laughing at the darkness


Hopper carried a unique wound from childhood. At age 6, early in World War II, he was told that his father had been killed: This was a deliberate lie for security purposes (his dad was an agent in the OSS, forerunner of the CIA); only his mother knew the truth. The agony of that loss, followed by the trauma of discovering the lie, left him with a lifelong mistrust of both women, and male authority. Small wonder Dean’s passion for honesty mattered so much to him. Small wonder that after his friend’s sudden death, Hopper fought director Henry Hathaway on From Hell to Texas (1958), running up a legendary 87 takes of a simple bit on the last day of principal photography and derailing what had been a highly promising mainstream acting career. Small wonder that when he came back in triumph with Easy Rider in 1969, he burnt this success to the ground with his next directorial effort, The Last Movie (1971). As if having crushed every other authority he could rebel against, he rebelled against himself — embracing exile once again on the margins of the mainstream, where the pressures were entirely internal. Finally — considering how these agonies had piled onto one another by the time he was pushing 50 — it is no wonder that his most symphonic on-screen performance should be as Frank Booth, the baby-talking, stimulants-happy killer and misogynist at the dark heart of Blue Velvet (1986). Hopper’s greatness in this role is that he enacts every terrible impulse in a man — from murder to sexual assault, from fascist crocodile tears to infantile self-pity — and owns these repugnant furies from the inside, with the naked honesty of an artist who is actually free of them for the first time. The film itself marked his survival, and the definitive rebirth of Hopper’s career.

more from F.x. Feeney at the LA Weekly here.