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(Credit: Hartmut S. Bühler)

Film

The truth behind why Dennis Hopper never made it as a director

Dennis Hopper is an enigma, widely heralded as one of the greatest American actors of the 20th Century. He has worked with some of the most acclaimed film directors of all time and is beloved for his roles in Apocalypse NowCool Hand Luke and David Lynch’s eerie masterpiece Blue Velvet, in which he plays psycho-villain Frank Booth.

Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936 and achieved international recognition for his directorial debut, the psychedelic road movie Easy Rider, in which he co-stars alongside Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. The film scooped the ‘Best First Work’ award at the Cannes Film Festival for its portrait of 1960s counterculture and achieved legendary cinematic status.

However, it wasn’t all easy riding for Hopper as a director. Following the success of Easy Rider, Hopper made The Last Movie in 1970. Despite winning the coveted CIDALC Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival, the heads of Universal Studios were disappointed with the commercial reception of the film, having expected a blockbuster release like Easy Rider. Supposedly, the original audiences of the film found its plot confusing.

In a 2008 interview, Hopper opened up on the rift with Universal. “After Easy Rider I made The Last Movie and won the Venice Film Festival,” he said, “but Universal Pictures wouldn’t distribute my movie, and that whole fight was the reason that I didn’t direct another movie for twelve years. That is unfortunate and I never really got back to mainstream Hollywood. It was a personal thing between Lew Wasserman and me. He was the head of Universal and the most powerful man in Hollywood. I directed The Last Movie, but somehow he did not like the result.”

“They wanted me to re-edit it and I refused to re-edit it after I had won in Venice. Wasserman said, “Look, if you don’t re-edit it, I am only going to show it for two weeks in New York, two weeks in Los Angeles, 3 days in San Francisco, it will never be seen in Europe and then we are going to shut it down.” I said, “That’s ridiculous! Come on, you can’t do that to me!””

Like Easy RiderThe Last Movie starred Hopper in the leading role, this time as a horse wrangler. It follows a disillusioned stunt performer who, upon exiting the mainstream film industry, starts a filmmaking-centred cult among Peruvian natives, performing rituals that aim to bring about a more technically advanced society that can deliver cargo more efficiently.

When asked what he did in response to Wasserman’s Universal exclusion, Hopper said, “I went on all the talk shows. I went all over the world trying to get financing. I lived in Paris for two years trying to get financing. I lived in Mexico City for two years trying to get financing. I was young and thought I had power. But I had no power at all. I just had a big mouth! Henri Langlois put it well. He said, ‘When Rembrandt fucked the maid and all of his paintings were taken down, it took three hundred years to rediscover him. Dennis Hopper fucked Hollywood and we may never see his films!’”

The Last Movie was initially budgeted at $1 million and was shot in Peru. Hopper had complete creative control, although it followed the script of the film’s writer Stewart Stern rather loosely. Hopper filmed hours of footage of his friends, including Peter Fonda, who were invited to the set. Hopper’s extensive drug use contributed to an over-editing of the film in post-production and led to him missing the deadline of the film’s final cut by some six months.

On whether he would be as stubborn in 2008 as he was then, Hopper claimed, “If I won the Venice Film Festival, I think probably [would be]. But I have knowledge now. But anyway, it is an old story. Mr. Wasserman is dead and he did a lot of great things and I don’t have any grudges against these people. It is unfortunate because I was a really talented director. I was a forerunner and should have been allowed to make films.”

The film’s poor reception led to Hopper’s exile from Hollywood; he did not direct another film until 1980 with Out of the Blue. Hopper was upbeat though, and said, “My work still keeps me happy, as limited as it is at times. I have continued to work. I have done over 150 movies, most of them independent films, most of them in different countries, living in a trailer somewhere.”

The Last Movie has since been critically reappraised and has become something of a cult classic. Check out the film’s trailer below.