Friday, September 30, 2011

Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry the Ghetto!

The last time I was in Dennis Hopper's house was — let's be fairly honest — the only time. This was a while ago. Things may have changed a bit since then in Hopper's house, in Dennis Hopper's life. Hell, in my own life too. There may have been some rearranging of the furniture.

Hopper's house is famous, in case you didn't know, for not only being the home of Dennis Hopper but being the house that Frank Gehry built for Dennis Hopper. It was in the ghetto. Or that was its rep, anyway — Frank Gehry had built Dennis Hopper a house in the ghetto, right there in Venice and everything. The LA Times was every bit as titillated as the New York Times and the London Sunday Times, though there was reason to believe the LA Times would have had a harder time finding the ghetto — any local ghetto — on a map.

Of course, Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house in Venice wasn't in a ghetto. Not actually, of course. It was Dogtown, and there was placa all over everywhere, naturally, all kinds of locals-only graffiti. If you took a look, it just said really mild stuff like "West Side Locos," and "Con Safos." Venice has always been nice and funky and sweet that way. But really, the verdant sub-tropical neighborhood where Dennis Hopper had commissioned a Frank Gehry house-clad-in--corrugated-iron could be called a barrio, perhaps, maybe, possibly, but then so could so many of the best parts of Los Angeles. Or at least the parts where great food doesn't come equipped with valet parking. That may well be the way that we can best determine the ghetto parts and the barrio parts of LA from the non-ghetto, non-barrio parts — the presence or, conversely, the absence of valet parking.

Anyway, it had all proved pretty thrilling to all kinds of ultra-upscale and high-end magazines and even daily newspapers and other such slum-dwellers, this super-stimulating non-valet parking juxtaposition of Dennis Hopper and Frank Gehry and the ghetto and the graffiti and the corrugated iron exterior of Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house. Me, I could never never really figure out which locution was correct, or at least more correct — was it Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house? Or Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house? I think it depended on what magazine you were working for, and how glossy the magazine's pages were.

In this case, let it be said, the magazine was HG. Formerly, until only very recently, House & Garden. Which Anna Wintour had only recently boarded, the salty sea-breezes between the UK and the the USA still fresh in her hair, knife clenched in comparatively tiny teeth, promptly prying off the logo, turning the venerable House & Garden, one of the jewels in Conde Nast's crown, into the all-new, all-exciting, much hipper HG. (Over the next year or two, practically all subscribers cancelled, newsstand sales died, and before long, the magazine, which had been around forever, folded. Instantaneously Anna got given Vogue, which had been her undeclared intention all the while. (Grace Mirabella, who had been considering herself Vogue's editor, was, well, notified. By a phone call from a reporter from the New York Post, as I remember.) Conde-Nast brought their former cash-spurting-cow "shelter magazine" back successfully maybe a decade or so later but this time they named it, for unfathomable un-chic reasons, House & Garden. Go figure.

But hey, wasn't me that was working for 'em at the time. It was my pal, my boy James Truman, later to be knighted no less than the Editorial Director of Conde-dang-Nast — arise! Sir Knight! — but at the time, only just the mere cuff-adjusting West Coast editor of HG, an underling, a simple salary-man really, uprooted outlandishly from Manhattan and outposted like a bemused but wary cavalry colonel, albeit one with a posh-ish British accent, dispatched to a frontier Fort Courage in order to keep a peeled eye on the unruly local Injuns. Truman was doing it in perfect style, precise Conde-Nast style, making certain he'd leased a hell of a house in the Hollywood Hills, and he and I were considering putting together a shared writing office above La Fonda, on Wilshire by the Otis Art Institute.... with a fax machine! Of our exclusive own! Which seemed like a big deal! That's how long ago all this was — oh, and the fax machine had a tiny little green-and-purple polka-dotted pterodactyl flying around inside to make it work.

Anyway, among the other LA lifestyle accoutrements essential to the West Coast Dude for HG, Truman could see the absolutely essential necessity of possessing the absolutely essentially right car. As a Brit, and a journalist, he'd long since done the duty required by some tea-stained Parliamentary statute; as with each and every other British journalist ever sent on a junket, he'd got off the plane and onto the shuttle, and immediately rented a red Mustang convertible. (Then, over the course of their two-or-three day stay, they are required by law to drive back and forth along Sunset and the Pacific Coast Highway, before refilling the tank, dropping the car off, and returning home to write a story that emphasizes how shallow and absurd LA is, a story that contains the requisite surreal swaying palm trees within the first paragraph. I've always wondered, given the depth of their research, how come they can't ever pronounce "Los Angeles" right — always with that hard G.)

Truman was much beyond that by now, much beyond. Now he desired, needed, required, a Mustang convertible of his very own. A groovy one, a vintage one, a '64 or '65 or '66 Mustang — in red. As his pal, as a Californian, and as a car guy — though, let's face it, his dad had, after all, been a Jaguar dealer — it was my solemn duty to advise him, and in all good conscience, I had to let him in on The Truth: those old Mustangs pretty much suck. They're just sad little Ford Fairlanes, the lame-o econo car that Ford slapped together to battle the Volkswagen Bug, with a sexier body pasted on top. There's not one of 'em, no matter how beautifully restored, that doesn't rattle like a rusted bucket of rusty bolts. Naturally, as old friends and comrades and confidants, he listened closely to my sage counsel, and didn't believe me. He went and drove a couple of fresh new old-ass Mustangs, and discovered that, lo and behold — who'd'a thunk it? — they pretty much sucked. The redder they were, the more they rattled. And they cornered like tanks — like water tanks. Like fish tanks.

So instead, we found him a mint perfect '68 Firebird with a 326, a convertible, with that really cool grey-olive metallic paint-job that Pontiac was doing in those days, and matching interior. It was so wicked, so quick, so cool. It looked amazing. Because it was amazing. And perfect, and pristine. Until, of a wet Saturday morning, first good rain of the season, streets all nice and slick and oily-wet, he banged it into the back of somebody beautiful and blonde. As I remember, he was looking at the girl when he ran into her Volkswagen Rabbit up near Hillhurst. Although I may be confusing it with the time I banged my Mom's '68 Camaro, driving underage without a license, while I was looking at a girl. Probably both, actually.

Anyway, I get this panicked call from him. He's late — he's supposed to be out at Dennis Hopper's house. Watching over, shepherding, facilitating a Matthew Ralston photo shoot. At Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house. And then sweeping up afterward by interviewing Dennis Hopper. But he'd just pranged his perfect Pontiac, and now, profound remorse, powerful panic, pitiful regret, with that sickening sense of a world turned upside down, with no taxis responding because of the rain, he needed me to run him out to Venice. And maybe stick around to be helpful. (Which, as everybody knows, I am. Helpful — that's me.) Plus, as a guy who'd personally spoiled at least one pristine, perfectly bitchin' '68 GM product myself (327, automatic, with that amazing cool console shifter; pristine white interior), I was only too glad to be of comfort on the way out to Venice. Hey, dude, man, things like this just happen — wet roads, fast cars, distracting girls. Distracting cars, fast roads, oily girls. It's a lot like life. It's lifelike. It's especially easy to be philosophical when it's not your broken Firebird.

So we rolled, in my major primary ride of that time, which was a black '68 Pontiac GTO with RamAir hood scoops and beefed-up sway-bars with urethane bushings and old-school Cragar mag wheels and that amazing 400 cubic-inch Pontiac big block. If you were worried about Dennis Hopper's neighborhood in Venice being the ghetto, you definitely didn't have to worry about it after you'd parallel-parked that bad boy. A lot of the semi-vatos and their cousins who came out to have a look once they heard the dual exhausts setting off their car alarms were in fact related to the guys who took it as a privilege when I used to downshift into the valet-parking districts of LA, the guys who shoulder-shoved the other valets away so they could snag the keys and cruise around the block a couple times before they had to park yet another silver-grey BMW. Somebody actually moved their Nissan into the driveway so Truman and I could honor 'em by parking the GTO in front of their house — these guys had excellent valet parking skills, which no doubt came from living in the ghetto there.

Anyway, in we went. I wish I could tell you what the doorbell of Frank Gehry's Dennis Hopper house sounded like, but I don't remember. Probably somewhat like rusty corrugated tin grinding away. Then again, maybe we knocked. Anyway, once we got inside, it was a horrific scene. It was horrifying. Remember that part in Apocalypse Now? Or the sort of somewhat end-thing of Easy Rider? Or all the various movies with Dennis Hopper in them like Colors or Speed or Blue Velvet where nobody could figure out how to end the thing and so there's a big climactic scene where everything bursts into flames? Well, it was a lot like that. A lot. Only you couldn't see the flames. But they were there, take it from me.

Poor Truman. He was already not having a super-great day. Me, I was at my helpful and conciliatory best, but let's face it — wasn't my gig. Hell, I wasn't even on the Conde-Nast payroll at the moment, so really, I was in ever so many ways the absolute best guy to have on hand, with undoubtedly the clearest vision of all concerned. Not my ass on the line whatsoever. Although I do, okay, tend, perhaps, to get a little philosophical under those types of circumstances.

The main room (I'm sure it had a proper name, that huge room with the raw undulating ceiling, but we were just waltzing in late, and it wasn't really my gig, so I didn't write it down or anything) was this big open space but it was divided by hanging wall-divider deals, hanging from the ceiling, but on these extraordinarily smooth-operating bearings, like Swiss skateboard bearings but no doubt done to aerospace industry tolerances. And on all these big sliding panels mounted on sleek sliding Swiss bearings, there was a lot of Art. It was, anyone could tell, actual art. Sliding away, yet set so they could be glimpsed, there were things that looked like Basquiat, and some sure-enough Rauschenbergs, and a silk-screen Rosenburg, I think. There was either a Franz Kline, or else a really amazing Franz Kline copy. And among them, scattered in on the silent Swiss bearings, shuffled into the deck, were some of the artworks of Dennis Hopper.

Okay, but everybody was avoiding that room like the plague. Dead silence. Tumbleweeds were blowing through. Where all the action — all the downstairs action anyways —was going on was in the (what do you suppose Frank and Dennis had titled it?) The Amphitheatre Room. Man, it was pretty ultra-mega-fraught in there. There was this room on the first floor of Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house that was like a little 99-seat theatre all unto itself. There was a stage, with a real lighting rig and a big sound rig, and against the opposite wall, there was a series of those over-sized steps, amphitheatre style, carpeted in some rigorously nubby industrial-grade charcoal-colored carpet. And on the steps and the stage, there were all kinds of dazzling suits and blouse-y Versace shirts and blinding ties and socks and shoes and suits and shirts spread out, each on its own hanger, except the socks, which were folded on hangers in pairs. And there were like three fashion-stylist assistants and two make-up stylist assistants and two photo assistants and an intern, and one guy who was there with the rental lighting, and there was a catering team. With espresso machine, which unquestionably wasn't helping matters. And that's to leave out the make-up stylist, and the fashion stylist, and the hair stylist, and maybe another stylist for something I'm forgetting. Maybe a socks stylist. In the absence of an Art Director, there was Truman, and, hey, me too. Oh and there was Matthew Rolston.

(Once, maybe a year or two later, I got a peek at The Secret Sheet. There was once this piece of paper — it was genuinely on paper back then — that told you the name of each photographer that Conde-Nast used, and what they got paid. As a writer, and even as a pampered one, it was kind of discouraging. I mean, I wrote a lengthy profile on one of the most famous actors in the history of Hollywood, and one of the guys on the sheet had gone to do the portraits, and because the guy was Old Hollywood, hey, they simply did it in his backyard, so it was like picking oranges right off the low branches of the tree or something. And he'd blown the shoot! Screwed it up completely. Unusuable. Nothing! We had to send yet another famous photographer to go do it over! And the first guy got fifty grand! And the second guy only got forty! And they were just about the cheapest guys on The Secret Sheet! You really didn't count until you were up there with the six-figure guys. But even there, even among the legends, like Irving Penn and Horst and Helmut Newton and Hiro, they weren't really pulling down the biggest of the big bucks. That was Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber, and, naturally, Matthew Rolston.)

So, really, as important as Dennis Hopper and Frank Gehry might have seemed, if only especially to themselves, they really weren't. Not really. I mean, Dennis Hopper had only just made the biggest comeback in the history of Hollywood, and Frank Gehry was probably about the most controversial architect of the time, at a time where even daily newspapers were suddenly gabbling ever so knowingly about "design." But believe me, the important one here today wasn't Hopper or Gehry or even the fabled Hopper-Gehry/Gehry-Hopper house. It was the photographer. And while Truman would eventually acquire the kind of power that made the most mighty of Manhattanites tremble and dream to be seen lunching with him in the Conde-Nast cafeteria — does one order the yellow Jell-O as a post-modernist ironic gesture? Or will he maybe not get it? Maybe better wait and see what color he selects —he was currently a bit on the death-defying, career-destroying balance-bubble in a fairly fraught three-celeb pile-up. Me, I was the guy who owned the '68 GTO parked out front, so as far as Dennis Hopper's neighbors were concerned, probably I was the most important. With power comes responsibility; I believe humility is essential.

Anyway, Matthew — I like to call him Matthew — was upset. Upset but professional. Professional but pissed-off. Pissed-off but at least still on site. On site but having his folk make the grand gesture of packing up. Packing up, but slowly. Slowly so they didn't actually have to leave, because once he and his people had packed up and left, they were gonna look like prima donnas. Or Matthew was, anyway. And Matthew knew who the prima donna, the diva, was. And it wasn't him. It was not him. It was Dennis Hopper, who had stormed upstairs. Slamming all the doors while doing it. Though, given that it was a Frank Gehry design, not all the doors stayed slammed shut.

Truman didn't beg so much, or plead, as just do a lot of very apparent, very gestural, very empathetic listening. He didn't, for instance, go down on one knee or the other, or both. He did, however, put the hand of reassurance on Matthew's shoulder, and that was really something, because Truman's not that touchy, not so much of a toucher. He can be clever and funny and he can be warmer than you'd think, but he's not, say, a big ol' bear-hugger. He's British, even if he hasn't lived there since before Diana was a princess. Anyway, he did a fine job of mollifying in the moment, and then, and then . . . and then, it was time to go upstairs. And speak to Mr. Hopper. As a show of good faith, Matthew had his people cease their faux-packing-up process. There was a momentary moment of relief, a glimmer of hope. Truman was, I think we all felt, just the man for the mission. 

Mr. Hopper — may I call him Dennis? — was not pleased. He, like Matthew, was pissed-off. But his version of pissed-off was different, and called for a different style of expression. A more expressionist style. He was barricaded behind the door that led to his bedroom and bathroom. And he was outnumbered, as well, having just only merely the one assistant, a reedy woman in her late twenties. She and Truman huddled, consulted, considered, co-conspired. Finally, she gathered her courage, threw back her shoulders, then hunched them back into servile position again and knocked on the door.


No answer.


[muffled but beyond miffed] "What?"

"Dennis, James Truman is here. He had a car accident on the way here. He was hoping he could come inside and speak to you."

A long pause. Actors, as I understand it, have beats that they work with, beats that are a great deal like musical rhythms, beats they can count out and use to create dramatic effect. I mean, it's not like I hadn't already known that Dennis Hopper was an actor's actor's actor, and that he'd studied and studied with and worked with the greats, but still, sometimes you have to be in the presence of a great actor when they're displaying their craft to really gather it all in. This, this, was greatness. I started to wonder how Truman was possibly going to be able to convey all this greatness, all this greatness that was surrounding us, how he was going to get it into his story. I didn't envy him.

"Dennis?" It was Truman. Man, he really had the touch. And the timing! I mean, here he was, working, mano a mano, with a guy that I myself was now recognizing as one of the greatest actors of the day, and yet James' voice had just the right note of quivering question, with maybe just a slightish soup├žon of querulousness to it. Well-played! It was like a tercio de varas, the first stage of a bullfight, with the matador merely flirting, feinting his cape to learn just how fierce the bull will prove to be. Ole!

"Wha-a-at?" Again, the work of a master craftsmen — no, Hopper was a consummate artist, an artist who'd learned his craft and then transcended it. It was awe-inspirational. It was three syllables; no more, no less.

"Dennis, do you think I might possibly come in and join you there? We could perhaps talk? I feel so personally responsible for this whole problem..."

Nice! Nice. Was that nicely done or what? I felt a swell of pride, perhaps even a lump in my throat. Yes, true, Truman was my dear friend, my boy, my buddy, but really, it was the kind of thing that made you just want to root, root, root for the home team. If Nottingham had a football team with a football song that I'd known, I probably would have burst out singing it right then. I think, we can all agree, it's just as well.

Anyway, Truman was admitted to the inner sanctum, while the assistant and I, both diplomatically and cordially, smiled at one another briefly, and then commenced to considering our shoes and, alternately, the curved-versus-straight aesthetics of the Brian Murphy-designed interior. Brian Murphy was one of Frank Gehry's under-apostles but more of an interior design-y dude, so he was the one whose publicist, in conjunction with Frank Gehry's publicist, and Dennis Hopper's publicists (his personal publicist, and his latest film's publicist team) had sort of helped to, as we might say, inspire this story.

Truman was in there a really long time. He was in there for more than a century. I grew old and gray and died and went first to Purgatory, then got the guided tour of Limbo, and then was escorted to the very edge of the Gates of Heaven — but just then, just as I was entering into an all-access-laminated-pass negotiation, there came a shout. Shouting! It was startling! It was Dennis Hopper, back behind the brilliantly-designed bedroom/bathroom door. He was at full voice! It was glorious!


I wasn't in there, perched on the edge of the bathtub while Dennis Hopper paced manically around the open-plan bathroom with its industrial-grade fixtures, but it was kind of obvious what stage of the negotiation they'd achieved. Dennis' wan assistant and I raised our eyebrows at one another and then smiled wanly. Truman had just moseyed around to the part where he was strong-arming Dennis Hopper into perhaps considering wearing a few of the lovely suits and ties and socks and things that Matthew Rolston's fashion-stylist had so graciously provided. Suits that would be truly becoming, and perhaps even genuinely very flattering—


I'm trying to remember just exactly when David Mamet wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross." Whether it would already have been a big hit then, or what. I mean, it's not that Dennis Hopper had necessarily been auditioning for it or anything, or just using Mamet's script for vocal tune-up practice downstairs in the Amphitheatre Room, where all the suits and socks were now spread around all the places where an audience would ordinarily sit. But Mamet's masterwork, had, I realize now, a certain resonance, a certain harmonic resonance. I think it must have already been a hit, and they were probably already starting to talk about making a movie of it. I'm guessing, though.

Anyway, that particular moment was probably the most highly-pitched moment of drama, volume-wise, if not necessarily the most truly dramatic. Theater buffs, fans of method acting, and hack screenwriters probably already guess that it necessarily lowered in intensity before long, that eventually Dennis and Matthew made an uneasy peace before parting as good friends and then going on to say incredibly bitchy things about one another once the whole ordeal was done, once they were at last out of earshot of one another and each others' assistants and all. And Truman? James had wrung peace and photography from a world where before there had only been dischord and blank film. But really, even though he got it fixed, I don't know that he ever felt so in love with that lovely Firebird ever after that day. I guess it was never really mint perfect again.