Dennis Hopper was one of a kind. He was a unique performer, writer, and director, who changed Hollywood’s working ways, becoming a legend for it. Be it as a good guy, a villain, or a man in-between with his demons, Hopper’s performances were always all-in, surprising, effective, emotional, and real, showing the inner thoughts and feelings behind all the characters he played. Here are Dennis Hopper’s best performances, ranked:
8 The Last Movie (1971)
A stuntman (Hopper) stays in Peru after shooting a movie, and becomes involved in a movie the locals are making. The Last Movie was Hopper’s second film as a director after Easy Rider, and might be too true to the name, as it ended his Hollywood career for a while. It’s a drug-induced, strange, plot-less film, and knowing Hopper’s well-known substance abuse back then, it feels like he was experiencing it in first-person.
7 Giant (1956)
“Bick” (Rock Hudson) and Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) fall in love and get married. They have a cattle ranch until it becomes an oil ranch. One of his workers, Jett (James Dean in his last role ever) falls in love with the boss’s wife, creating a confrontation that will last for decades. Giant is an epic movie expanding a couple of generations (the kind of movie nobody does anymore). Hooper plays Jordan, the son of Bick and Leslie. Hopper had met Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, and they became friends. Dean took Hopper under his wing and helped him become a better actor. Jordan is a different type of character than the ones Hopper would be known for playing, but he already holds his own against three titans like Hudson, Taylor, and Dean, and that was not a small feat, proving this actor was here to stay.
6 Hoosiers (1986)
With a new coach (Gene Hackman), the Hickory High basketball team might be able to win the championship for the first time in forever. Hoosiers is one of the best sports movies ever. One that showed why underdog stories always work in films. Hopper played Shooter, an ex-athlete and alcoholic who wants to help the team his kid is playing for. His performance is raw, probably using some of his real experiences to give the character more layers, and making him as tri-dimensional a character as they come. We can see many reactions in his eyes and posture: fear, hope, and love, when he has to coach the team for just one game. Hopper’s performance didn’t go unnoticed, as he received an Academy Award nomination (his only one as an actor) for this film.
5 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with finding and killing Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War. Along the way, he’ll find all kinds of characters who have been changed by the war, for the better and, especially, for the worse. Apocalypse Now is known for many things: being a cinematic masterpiece; the chaos of the filming, being one of Coppola’s best movies, being one of Laurence Fishburne’s first movies (he was still going by Larry), and also having spectacular performances. Sheen, Brando, Robert Duvall, Fishburne, and Hopper all do incredible work. Hopper’s character is a photojournalist and appears briefly, being a manic, crazy, unstable person; showing us how people follow Kurtz unconditionally. It might not be Hopper’s biggest role, but it’s memorable, creating an essential flavor for the melting pot that is this one-of-a-kind movie.
4 The American Friend (1977)
Based on the third book in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley adventures, The American Friend sees Ripley (Hopper) dealing with art forgeries in Germany. Wim Wenders directed this movie and took Hopper out of actor purgatory after the failed The Last Movie. The film is atmospheric and doesn’t have that much plot, but Hopper creates a unique Ripley. More silent, homicidal, and soulless than Matt Damon’s version, and more experienced, wary, and even petty, as he decides to entangle a picture framer (Bruno Ganz) with the underworld because he feels slighted and, well, because he can.
3 True Romance (1993)
Clarence (Christian Slater) is a lonely nerd who falls in love with call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette). He steals cocaine from his pimp, and they go to Hollywood to try to sell it, hoping to get enough for a life together in Mexico. True Romance was one of the scripts that made Hollywood aware of Quentin Tarantino. This incredible movie by Tony Scott has many spectacular scenes and characters. Hopper plays another small, but memorable role as Clarence’s father, especially in “The Sicilian Scene”. Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) wants information about the whereabouts of Clarence, and Hopper’s character won’t say a thing. This scene is incredible. Two heavyweight actors at the top of their game acted against each other as if it was a boxing match. About the scene, Hopper told Maxim: “The only lines Christopher Walken and I improvised in our big scene were my line “You’re part eggplant,” and his line “You’re a cantaloupe.” The rest was written by Quentin. Was I worried about the racial overtones? Not really. Because it’s factual. The Moors did invade Sicily, and they did breed. Quentin writes like people speak. He doesn’t have to be PC.”
2 Easy Rider (1969)
Two bikers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) cross America with the idea of selling cocaine in California. Along the way, they meet George (Jack Nicholson in a scene-stealing performance) and have drug-fueled conversations, adventures, and thoughts. Easy Rider is one of the best road trip movies ever and showed who Hopper really was. He co-wrote it, directed it, and starred in it, making a movie that changed Hollywood forever. It was a real independent film with rock music, sex, and drugs without moralizing, unique editing, and different performances: improvised, and erratic. Especially the one by Hopper himself, as he keeps moving between someone fun to be around and someone more paranoid, and who knows the hippie fun times are over.
The movie also told a different story from what the industry was doing back then. It was the first movie of New Hollywood, that would bring the Spielberg and Scorsese generation to the front. It also won the Cannes Best Film prize, and got Hopper a Screenwriting Oscar nomination. Easy Rider already made Hopper someone who would have a foot in the story of Hollywood, but it wasn’t his best performance ever.
1 Blue Velvet (1986)
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) comes back from college to suburbia and finds a severed ear on his lawn. With the help of his neighbor Sandy (Laura Dern), they decide to investigate and enter the horrible world of Frank Booth (Hopper), one of the worst villains shown in cinema ever. Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s best movies. Hopper’s performance as Booth contributed big time to the film’s success. His character is the Devil; a villain with a capital V, that would eat the lunch of any of the franchise-led slasher killers. Hopper plays Booth as a psychotic, murderous, frightening, unsettling, and insane character, giving his all to create one of the most memorable bad guys ever. Lynch told Rolling Stone: “Dennis said a truthful thing. He called me on the phone before and said, “I have to play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth.” So I always say, it’s good news and bad news at the same time.” It might sound a bit strange, but all the work and real-life experiences Hopper had before, which helped him get this character right, and helped him give his performance ever.