The Deviant Legacy of Dennis Hopper


Dennis Hopper died today, at the age of 74, due to prostate cancer complications. The web’s already flooded with obituaries and retrospectives (The Examiner’s a pretty good one, featuring many forgotten gems), and I have no intention to compete with them. Let other writers celebrate Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Colors and True Romance. I’ll focus instead on a single scene of his legacy: the mock rape of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, which a friend of mine so graphically dubbed “the cat-fuck” (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch it again – it’s self-explanatory).

The scene’s erotic tension hasn’t aged a single day since the film first prompted scandalized viewers to picket theaters back in 1986. Like the most daring and fascinating artistic treatments of sex, it juxtaposes a very relatable desire with darker urges that most of us shy away from, at least in real life.

We are treated to a private routine between Frank Booth, a sadistic criminal with a cornucopia of psychopathologies to rival Kraft-Ebbing, and Dorothy Vallens, the cabaret singer heblackmails into sick sex games after kidnapping her husband and son. To say that Frank beats Dorothy and throws her on the floor to have his way with her is a fair description, but one that misses all the little details where the Devil is.

Frank alternates his role-play from dominance to submission, shifting between the personas of “Daddy” and “Baby.” As the former, he orders Dorothy to spread her legs and slaps her when she violates the rule of not looking at him. As the latter, he calls her “Mommy,” reaches for her breasts and begs her to stuff his mouth with a velvet ribbon. Which role he’s playing when he jumps on top of her and, fully clothed, mimics a desperate (and rather feline) coitus is a guess I couldn’t venture without a few years in a psychology major.

Few viewers would dispute that the scene is perverse. But what makes that perversion so fascinating? The pleased smile on Rossellini’s face after being slapped? Her languid, ecstatic look when she indulges his velvet fetish with practiced hand? Maybe the fact that no penetration occurs throughout their encounter? Or the complete ignorance we have of whatever Frank is inhaling in that freaky medical mask?

Perhaps something far less evident. Critics and scholars have had a ball with Jeffrey, who watches the weirdo couple from the undisturbed safety of a closet. How could they not? The symbolism is as evident as it is inexhaustible: the image of young Jeffrey as a closet deviant, lured deeper and deeper out of his small-town life with each new glimpse of the seedy underbelly of his suburban surroundings, is practically irresistible. Most of us will never give in to the curiosity that makes him risk his life in a deranged affair with Dorothy, but while Jeffrey is in that closet, he’s clear shorthand for our own voyeurism – our fascination with a spectacle too terrible to turn away from.

Hopper’s performance is arguably the finest moment in his acting career. While Rossellini’s nurturing submissiveness and David Lynch’s subdued, theatrical direction are indispensable to the scene, it is Frank’s unpredictable dementia that provides the backbone of its prolonged tension. He owns the scene, and his assertive demeanor is, ultimately, what we’re peeking into from our comfortable seats in the audience.

In an age of jaded cynicism masked by PC hypocrisy, when leather, chains and whips have become trite caricatures due to their repeated appropriation by show business and advertising, Frank and Dorothy remain a powerful statement. They remind us that, no matter how tolerant, curious or fascinated we may be, kink is not a word to be taken lightly.

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