The recent death of actor and film director Dennis Hopper has stirred memories of the time he spent in Birmingham, writes Roger Shannon.
I was two years into working at Birmingham Film Workshop, housed at the renowned and sadly missed Birmingham Arts Lab, and was able to watch at first hand the doyen of American Independent Cinema, who along with the Hopper entourage set up camp for a week in down town Aston.
It was March 1982, when Dennis Hopper blew into town, and for all those at the Birmingham Arts Lab during that week, Hopper’s visit is etched in the memory like a crazy, unforgettable dream.
He was a guest of the Arts Lab, which was celebrating his career as an actor and director with a comprehensive retrospective of his movies complemented by an exhibition of his photography, the first occasion this had been put on in Europe.
The Arts Lab exhibited 22 of the 420 photographs by Hopper, held by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Its selection included portraits of friends from the 1960s as well as memorable pictures of civil rights marches, of movie locations and Hollywood friends.
The Birmingham photographer, Pogus Caesar, remembers discussing image-making with Hopper at the exhibition.
He said: “I was a young man interested in photography and was struck by Dennis Hopper’s images and dedication to his craft. The advice he gave me will always be remembered: ‘Don’t try to take the perfect picture, your job is to record.’”
His reputation for being difficult preceded him – the National Film Theatre in London had even cancelled an event there, as they expected him not to show up, but show up in Birmingham he did.
Peter Walsh, the Cinema Programmer at the Arts Lab and now head of cinema at the Irish Film Institute, recalls why he did so.
“Firstly, Dennis wanted to spend some time with his father, who was dying, and secondly he was impressed by the notes that Richard Combs had written to accompany the retrospective programme I’d assembled.”
The Hopper entourage included his mother and father, his partner, his PA/girlfriend, his daughter, then studying in London, and her boyfriend.
Every day they would take over several tables in the Arts Lab coffee bar, arriving in the morning with bags full of drink, and entertaining all and sundry with their genial and articulate conversation.
All the Arts Lab could afford was Dennis’s room at the Midland Hotel, and the story of how the other rooms were paid for – or not – is now lost in time.
Dennis and entourage had apparently run up a bar bill of £1,000-plus, an enormous sum for the time, and had left town, unwittingly, without settling it. The Arts Lab picked up the tab after some negotiation.
Peter Walsh recalls visiting the Midland Hotel to interview Dennis Hopper. He said: “It was 9am. I’ll never forget the image of him alone in the bar with a pint of lager, and the cleaning lady hoovering the carpet around him.
"He gave detailed responses to all my questions, including one about the editing of Easy Rider.”
Dennis Hopper’s trip to Birmingham followed a difficult time in his personal and professional life. His father’s illness was worrying him. He also felt he was more appreciated in Europe than in America, a factor which intensely irritated him, because he kept repeating: “I’m an American director!”
He appreciated the critical attention a small art house cinema in a city he had hardly heard of was paying to his body of work, both moving and still.
The retrospective of his film work concluded with a screening of his ‘lost film’ The Last Movie, Hopper’s pet project from 1971 about the impact of a Hollywood film crew on a South American village – “one long sex and drug orgy” – and a fantastic on-stage interview, when he outlined his career, and commented on the acting advice James Dean had given him – “Do it, don’t show it”.
Rebel Without a Cause was Hopper’s first film; Hopper and Dean identified themselves as the spirit of rebellion in the footsteps of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
On stage he was passionate about his work, and much more intelligent and articulate than his reputation might suggest. He was also candid about his travails with Hollywood and the studios, especially Universal Pictures, who financed The Last Movie after the staggering box office success of Easy Rider.
Of the studio’s burial of his “lost film”, Hopper attributed their reaction to his own misunderstanding of Hollywood in the early 1970s. “I thought they wanted a different kind of movie,” he said.
In total, Dennis Hopper was in 100 “different kinds of movies” in a career that spanned five decades – films like Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Colors, Speed and many more.
His week in Birmingham in 1982, when his film and photographic work was given due attention and appraisal, was followed by some time in southern France, and then in the mid-1980s his star was again on the rise with his career signature performance in 1986 as the rapist and sadist in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
But it was a week well spent in Birmingham at the Arts Lab – for me and for Dennis Hopper – and the memories are all good and full of fondness for one of Hollywood’s modern outlaws.
Roger Shannon is an independent producer and film professor