Dennis Hopper’s American Dreams

American actor and film director Dennis Hopper was born in Kansas in 1936, but in our journey across America, I ended up finding him in California. 

Hopper died in 2010 and is buried at a most unusual cemetery in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. A blend of Native American, Mexican, and Catholic dispositions, the Jesus Nazareno cemetery seems the most appropriate resting place for this wild American spirit who went from drugs and alcohol to total sobriety. 

It was when we were walking the streets of La Jolla, California, however,  that I had my Hopper encounter. Warwick’s, a beautifully appointed bookstore, has been in existence since 1867 and is still family owned and operated. Their own story is quite American, originating in Iowa, passing through Montana, and finding its current  location in La Jolla. 

As we entered, I said to my husband, “I wonder if I will be able to find a book of Dennis Hopper’s photographs here.” It was a statement of pre-existing resignation. It’s been difficult to find any of Hopper’s photographs and they are mostly distributed by European publishers. Much like jazz, Hopper’s art is more appreciated in Europe today than in America.

Art books lined the shelves and my eyes scanned to see if there was anything even remotely resembling Hopper’s photography. And then it appeared: a hard cover book with a photo of a woman on the cover, eyes closed, lost in a trance or a dream. Across her face, letters appeared: In Dreams, Dennis Hopper. It was a beautiful moment, you might as well cue the lights and expect the angelic choir sounds to bathe the book in all its fullness. 

I clutched  the book tightly like a kid who had just found the best toy in the world and would not let it go until we were ready to leave the bookstore. I was ecstatic, and couldn’t wait to sit down and experience the photographs.

I’ve always loved Dennis Hopper and found him to be a kindred spirit. He embodies American consciousness without a shred of sentimentality. We see in him a mixture of rebelliousness, sorrow, loss, and even grace. But more than anything, we see American restlessness. Although he is most known for his films, both as a director and actor, Hopper’s talent was also visible in his photography. After his career had a bit of a downturn in the 1960s, Hopper’s then-wife, Brooke Hayward, gave him a Nikon camera for his 25th birthday. 

Hopper’s photography oeuvre covers only the years 1961-1967, which is short chronologically speaking, but the creations that came out of restlessness transcend time. Hopper himself didn’t want to have anything to do with the pictures and put them away in a vault. “I was trying to forget . . .,” he said, “the photographs represented failure to me. A painful parting from [daughter] Marin and Brooke, my art collection, the house that I lived in and the life that I had known for those eight years.” Still, the photographs continue to live as artifacts of America’s past, separated from Hopper, the man, but bound to Hopper, the artist. His own view of their existence and status as photographs is almost irrelevant because of our gaze into the world he has recorded.

Hopper’s photographs, particularly in this collection, In Dreams, are a window into the soul of America during the 1960s. We see street scenes of Los Angeles: people frozen in time, sitting, standing up, looking into the distance of their own lives, or just staring at the passing dog. We see a close up of hands writing; jazz musicians in a smokey club; streets in rearview mirrors offering both a reality and an illusion of our strange world; George Segal and Sandy Dennis in 1965, a year before the release of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” standing among the broken nude statues, embodying innocence not unlike their characters, Nick and Honey, in Nichols’ film.

We see Brooke Hayward in a grocery store, pushing a cart somewhat sadly, lost in her secret thoughts; a couple in a kissing booth; a girl in a rearview mirror driving to God knows where (a job? Seeing a friend? Or is she running away?); a cocktail party where a kiss between a man and woman appears seemingly from nowhere (Are they strangers? Friends? Lovers?). 

We see the filming of Henry Hathaway’s 1965 western, “The Sons of Katie Elder.” Hopper does not discriminate and sees everyone as a human being, not in their respective societal or film roles. Hathaway and John Wayne are in the middle of a scene with Wayne pointing at something out of frame. There is a calmness, steadiness, and stability, but also the bubbling of creativity. I am drawn to these images precisely because they point to a time and a place when even the possibility of steadiness and masculinity was present in the culture. Things are getting done and life keeps moving forward. 

In the collection, there are even self-portraits, in which we see Hopper’s need to be seen, a rebellious streak, and over the top self-importance. But there is also a certain sensitivity that only comes from someone who has the soul of an artist. They are the most dreamy of all. Is this how Hopper saw himself at the time? He is hovering like a ghost of America past and present. 

On one occasion, Hopper’s daughter Marin, reflected: “My father, Dennis Hopper, believed that being on the road in search of something was very American. You had to keep moving forward no matter what. Ride into town, gunfight at high noon, then off into the sunset.” Hopper represented—and even in his death, represents—not simply the one American dream, whatever it may have been or whatever shred of it is present now. Rather, he represents American dreams—lives lived on the photographic paper, on the celluloid, and in the American desert of desires. 

About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: COR MULDER/AFP via Getty Images

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