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Hopper's Odyssey--From Hell to Texas : Dennis Hopper has experienced acting success, druggy exile, psychiatric wards and now he's directing 'Hot Spot'

November 05, 1989|DONNA ROSENTHAL

MULDOON, Tex. — A fake sawmill is perched in the middle of a cow pasture in the middle of Texas in the middle of the night. Lights bounce off the foggy blackness, the eerie glow attracting a few curious locals who wonder if it's a football game or a UFO landing.

Bright camera lights and a machine-made fog envelop Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen embracing on a mountain of cedar chips. As the cameras reset-up for new angles on the erotica, Dennis Hopper leaves his director's chair to ponder the scene and guzzle Diet Coke.

The sexual chemistry in this scene isn't steamy enough for Hopper. There are no sexual inhibitions allowed in "Hot Spot," his film noir with wall-to-wall sex. A crew member jokes: "Maybe a few joints would loosen things up." Hopper laughs and looks mischievously at Johnson, who munches a Butterfinger candy bar. This set, with a few famous reformed substance abusers, is apparently squeaky clean.

This is the final week shooting "Hot Spot," an erotic fantasy of greed and suspense. Johnson plays a sexually-obsessed, amoral car salesman caught in a love triangle between his boss' wife, a scheming seductress played by Madsen, and a virginal accountant played by Jennifer Connelly. After 10 weeks of scorching days and some all-night shoots, Hopper will soon wrap it up under the about $10-million budget and ahead of schedule.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
First at Venice--Director Dennis Hopper was quoted in a Nov. 5 article as saying that his 1971 "The Last Movie" made him the first American to win the Venice Film Festival. In fact, John Cassavetes was the first American to win at Venice, and he did it twice before Hopper showed up--for "Shadows" in 1960 and "Faces" in 1968.

Hopper has been racing a ticking clock--Johnson is due to jet off to Atlantic City to pilot his super-slick speedboat in a race sponsored by Donald Trump. There have also been a few off-camera dramas.

Filming was suspended when Johnson's helicopter whisked him off the set to help wife Melanie Griffith deliver a daughter in Austin, 52 miles northwest of Muldoon. After cutting the umbilical cord, Johnson returned 4 1/2 hours later to pass out Don Diego cigars and finish a love scene. Then, in the screening room, producer Paul Lewis and his fiancee got married before cast and crew. When ceremonies were over, the best man--Hopper--rushed everyone out to get the cameras rolling.

It's not been an easy ride to the director's chair. During Hopper's 33-year career, he has traveled from triumph to druggy exile to psychiatric wards and back. Now, at 53, and sober since 1984, Hopper is no longer blackballed; he's bankable as one of Hollywood's busiest actors. "I once thought I'd be dead by 30," Hopper says. "I don't feel like I've left a body of work yet. Now I'm making up for lost years."

With 13 films in five years, the reformed rebel is busy catching up. He's exhibited acting prowess as the sadistic drug-crazed psychopathic sadist in "Blue Velvet"; the bleary-eyed boozer in "Hoosiers"; and the wacked-out biker in "River's Edge"--roles Hopper says he's "rehearsed for years." Upcoming are "Chattahoochie" (set in a mental institution), "Backtrack" with Jodie Foster, and "Flashback," with Hopper playing a '60s radical.

When Sean Penn handed Hopper the script for "Colors," the aging Bad Boy returned to the director's chair for the first time in 15 years. After that 1988 box-office hit, Orion asked him to direct "Hot Spot," based on the 1951 novel "Hell Hath No Fury," by the late Charles Williams. It's the second film Hopper has directed in which he hasn't starred.

When Hopper showed the script to producer Paul Lewis, with whom he's worked since the 1969 "Easy Rider," they discovered it was the same movie that Lewis planned to make with Robert Mitchum 20 years ago. Lewis tracked down the original script and, despite some protests from Orion, Hopper scrapped the new script for the original, which he revised.

"This is 'The Last Tango in Texas,' " Hopper joked, between takes. "It's a very seedy, sultry, hot piece. And it's not just the sex--it's the characters."

Dressed in dusty jeans and black T-shirt, Hopper works like a man obsessed, fortified only by endless cans of Diet Coke. Except for a few hotly played holes of golf with buddy Willie Nelson at Austin's Briarcliff Country Club, the only wildlife Hooper has seen were scorpions, a nest of copperhead snakes and a few armadillos.

It's 1:30 a.m. and the cast and crew break for a lunch. Johnson's private cook has graciously spared them from the standard movie chow. Tonight, it's calamari. Hopper heads for his trailer.

"Everyone on this movie needs to prove something," he says, rubbing his weary pale blue eyes. "Don needs a big break. (His recent features, "Sweethearts Dance" and "Dead Bang" fizzled.) 'Hot Spot' will prove he can act, that he's a leading man to be reckoned with. When he concentrates and gets involved and keeps things simple, he's really, really good. He understands his role."

Madsen ("Star of Dixie") will prove that she has "old star quality," predicts Hopper. "She's a young Lana Turner, a throwback to '40s films. She's such a pro, the sky's the limit (with her)."

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