A Renaissance Man From Kansas

The first time I met Dennis Hopper was in the mid-1990s when I was seated next to him at a formal dinner at the Cannes Film Festival. He was there with his bride, Victoria Duffy, she looking ravishing in a pink taffeta Richard Tyler gown, he in a natty tuxedo. He was in Cannes for a special screening of Easy Rider, which had debuted at Cannes three decades earlier and he recalled how cool and relaxed the festival was back then; the film's star Jack Nicolson carried the reels to the screening himself, under his arms. Hopper was surprisingly cordial--a surprise given all the stories I had read about him of his drug years and his scarily convincing roles as madmen in Blue Velvet and Speed. But it was one of those official events where you make polite conversation and move on. So we did, and we did.

It was in the garden of his friend Giovanni Volpi's home in Venice in the summer of 1999 that I got the chance to enter Hopper's world, and what I quickly discovered is that it was far more cultured and creative than anyone could have imagine. Hopper was in Venice for a lousy movie, The Venice Project, that he did as a favor to a friend, and we spent the afternoon on Giudecca talking about art and photography, his two true loves. Hopper not only collected great contemporary art--he had one of the finest private collections around--he was a gifted artist and photographer himself who as a child had studied at the Kansas City Art Institute. All of his early works, as well as his first art collection, including an original Andy Warhol "Campbell Soup Can" which Hopper bought for $75, were destroyed in by the Bel Air fire in 1961. Broken-hearted, he put down his brushes for some time. His wife at the time, Brooke Hayward, gave him a camera and he started taking pictures of their movie star friends and quirky urban scenes around Los Angeles, many of which he published in 2001 in a charming and intimate photography book titled 1712 North Crescent Heights, the address where he and Hayward lived.

More importantly, Hopper turned his creativity during that period toward making movies, in particular the one that became his legacy, Easy Rider. Many film historians suggest that Easy Rider launched the Golden Era of 1970s cinema, when movies became more artistic than commercial, and certainly more soulful. Looking back, and knowing Hopper's art, I see what they mean: the French liked to think of Hopper as a cinema auteur. But I believe he was actually a cinema artiste.

I saw Hopper nearly every time he came to Paris in the last ten years. We attended an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show together, when he was photographing the collections for Vogue. We met up one afternoon in an apartment where in was staying in Marais and talked art--in particular, his favorite gallery owner in Paris, Thaddeus Ropac--and politics. Though a longtime Republican, he thought Obama would be good for the nation. He liked the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, too. Then again, he had lunched with the Sarkozys at the Elysée Palace the day before.

During another visit, over drinks at the Hôtel Bristol, he showed me the photographs he had taken around Paris that day. I remember one in particular, a striking portrait of his friend the French artist Sophie Calle standing in from of a yellow wall. It was very graphic and at the same time, very human--a delicate balance that was Hopper's signature in everything he did. How he found a yellow wall in Paris, I shall never know.

In "Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Art Capital," an exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 2006, there was series of photographs Hopper took in the 1960s of an ice house that he and several artists constructed in the late 1960s. He described it as sort of a guerilla art event: they found an empty lot, brought in huge blocks of ice and built the place. Then Hopper photographed it over several days as it melted in the southern California sun. He laughed remembering the experience, the trouble they caused, the fun of it all. Knowing Hopper's profoundly dark period that would follow in the 1970s, that scene and that laugh seemed all the more poignant.

In October, 2008, the Cinémathèque Française in Paris mounted "Dennis Hopper & le Nouvel Hollywood," an exhibition of everything Hopper: his personal art collection, which included several portraits of him by well-known contemporary artists (I loved the Julian Schnabel one made of broken plates); pictures he had painted; photographs of him on sets and in life; photographs he had taken, such as those of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and his most well-known, "Double Exposure," of two Standard gas station signs on a corner in West Hollywood, which he snapped through his car windshield in 1961; of movies he had appeared in; and clips of films he had directed. When you saw it, Hopper made sense: he was a Renaissance man from Kansas.

That evening, Hopper received the French Legion of Honor. Among the clutch of friends on hand were Giovanni Volpi, Sophie Calle, the photographer Willy Rizzo and the directors David Lynch and Wim Wenders, who had pulled from him some of his best performances. His wife, Victoria, was there, looking ravishing as always and making sure he was happy. How could he not be? He was surrounded by all that he loved, all that he was, and he was being recognized for it. "I feel like I am home," he told me, beaming. He was.