Saturday, May 29, 2010


Not exactly a profundity to observe that Hollywood can do terrible things to its most favored children, but the deaths of Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper somehow bring it all into sharper relief.

Coleman's story seems almost unbearably cruel in retrospect.  Following some minor success in commercials, he was cast as Arnold Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes, and in fact his zesty, distinctive way with a one-liner was the centerpiece of the show's original ad campaign, and was single-handedly responsible for its success.  NBC promoted the hell out of him and the show, even as the network, the show's producers and pretty much everyone involved knew Coleman's secret: Due to chronic liver problems, he was destined to remain in a little boy's body.  He was ten when the show started, but playing much younger, and seventeen--seventeen!--when it ended, still playing a kid, Li'l Gary Coleman, all cute and sassy.

Once Diff'rent Strokes left the air, what were his options?  If producers didn't come calling with tailor-made vehicles--and they didn't--his ability to find work as an actor was severely limited by his very celebrity: How could he be cast as anything other than Gary Coleman?  Employment in the real world--he worked for a time as a security guard--proved just as difficult.  Wherever he went, whatever he did, everyone recognized him as Arnold Jackson, and refused to acknowledge him as a human being.

So he gave in and accepted his status as a minor celebrity, a showbiz has-been, a perpetual freak show.  Reality shows, publicity stunts, periodic arrests--sure, why not?  This was, finally, tragically, all his life had to offer, and the one-time reality of a lively little kid with extraordinary talent was lost.

With Dennis Hopper, most of the wounds were self-inflicted, but there's no question that the ego-feeding-and-destroying atmosphere of Hollywood stunted a potentially major talent.  In the 1950s, he became dangerously convinced of his own brilliance, certain he was the next James Dean.  His famously pointless clash with director Henry Hathaway on the set of the routine 1958 Western From Hell To Texas was the first sign of a talent out of control, and Hathaway led the charge to have Hopper blackballed from Hollywood.

Which was fine with Hopper; he moved to New York, studied with Lee Strasberg, dabbled in painting and photography.  In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, daughter of superagent Leland Hayward, and magically found work again.  But the roles were limited, bit parts in other people's movies--Cool Hand Luke, Hang 'Em High.  So he finally decided that, if the starring roles weren't coming, he'd make his own damn movie, and dabble in a new career as auteur.

It's impossible to take an objective look at Easy Rider these days.  No one knows--no one involved can remember--how much of its hippy-dippy dialogue was intended sincerely, how much was intended as a put-on.  While it has some effective moments, and some of it is undeniably well-directed, it plays now as a spoof of then-mod techniques, and too much of it is simply laughable.

Hopper would direct two more worthwhile films, the legendarily warped The Last Movie and Out Of The Blue, before it became obvious he had little to say as a director.  He took can't-miss material and made it flat and uninteresting in Colors and The Hot Spot, and the less said about Chasers the better.  His directing career was kind of like his work as a still photographer--he clearly wanted to be good, but he wasn't, really.

He was a good actor, though, and that's what makes his career so frustrating.  In the sixties and seventies, in what should have been the prime of his career, he let his ego run away with him, and indulged in Keith Richards-level amounts of drugs and booze.  There was almost no way any director could work with him, and sadly, very few did.

He did get some leads in the seventies, in good movies like Kid Blue and Mad Dog Morgan, and of course, his performance as a crazed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now is rightly considered the stuff of legend, although even then, it was obviously cobbled together from whatever useable, semi-coherent footage was available.

Hopper's personal behavior became worse and worse, but he finally sobered up, ready to become a working actor again.  At first, this was great news: He used his knowledge of the alcoholic's lifestyle to moving effect in Hoosiers, and used everything he'd ever been as the spectacularly depraved Frank Booth in David Lynch's iconic Blue Velvet.

I love both of those movies dearly, but they were both released in 1986, and though he would continue working right up until his dying days, they were the last things Hopper would do that were truly worthy of his talent.  And with his run of over-the-top villains in movies as varied as Speed, Waterworld and Super Mario Brothers, it seemed as though he was intentionally parodying his great work as Frank Booth, diminishing one of the best things he ever did to the point where it has become almost impossible for anyone coming to Blue Velvet for the first time to see it as anything other than another standard over-the-top Hopper character.

And that, finally, is what success did to Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper: It made them so much less than they could have been.