Book review: Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, by Peter L Winkler

DENNIS Hopper liked to put it about that he was kicked out of high school. In fact, he not only graduated but was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his classmates.

It’s this divided persona – the anti-establishment tearaway with a craving for mainstream recognition – that underpins Peter L Winkler’s big, gossipy, irreverent biography, which takes Hopper from an unremarkable all-American childhood in the Kansas dustbowl to a Hollywood career that took in every extreme of fame and obscurity, profit and loss, hedonism and self-denial.

Hopper started his big-screen career acting alongside James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. Dean – truculent, impulsive, volatile – became his idol; Hopper followed him like a sheep, unconscious of the fact that sheeplike idolatry was wholly at odds with the rebel spirit he so admired in Dean. “He’s just this guy who keeps following me around,” Dean reportedly complained to a friend on the set of Rebel Without A Cause.

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According to Winkler, Hopper never quite grasped that emulating Dean would never win him Dean’s impact or influence. He would persist throughout his working life in comparing his own artistic and professional fortunes with those of his peers – battling Peter Fonda for the authorship of their career-defining hit Easy Rider, and later bemoaning the fact that he wasn’t considered for the heavy dramatic roles granted to Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins.

Perhaps it was this insecurity regarding his own prospects that drove Hopper toward the extremes of drug and alcohol abuse that would further limit his employability. Still, his triumphs proved to be such deathless ones – Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Speed – that he’s assured a spot in the canon of iconic 20th-century actors. His charisma and good looks endured until close to the end of his life, while his stormy personal life and dramatic self-reinventions helped to sustain him as a source of public fascination.

Winkler’s book borrows the informal, rough-and-ready tone deployed by Peter Biskind, whose most famous work Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, of course, covered the period of Hopper’s greatest fame. It’s perhaps an appropriate style in which to portray a self-styled non-conformist, but it can come off as casual to the point of disrespect – to subject and reader alike.

Is it appropriate to refer to your subject as ‘D-list’? Doesn’t it drive the reader to query why he or she is bothering to read the book? Then there’s the extreme off-handedness about Hopper’s films and performances, which is such a constant that one rather wonders why Winkler was compelled to write the book at all. Serious film scholars should note that despite this book’s classy presentation, its author is far more interested in his subject’s sex and drug habits than in a study of his actual work. Far too often, Winkler backs up his own thin opinions by reference to online reviews drawn from blogs, Amazon and the IMDB. Very democratic of him, of course, but such material is devoid of professional authority and innocent of editorial rigour; by trawling the internet, you can find any opinion about anything being voiced by someone. Winkler might as well have reported things he’s heard being said about Dennis Hopper in public toilets and bus shelters.

Such sloppy research drains authority from a book that has its high points, and holds plenty of juicy anecdotes for fans of Tinseltown scandal, but falters on committed analysis and treats its subject too much like a figure of fun.