Film Review: Along for the Ride

That renaissance wild man Dennis Hopper, once chosen as one of Andy Warhol’s “Most Beautiful,” is featured in a very personal memoir.
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The Last Movie was one of the great film maudits in cinema history. Given a $1 million budget and final cut, Dennis Hopper, fresh off the monstrous success of his Easy Rider, took a crew down to Peru to lens a script by Stewart Stern about a horse-wrangling stuntman (Hopper) who, after a tragic accident on the set, decides to stay in South America, where the natives have become inspired to try their hand at filmmaking themselves, with some very wild results.

Disaster was unavoidable, for at the time Hopper was out of control on drugs and alcohol and, inspired by Jodorowsky’s cult hit El Topo, had no interest in making a more traditional-style modern western for Universal Pictures. Already extremely late in finishing the project, he trashed his more cohesive edit of the film and recut it, with decidedly far more disjointed results. Although the film, when released in 1971, won the big prize at the Venice Film Festival, it failed critically and commercially; that, coupled with Hopper’s personal problems and intransigence, led to his blacklisting by the industry. It was to be another decade before he was permitted to direct a Hollywood film again.

This legendary disaster is the centerpiece around which director Nick Ebeling has framed his portrait of Hopper, Along for the Ride. Almost as much a star of the film as Hopper is a character named Satya de la Manitou, an unregenerate ’60s hippie-biker type who was Hopper’s hanger-on and assistant for years, who serves as onscreen host here. He spills all kinds of inside info about his mythic crazy genius of a friend, along with liberal smatterings of pertinent, semi-poetic verbal flights: “If James Dean [Hopper’s lifelong idol] had the key to the door, Dennis kicked it open.”

The two met on a tequila-and-drug-fueled night in Taos, at the former gorgeous hacienda-styled home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, which Hopper had purchased as the perfect semi-remote refuge. I recall a talk show on which Hopper appeared, and it made my jaw drop to the floor with his laundry list of what a typical day in the 1960s would consist of in terms of alcoholic and other intoxicant intake, just for himself. (Whole bottles of tequila and whiskey were consumed.) I was amazed that he was still alive, and this was in the late 1970s!

This complex fellow’s addictions aside, there can be no gainsaying his impeccable aesthetic taste, as witness the utter beauty and Zen-like desert calm of the Luhan estate, his extensive art collection including early Warhols he’d picked up at the original Factory, the comprehensive and incrdibly striking photographs he took all his life, and the Frank Gehry buildings in Venice, California in which he spent his final years. Gehry, a close friend, is interviewed, and is quite moving as he recalls a final visit to his studio by an obviously dying Hopper, whose physical frailty in no way affected his artistic discernment.

Most of the other interviewees are studio honchos like Mike Medavoy and Daniel Selznick, who vividly evoke the exciting era in which Hopper bloomed, with the studios once as eager to cash in on the counterculture “youth movement” Hooper signified as they were just a few years earlier with the flop musical behemoths engendered by the triumph of The Sound of Music. It was a time of gray suits trying their damndest to hang loose with fringed vests in a town where copying is not only the highest compliment but, laughably, also dead-serious business-as-usual.

There are interesting revelations to be gleaned about films like Apocalypse Now (Brando wanted nothing to do with Hopper, even banning his presence on any set he was on). Hopper’s diabolical brilliance in Blue Velvet  is also referenced. (He came up with that antiquated-looking mic contraption through which his old pal Dean Stockwell sang.) But I wish his earlier, pre-Satya years were gone into a lot more, like his marriage to Hollywood princess and later book author Brooke Hayward, the daughter of Margaret Sullavan and super-agent Leland Hayward. 

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