I’d been planning a Dennis Hopper “Best of” film memoriam ever since I heard he was sick but unfortunately this post is happening much later then I would of liked. This list being my personal picks of Dennis Hopper’s best roles. Naturally I can only see so much in so little time but I think I hit on most of the ones worth mentioning. Something I want to establish is that this order is based off of his best performances not best movies.
10. Land of the Dead (2005)
as Paul Kaufman
It came down to this and Red Rock West for the ten spot but I had to go with Land of the Dead just for the little quirks that make up Hopper’s performance as the tyrannous Paul Kaufman. Playing the snooty mayor of an upscale city during a zombie apocalypse, Hopper chews the scenery as an uptight douche that you love to hate. What’s really great about Hopper’s performance is the subtle mannerisms, like one particular scene where he’s picking his nose. It’s as if they’re letting him do whatever he wants and in Hopper’s case that only can mean a more entertaining performance.
9. Apocalypse Now (1979)
as The Photojournalist
Hopper is just one of many in this epic but it’s a crucial role nonetheless. Inspired by the disappearance of Vietnam photographer Sean Flynn (son of actor Errol Flynn) Hopper’s character is sort of a “what could of happened to Sean Flynn.” Which in this case means he’s a crazed photojournalist living in the jungle and worshipping the god like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). It’s an exhilarating part of the film and Hopper brings a fair share of energy and intensity to the role.
8. Speed (1994)
as Howard Payne
Speed is by no means a great movie. It’s a typical action flick with some great stunts and most importantly “explosions” but what sets this apart from most action flicks (aside from the explosions) is that it actually has a good villain. A lone nut bomber with a fiery temper played to a tee by everyone’s favorite rebel. There’s something about Hopper that stays burned in your mind, it’s a certain intensity and there isn’t a slow moment when he’s onscreen.
7. Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
as Daniel Morgan
Known by few was a little sub genre in the 70s known as “Ozploitation” which basically translates to “really violent Australian movies”. This Aussie western tells the true story (though I’m sure much has been changed) of Daniel Morgan an Irish outlaw who went on a violent spree in the Australian outback in the 1860s. It’s a manic performance from Hopper that lands this role a spot on this list. Going in and out of a strange supposedly Irish accent, Hopper grabs your attention with a character that perfectly suits the real life eccentricities of the man. You’ll be hard pressed to find a decent copy but it’s an intriguing curiosity.
6. The American Friend (1977)
as Tom Ripley
Hopper plays a displaced cowboy named Ripley in this German neo-noir film directed by Wim Wenders. Befriending a German frame maker with a terminal blood disease named Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), Ripley turns him on to becoming a hit man to try and make some money to support his family. It’s another shady character for Hopper, who’s part doesn’t really expand until the last half, but it’s as the film goes on that we see there’s more to him. That he really does want to help his friend and from then on it becomes sort of a buddy picture. It’s a solid performance and really interesting film worth checking out.
5. Out of the Blue (1980)
as Don Barnes
A quiet and surprisingly dark indie film, Out of the Blue was Hopper’s return to directing after the ill-fated film The Last Movie nine years earlier. An underrated drama, Hopper plays the ex-convict father of a rebellious punk/Elvis loving teen named Cebe. A coming of age story, Hopper plays a character that although loves his daughter can’t even begin to contain his own personal demons. It may sound just like another Dennis Hopper “loose cannon” role but it’s more subdued than you’d expect and surprisingly emotional.
4. True Romance (1993)
as Clifford Worley
Fairly high considering the few scenes Hopper has, but they’re easily the best scenes in the movie. Hopper plays Clifford Worley an ex-cop of the film’s protagonist who just wants the best for his son. It’s probably one of the few good natured character’s Hopper has played and he easily steals the show. His scene between a drug lord (Christopher Walken) on the topic of “the origin of Sicilians” is hilarious and thrilling at the same time and it’s one of Hopper’s best scenes… Ever.
3. Easy Rider (1969)
There’s few movies you can say “defined a generation” but this was one of those few. A film that embodied the free spirit, rebellious mentality of the time and Dennis was a big part of that. Taking on dual roles as director/co-writer/co-star to Peter Fonda Easy Rider would help pave the way for the up and coming filmmakers of “New Hollywood”. Here Hopper plays the more or less carefree Billy a rebellious biker and companion to Wyatt (Peter Fonda). Really it’s a buddy picture with seemingly simple characters but they do have a kind of depth under the surface and are nothing short of iconic characters.
2. Hoosiers (1986)
So many of these roles seem to be tied together by the same characteristics. Words like “eccentric” and “manic” and “pissed” but it’s in Hopper’s only Oscar nominated role that he shows he’s more than just a badass. Easily his most sensitive and sympathetic role is that of alcoholic father Shooter. It’s one of those roles that just breaks your heart and is just one of the many reasons why I consider Hoosiers perhaps the best (or at least my favorite) movie about sports. Check it out if you want to see a side of Hopper you may not of known existed.
1. Blue Velvet (1986)
as Frank Booth
WIth his two biggest roles released in the same year, there was much debate that Hopper’s nomination for “Best Supporting Actor” was really for Blue Velvet but that it was two controversial of a role. Anyhow Blue Velvet is a Neo-Noir classic with much to praise, including one of the greatest film villains of the 80s. Frank Booth is one sadistic s.o.b. sucking down Nitrous Oxide and taking part in various acts of sadomasochism. He’s dark and disturbed character that can easily thrill any viewer. It’s easily the best developed character Dennis Hopper ever played and should live on as his most impressive role.
So there you have it a long career filled with plenty of hit or miss roles but most importantly it’s what he contributed to film as an energetic performer and a skilled director.
River’s Edge (1986)
Red Rock West (1993)
Rumble Fish (1983)