How Dennis Hopper's 'Last Movie' Got Him Kicked Out Of Hollywood
Actor and director Dennis Hopper and cameraman Laslo Kovacs prepare to shoot a scene from his movie 'Easy Rider' in 1969 in Taos, New Mexico. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
You've seen Dennis Hopper's 1969 film Easy Rider -- have you ever seen his follow-up, The Last Movie?
After more than a decade spent scraping the bottom of the barrel in Hollywood, Dennis Hopper hit pay dirt with Easy Rider. Considered to be the first real counterculture film to crossover to the masses, the art house biker movie made $60 million at the box office on a half a million dollar budget in 1969. The film effectively ended the studio system and made Hopper Hollywood’s golden boy overnight.
With two Academy Award nominations, Easy Rider made Hopper look like a cinema sage in the eyes of producers looking for the next big thing. Universal wanted to capitalize on the success of Easy Rider, so they gave Hopper free reign with his next film, The Last Movie. The unrestrained freedom that Hopper had with this film gave the writer, director, and star an excuse to lean into the chemical and artistic excesses that would end up getting him kicked out of Hollywood for nearly a decade.
"The Last Movie" is a movie about movies
Hopper reportedly came up with the idea for The Last Movie in 1965 while smoking pot at the wrap party for a western in which he played a minor part. He was curious about what happened to the towns that played host to film sets after the carnival moved on. He envisioned a film wrapping in Chinchero, Peru and the locals taking up after the crew as a kind of retelling of the film.
With The Last Movie, Hopper wanted to ruminate on the process of Hollywood filmmaking and its effects on the people outside of the business. The film was given a budget of around a million dollars, and Hopper only took $500 a week with a promise of 50% of the profits. To Universal, this must have seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity.
Reporters followed Hopper’s every move on set
It’s likely that if Hopper had been left to his own devices in Peru that The Last Movie would have just been a passion project that bombed and that’s that. However, with journalists from the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Life following along it was impossible for his drug use to go undocumented. Depending which member of the cast or crew are describing the shoot Hopper was either the best boss ever or a complete lunatic, although Brad Darrach of Life illustrates a day on the set of The Last Movie better than anyone:
Somebody made a cocaine connection and a number of actors laid in a large supply at bargain basement prices… By 10 p.m., almost 30 members of the company were sniffing coke or had turned on with grass, acid, or speed. By midnight, much of the cast had drifted off to bed by twos and threes. At 2 a.m., I was wakened by screams. A young actress had taken LSD and was ‘having a bummer.’
As wild as that sounds, it still wasn’t enough for Universal to tighten their leash on Hopper. For all they knew this is exactly what happened on Easy Rider and that turned out great. Little did they know that this was the symptom of a much larger problem.
Editing on “The Last Movie” took an entire year
After a shoot fueled by pot, LSD, and speed, The Last Movie moved from Peru to Taos, New Mexico where Hopper had just purchased a sprawling estate. He began editing the 40 hours of footage into a two-hour movie. Hopper wasn’t living alone in his estate; in order to get the film finished on time, he moved in two editors and a group of friends who helped him keep the party going at all hours.
Hopper was known to walk through the home smoking pot and carrying a gun, a sight that couldn’t have been comforting. Once he was even discovered sitting naked in the editing room and watching the raw footage. The entire editing process took a full year and multiple editors before it was finished.
Hopper was married and divorced in the middle of editing “The Last Movie”
Love was in the air in New Mexico -- or something like love, at least. In the midst of editing his masterpiece, Hopper married Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas, a co-star from the film. Five months into the edit of the film and the two were married on October 31, 1970, the perfect date for a nightmare of a marriage.
The two were only together for eight days, but in that time multiple people caught on fire at their wedding, Hopper physically assaulted Phillips, and he handcuffed her to a bed to make sure she couldn’t escape. When she got away from Hopper he chased her to the airport where he drove onto the runway in a psychotic attempt to stop her plane. The two were separated immediately afterward.
Hopper lost his mind editing the film
As producers and friends visited Hopper in Taos while he was editing the film, they noticed that the actor was falling apart. He wasn’t just doing a lot of drugs anymore, now he was constantly high, aggressive, and firing weapons in the middle of conversations to make a point. One friend noted that Hopper was living the life of his character from Easy Rider, albeit with an AK-47. His friend and fellow actor Dean Stockwell told Esquire:
Dennis was very fond of guns at the time. Once in a while he’d go up on the roof and fire off a couple of rounds into the sky… I remember two or three times, inside the house, he’d take a revolver and shoot it at the ceiling.
Universal didn’t want to release the film
While Hopper spent a year hiding away in Taos and editing his film in secret, executives at Universal were growing antsy about their investment. When he finally showed them the two hour cut of the film they couldn’t believe what they watched. The film is a mess, more art film than crowd pleaser, and that’s not what Universal was looking for at the moment.
The distribution company was contractually obligated to release the film, so they dumped it at the RKO Theater that September where it played for two weeks and then disappeared for good. Hopper had so alienated himself from Universal and anyone who could help him, his film wasn’t marketed and there were no Oscar campaigns.
By the early ‘80s Hopper’s drug intake was out of control
The Last Movie effectively ended Hopper’s Hollywood career for nearly a decade, although he never stopped working. He appeared in a handful of low budget and European films before he was cast as a cagey photojournalist in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Even though he drew praise for his small role in the film Hopper was still out of his gourd on drugs at the time.
In the book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, it’s claimed that by 1982, while Hopper was filming Human Highway, that he was using three grams of cocaine a day, drinking 30 beers, and smoking plenty of weed in order to keep himself going.
Hopper turned his life around in time to star in “Blue Velvet”
The center couldn’t hold on to Hopper’s hard-partying lifestyle and after convincing himself that he was being followed by the mob he disappeared into the Mexican jungle, triggering a mental breakdown. After he returned to the states Hopper cleaned up and got his life on track with a series of critically acclaimed performances in Rumble Fish (1983) The Osterman Weekend (1983), and David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986).
With his career back on track, he continued acting throughout the ‘90s and he even revitalized his love for photography with shows at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and MAK Vienna in 2001.
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