House of the Dennis Hoppers
— by Terry Southern —
Introduction by Nile Southern
When Terry first met Dennis, in the mid-’60s, he was playing in television shows like Wagon Train and Gunsmoke--a far cry from the gifted role he had playing against Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. But Dennis, a studio contract player, had considered himself primarily a photographer and art collector--unsure if and when any break would come his way again. (Ironically, his big break came with Terry’s involvement in Easy Rider). Obviously one of the “mad ones”, Hopper impressed Terry, and vice-versa. They remained friends throughout the ‘80s (see a transcsript of them arguing with Burroughs about Cocteau), despite the fact that Terry was never remunerated as he was originally promised for his work on Easy Rider. Never one to hold a grudge, Terry continued developing projects with Hopper (Junkie, for instance), though he spoke out against him and Peter Fonda when they tried to get Terry to completely sell-out his interest (which they did) in 1992—so a remake could be made. Terry never recinded his contractual interest--and hoped either Fonda or Hopper would ‘do the right thing’ in the end—but they never did, and Terry died in 1995. The photographs accompanying this generous portrait of Hopper revealed Hopper’s beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright home, and his renown collection of artwork (even then). Terry’s captions included the following:
Up in the Hollywood Hills, above the Sunset Strip, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Hopper (portraits, above left) have a house of such gaiety and wit that it seems the result of some marvelous scavenger hunt, full of improvised treasures, the bizarre and the beautiful and the banal in wild juxtaposition, everything the most of its kind. Left, Mrs. Hopper, who is the actress Brooke Hayward, poses in a red leather chair for Robert Walker, junior. The pillow reads “Long May It Wave.”
On the wall, a Lichtenstein “mad scientist” canvas. Above right, a French pitcher, Mexican paper flowers spilling from metal bowls, an art nouveau panel. Below, the view from the kitchen window of a 750-pound fibre glass sedan, part of a billboard retrieved from a junkyard, the effect reminiscent of a line from Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian—“There’s power to spare under this baby’s forty-foot hood.” The throne chair in the corner was a studio prop. Opposite page, below, on the dining room walls, a 1907 Budweiser girl and a Chéret poster. In the hall, one of several streetlights in the house. On the living room wall: a Marcel Duchamp found object; above it, the Mona Lisa in duplicate by Andy Warhol.]
Everywhere in the Hopper house the point is to amuse, to delight. Dominating one room, an Edward Ruscha painting of a Standard station, all line and energy. To the left, a streetlight; to the right, a Tiffany poppy light and a Bruce Conner drawing. Not showing: a shiny white-enamel and black-leather barber chair. Opposite page, below, Brooke Hopper with her children outside the house, which is itself a kind of jungle gym of the imagination, a house which seems always subtly to compliment its guests. “Look,” it seems always to say, “what we have found now to divert you.”
|— Terry Southern writing in VOGUE magazine, 1965|
I remember several years back my first meeting with Hopper—at the outlandish East Fifth Street pad of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky—during what must have been one of the first “happenings” ever to occur in New York City. Orlovsky was playing on some sort of strange Eastern timpani, and chanting sotto voce: “Blood in the milk, blood in the milk, blood in the milk…” while Allen, dipping a rolled copy of The New York Times Book Review into a large can of honey, inscribed hauntingly cryptic word-images across the far wall. In one corner a movie projector was rattling away, showing Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or, in reverse, but was focused through an open door, so that nothing could be seen except when someone happened to pass through the stream of shuttering light. In the centre of the room an electric fan was lying on its back, blades up, whirling violently—and crouched beside it was a marvelous stark naked Negro girl of about twenty, holding a huge paper sack from which she took handfuls of what was apparently a mixture of rose petals and dog hair and dropped them into the fan, so that the room was like a kind of silent snow storm, all slow motion, the people moving about as in the softest dream. It was pretty weird, now that I think about it. And Hopper—who even then was probably one of the most talented actors alive—became quite excited by the spectacle and eager to take a part, gliding around in a Marcel Marceau manner, grimacing oddly and, at the same time, attempting to take photographs with a 135 mm. Nikon.
“No point to photos,” shouted Orlovsky, “unless there is treacle on your lens!”
“My lens is fast,” said Hopper calmly, “and my eye is keen.”
In any event, it was absurd to try and shoot in that shadowed room, split only by a shaft of light that rattled and glittered like a mad king’s sword. In retrospect, however, it seems appropriate to have met Hopper under such circumstances, if only because things have gotten progressively weirder for him.
Bred despite the wild sterility of Dodge City, he is now morassed in a creativeness that is almost as hopelessly complete as that which spread and drowned the great Cocteau. “Hopper, take care!” I charged him when last we met, on the eve of his madcap jaunt to photograph the Selma march, “you are spreading yourself thin—in this case, perhaps down to the proverbial mincemeat!” and then he threw a quick masculine look for support to Brook Beauty—who responded only by shyly lowering her great doe eyes, sensual lips pursed into the sort of Mona Lisa smile which seemed to say: “Don’t you know you are both mad as hatters?”
Speaking of Brooke now, it should be of interest to girl and lady readers to know that here at last (Hats Off!) is a woman who has given her “All for her Man!” Of grooviest lineage (out of Margaret Sullavan by Leland Hayward) and talk about your running starts: Life cover girl at fifteen and Vogue cover girl (at twenty-two) on her virgin show as a fashion model.
“What the hell happened,” I inquired, “to your career?”
“Gosh,” she replied sweetly, “here it comes now!”—as Marin, three, Willie, seven, and Jeffrey, eight, sashayed through the room, like a cute tidal wave, upsetting a seventeen-hundred dollar Kienholz and knocking its integrals slightly askew. “Oh God,” she murmured, and moved (with winning grace) to set it right.
Hopper, staring at the fallen piece with intense scrutiny, “let’s
try it like that for a few days. It just might work.”
“Where did you meet this Hopper?” I asked her quietly. “We met in Mandingo,” she answered, allowing her left Capezio to dangle from a nicely arched foot.
“Mandingo? An exotic enough flavour, Brooke, but where the devil is it? You’ve got to realize that my readership demands facts, facts, facts… oh, I see, you mean in Mandingo?”
“Yes, in the play Mandingo. Dennis was the lead, and I was his wife.”
“So we decided to really do it,” said Dennis, chuckling madly (actually it was more of a “mock snicker” than a mad chuckle) while he attached a huge 250 mm. lens to his camera.
“Well, we had to,”
added Brooke with a twinkle, “if we were going to do it at all—I
mean the play closed after two performances.”
Hopper is “on to something” all right. He has accumulated a priceless collection of contemporary art. Works of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, Rosenquist, Oliviera, Altoon, Oldenburg, Milton Avery, Wesselmann, Raysse, Larry Poons—all acquired well before their prominence—form the nucleus of what must be one of the best private collections in the country.
I asked Frank O’Hara, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art, what he thought of Hopper’s collection. “Excellent,” he said, “but that’s not surprising because so is his own work,” referring to the myriad collages, assemblages, and photo-abstractions done by the collector himself—the bulk of which, as it turns out, was destroyed in the big Bel Air fire of 1961, along with some six hundred manuscript pages of poetry.
“Since that moment,” said Hopper (somewhat wistfully), I haven’t written a word.”
“As the fire came up the canyon,” said Brooke (somewhat fretfully), “the man across the street watched it with binoculars, then he started loading a station wagon. Dennis was asleep, so I woke him up. ‘Ask him to wake us when he gets ready to leave,’ he said, ‘tell him on no account to leave without waking us.’ And he went back to sleep. We lost everything—a huge lovely house, paintings, all my clothes… well, just everything.”
“Speaking of careers, Hopper,” I said directly, “tell me a little about your own—acting-wise, that is. Let’s just take it from the top, Den.”
“I opened at the old Globe Theatre in San Diego,” he said, turning his 200mm. lens on me, squinting and squirming for focus, “when I was thirteen, as the urchin in Dicken’s Christmas Carol. From then on it began to build… to its present colossal status. Har-har.”
Hopper, in his own odd (God bless him) way is forever prone to belittle his actual status—equally as an actor, photographer, and as a full-on artist. Complimented on a photograph, for example, he is most apt to shrug and say, “Well, man, that’s what was happening.”
I asked him how it was that he got interested in Actors Studio.
“Well, I stayed in repertory at the Globe until I was eighteen. Then I saw what Clift and Brando were doing, and I knew that was the only way to go. So I went to New York and spent the next four years, off and on, with Strasberg.
“And how did you get your first work in films?” I wanted to know.
“As an epileptic,” he said, and ran through a few spasms adroitly, “— it was for a TV program called Medic. They said my seizures were the best they’d seen, indistinguishable from the real thing. The next day, I got contract offers from five major studios. I took one from Warners so I could be in Rebel Without a Cause. And that’s where I met Dean.”
Hopper’s seriousness usually tends to be somewhat manic, but when he speaks of James Dean he always does so with a soft reverence.
“He was the great one,” he continued, “he never went to Actors Studio, but he had more natural talent than all the others. And he was a great teacher. He taught me the trick about the ‘Imaginary Line.’ If you go to a movie set you’ll notice that the people who are sitting around off camera—the technicians and the visitors and so on—are behaving in one way, and the people who are on camera, that is to say, the ‘actors,’ are behaving in another. In other words, one is natural and the other is false. Dean knew how to observe what was going on immediately off camera, and how to bring that same tone of reality onto the set itself. And that’s what’s meant by ‘great acting’—because then it isn’t acting at all.
The few films Hopper has appeared in have been very interesting ones indeed—Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Night Tide—and his performance has always been highly praised.
“But why this paucity of output?” I asked him.
“Blacklist,” he replied. “I was blacklisted for having supertalent—like the time Charlie Parker was kicked out of Howard McGhee’s band.”
“My readership, sir,” I had to remind him, “would like the facts.”
“Very well,” said Hopper, “these are the facts. I was working with a director who did not understand what was happening. He didn’t understand the motivations of the character, nor the obligations of the scene. I was forced to ignore him.”
“Forced to ignore the director? (pause) I see. And how did that work out?”
“We did seventy-eight takes. It became a kind of insane obsession with both of us to see who would be the first to crack. He insisted on reshooting the scene, and I insisted on doing it my way. So we shot it seventy-eight times. They say it’s a record for retakes. Anyway I was the first to crack—I finally just walked away. That was eight years ago, and I hadn’t worked since… not until recently, when the same director—Henry Hathaway—hired me again, for a part in The Sons of Katie Elder. ‘You’re a spunky kid,’ he said (pause, chuckle) and this time we got along fine—in fact, it was groovy.”
The exterior of the Hopper house presents a deceptively conventional beauty. A sort of California-Spanish structure on a neatly landscaped rise of ground. Inside, however, it is at once a harmonious nightmare of Gothic surrealism. To begin at the darkened foyer—a splintered-mirror ball revolves on the ceiling, bouncing lights like a magic prism. This room, which measures only about six by six, also contains a life-size girl from a circus poster and a small Hammond organ, so that the effect is like that of passing through a miniature ballroom. And then, into the fun house proper!—which, I daresay, photographs can describe better than words.
Hopper’s aesthetics are extremely complex—he revels in seeing an absurd, sometimes grotesque, beauty in objects which are generally least suspect of it. To walk down a city street with him is like being attached to a moving adrenaline pump. The sight of a new-style parking meter will elicit a super enthusiastic “Wow, dig that! It’s fantastic!” And, proper conditions prevailing, he will steal it.
I always tried to control him. “For chrissake, Hopper, you’re outta your mind. I mean, that kind of ‘new-born babe impressionism’ was old hat in the Village ten years ago!”
“Yeah, man,” he would say (pointing wildly), “but dig!” And finally I began to believe him—not for me, of course, but for him—and then I could only nod and say: “Yeah, go, Dennis, go!”
And he did. And as far as I know he’s still going—very strong indeed.
— Vogue, August 1965