for seven years.
In the mid 60$, Hopper was accepted back into the Hollywood fold. appearing in the John Wayne-Dean Martin western, The Sons of Katie Elder, directed, aptly enough, by Henry Hathaway. Four years later. in 1969. came his debut a director. Easy Rider. the classic movie of the 60s counter culture and one of the most successful independent pictures ever made.
He followed Easy Rider with The Last Movie, an unashamedly anarchic film that broke all Hollywood‘s traditional rules of narrative and, even worse. made fun of the movie business itself. He took the film to Europe and won the 1971 Venice Film Festival. Then he returned to America, “like a kid‘. expecting to be praised and rewarded. Instead. Universal Studios refused to distribute his movie.
‘It ended my career as a director.‘ Hopper says today.
He took off for the mountains and buried himselfin drink. drunks and selfpity: ‘a crazy. paranoid schizophrenic out of his mind.‘ But he emerged several years later to make a number of quirky and distinctive appearances in movies like Wim Wenders‘ The American Friend and Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now. He even got another stab at directing with the 1983 Out ofthe Blue. a savage and despairing movie which captured. better than any other, the hopeless anomie of American punk.
Films like Blue Velvet and Hoosiers gave him a bigger profile as an actor. while Colors, a violent movie about Los Angelesstreet gangs. which Hopper directed in 1988, increased his reputation for controversy. However. his run-ins with the movie establishment weren‘t over yet. Between making Colors and The Hot Spot. Hopper directed and starred in a bizarre thriller about a hit-man who falls in love with the young woman artist (played by Jodie Foster) whom he has been assigned to kill. Originally titled Backtrack. the film is now called Catchfire and is credited to the pseudonymous Alan Smithee, a name which has been assigned to other butchered movies disowned by their directors. Hopper explains what happened.
‘I turned over my two-hour movie to Vestron and went offto act in a movie called Flashback,‘ says Hopper. ‘I went away and finally Vestron called rue and said we‘re going to show you “our cut“.
‘What they‘d done is taken my two-hour movie and cut an hour out. Then they‘d taken a half-hour ofstuff I‘d taken out of the movie and put it back in. Now they had an hour-and-a-half movie. Then they took all my music out and threw it away. Then they changed the ending and went and re-shot the beginning. They put in great violin love themes — this is the story ofa hit-man and an artist, it certainly isn‘t a violin romance. It‘s tongue-in-cheek and it‘s funny and it has a lot ofpathos in it but it‘s not violin time.‘
All the layers of personal references and private detail that Hopper had built into the film were ‘yanked out and thrown away.‘ Though clearly angered by this debacle, which he describes as ‘unbelievable’. Hopper‘s status and state of mind these days are such that he can more easily shrug off such misfortunes.
‘At one time in my life this would have stopped my career~ like The Last Movie — and I would have gone off and hid somewhere. But his time I just went on and did another movie. went on and acted.‘
The Hot Spot opens at Glasgow and Edinburgh ()deons on Fri 7. See Film listings for details. J
The List 7 — 20 December 1990 7