I was saddened to read of Dennis Hopper's passing today.
A good deal has already been written about Hopper--and I'm sure there will be more to come in the next few days and weeks. What I will remember about his great performances--in Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Red Rock West, True Romance, and Blue Velvet par excellence--is the daring, intelligence, commitment, and mother wit he brought to even the wackiest, most-low-down, most repellant characters.
Hopper was one of the few actors who could truly surprise you with the complexity of his performances. At his best, he could take your breath away, like downing a double shot of Scotch in a single chug. Frank Booth--his greatest creation, probably--isn't just awful (although he is just awful); he's wickedly, shrewdly, brutally funny and oddly and savagely smart about other people, in spite of the fact that he has absolutely no use for other people save for what he can compel them to do to quell his fears and satisfy his needs. ( Of course, Frank is, at the same time, cruelly stupid about other people--the way bullies who think they know it all and can control it all usually are. But Hopper manages to show us this, too, as well as Booth's deep psychopathic scariness.) It is a rare actor who can bring such curious, complex humanity to so jet-black a villain without sentimentalizing his core villainy (or obscuring his symbolic role as an embodiment, in this psychological allegory, of the impulses of the id).
Hopper may not have been a particularly nice man for much of his life, although he is said to have changed dramatically in middle age. And he may not have had the range of some of our greatest actors, although the people he played were, outside of being consistently outre, varied, colorful, and almost always fascinating. What the man did have was a talent and a life history that gave him a rare insight into dark corners and that made him one of the best character actors of his generation. He will be missed, and he will be remembered.