Jesse Walker: The Id and the Odyssey of Dennis Hopper

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[Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America]

For the general public, Dennis Hopper was identified to the end with the '60s counterculture, thanks to his career-making role as a hippie biker in Easy Rider. So when he died this past weekend, you're forgiven if you were surprised to read that he spent the last few decades of his life as a Republican. Unlike many famous figures who moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, Hopper never underwent a big public conversion. The man who once "was probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist" voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he didn't make a stink about it at the time; the closest he came to giving his past persona a public burial came when he disavowed the drug abuse that just about wrecked his career in the 1970s. When no less a leftist than Abbie Hoffman criticized celebrity ex-dopers for issuing atonements that "look like cartoon confessions extracted under threat," the old radical nonetheless singled out Hopper's renunciation as one of a few "sincere" repudiations "by people I know and admire." This was in 1987, seven years after the actor started quietly casting his ballots for the GOP....

In 1984, it was possible for Gene Siskel to contrast Easy Rider (which, he informed us, "trashed establishment America") with the anti-Communist thriller Red Dawn (which was "nothing less than a military manifesto for our nation's youth"), concluding that "After more than two decades of pervasive liberalism, the Hollywood film industry is suddenly producing popular pictures that can only be called conservative." As it happens, Red Dawn director John Milius is a self-described "Zen anarchist" and a product of the same New Hollywood that gave us Easy Rider, but it's easy to miss those sorts of nuances when you're looking through the distorting prism of the Culture War. In retrospect, the New Hollywood was too big to be contained by either the counterculture or the left; it included John Milius as well as Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood as well as Jack Nicholson, Hopper the budding Republican as well as Hopper the hippie. In the best movies of the period, the animating idea wasn't some clichéd battle between the hipsters and the squares. It was the concept that powered those westerns of an earlier era: the tension between the home and the road, and the happiness and horrors to be found in both.

In that tug of war, Hopper embodied the most extreme sorts of rootlessness, playing a series of unconstrained ids and the wrecked shells they left behind. Sometimes, as in Hoosiers, the Hopper character managed to climb back into the community; other times, as in Apocalypse Now, he stayed out on the edge. His great gift was to make those excesses exciting and perversely attractive, even when his characters were at their darkest and most damaged.

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