Pop Went the Weasels!

REVIEW: 'Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles'

Credit: Dennis Hopper, Hopper Art Trust
May 15, 2022

Don't worry, all you young bookworms out there! Before too long the baby boomers will be dead and you won't have to worry ever again about anybody asking you to read books like Mark Rozzo's Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles. The book chronicles the early lives and marriage of the subtitled characters: Hopper, a second-tier movie actor soon to become famous for directing the hippie hymn Easy Rider (1969) before plunging into drug-drenched obscurity, only to rise again as a weirdly intense character actor in movies like Blue Velvet; and Hayward, by far the saner partner, a daughter of Old Hollywood and, after her divorce from Hopper, a famous Manhattan socialite and fashion plate of the 1970s.

Like any good writer—and he is a very good writer, stylish and wry and diligent in research—Mark Rozzo works hard to make potential readers care about such an unlikely pair of historical backbenchers. Some boomers will be familiar enough with Hopper and Hayward to take them or leave them. For the uninitiated, Rozzo wants to convince you that their importance lies in their contribution to postwar American art, as both collectors and practitioners. The less high-minded might be interested in the couple as a bridge between the first "Golden Age of Hollywood" and the 1960s youth culture that set about destroying the traditional movie business.

Thus through these pages wander Hopper and Hayward's older friends, great mastodons of '30s and '40s moviedom like David O. Selznick and John Wayne, lumbering toward their inevitable collision with the flower children of the Sunset Strip: Byrds and Beach Boys, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Phil Spector and Terry Southern, Sonny, Cher, Mamas, Papas, Monkees, Turtles … the whole menagerie that the mastodons found at first bizarre, then distasteful, and finally threatening. Guess who wins.

One nice illustration of how the times they were a-changin' came in 1965, at the Fourth of July beach party thrown by Jane Fonda and her husband, the French director Roger Vadim, whose chief gift to cinematic art was the cartoonish satire Barbarella, starring his naked wife. Tout le Hollywood, new and old, was invited to the bash. Jane's father Henry tended the pig roast; the Byrds provided the music, at top volume. The great director George Cukor, the mogul Jules Stein, Joseph Cotten, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, David Niven, Jennifer Jones, and other wooly mammoths represented the old order. Warren Beatty, Nicholson, Buck Henry, Jane's brother Peter, and countless others, huffing, puffing, and dancing in various states of undress, represented the future.

The Byrds' Chris Hillman picks up the story.

"We're playing and somebody's pulling on my pant leg," Hillman recalled. (At least he was wearing pants.) "I look down and it's Henry Fonda. 'Can you please turn that music down?' 'Yes, sir, right away!'" Another Byrd was less deferential to the star of The Grapes of Wrath. "Fuck that," opined David Crosby. "We're not turning down, man." (Italics in original.) Head Byrd Roger McGuinn asked Peter Fonda what to do about his father's request. "Don't pay any attention to him," Peter shouted to McGuinn. "He's an old man!"

Rozzo sums up: "It was a moment to savor."

The goal of the revolutionaries was expressed more directly by Hopper at a dinner party. Seated next to Cukor, who was 30 years his senior and the director of Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, and a dozen other gossamer creations, Hopper screamed: "We will bury you!" (Italics again in the original.) And so they did. What the revolutionaries hoped to replace Cukor with was less clear. Hopper's Easy Rider, the flagship film of the New Hollywood, is all but unwatchable today. Aside from an excellent sound track and some lovely landscapes from the cinematographer László Kovács, it is memorable for a single innovation: scenes of characters getting stoned portrayed by actors who really were stoned. It shows! The Philadelphia Story, on the other hand, has aged pretty well.

The whole scene, as we used to call such moments in history, makes for excellent gossip. (Reviewer tip: For the jaw-dropping, and very sad, revelations about Natalie Wood, jump straight to page 74 et seq.) It was made possible by the lamentable tendency of capitalism to dump heaps of money in the laps of people who, first of all, haven't done much to earn it and, second of all, don't know what the hell to do with it once they get it. Capitalism's surpluses lay behind Hopper and Hayward's status as the preeminent collectors of the art of their epoch, which lasted, by my amateur calculation, about two-and-a-half years.

This was the era of Pop Art. Rozzo's research reveals that Hopper and Hayward, spending money from her rich parents, were the first collectors to buy one of Andy Warhol's paintings of a Campbell's soup can. With that, they were off. Their house filled with junkyard bric-a-brac—works made from "found materials"—that were declared to be art by the flimflammers who assembled them and by the dutiful marks who paid for them. A man named Edward Kienholz offered a piece called Five Dollar Billy, to take one example: a dismembered female mannequin mounted on an old pedal-operated sewing machine that could be manipulated to make obscene gestures. Another friend, Ed Ruscha, gained international fame for what came to be known as his "word paintings." A word painting is a painting of a word. Duh.

To the gratefully untutored eye, the art that Hopper, Hayward, and their contemporaries savored is inexplicable, except perhaps as the result of a kind of mass hypnosis. Remarkably, even by the mid-1960s, not everyone had yet succumbed. The Los Angeles Times's art critic, a party pooper named Henry Seldis, tried to explain that the new art had "no aesthetic value whatsoever." For this Rozzo calls him "hidebound." And in the end of course the joke was on Seldis. The cutting edge moved quickly on to other forms of swindle, but the art world had absorbed the lessons of the Pop Art revolution, fleeting though it was.

Some readers will put Rozzo's book down, assuming they pick it up, with a resounding "So what?" Mid-'60s Los Angeles will seem to them as remote as Restoration London, and perhaps less interesting. But just as many readers, I reckon, will find the book nearly irresistible, evoking that odd combination of wistful nostalgia and knee-jerk revulsion that is becoming a familiar sensation among the boomer generation as it ages. As for historical importance—well, Easy Rider has taken its place, alongside The Grapes of Wrath and The Philadelphia Story, on the Library of Congress's National Film Registry for its cultural significance. Meanwhile, art collectors continue to collect. In 2019 a Ruscha word painting once owned by Hopper and Hayward sold at Christie's for $52.4 million. The word, if you're wondering, was "radio." Why didn't you think of that?

Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles
by Mark Rozzo
Ecco, 464 pp., $29.99

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.