American idylls have unusual roots, and so it’s no great surprise to consider that the “New Hollywood” that found its full flourish in the early 1970s had origins all the way back in 1961 with the improbable union of two artists who met and married that year. To understand the last great period of widespread creative freedom in mainstream American cinema, a period in which the movies offered not just ambiguity and complexity but an almost infinite sense of possibility resounding through the culture at large, we might look to the turbulent story of this couple, whose own artistic capacities might have seemed, for a moment, likewise without limit.
Brooke Hayward was a blue blood: The daughter of a debonair talent agent and the actor Margaret Sullavan, she’d grown up in Connecticut and Brentwood, California. Dennis Hopper was, well, Dennis Hopper: the child of an unusually progressive family in Dodge City, Kansas, who’d instilled in him both liberal values and no small amount of neurosis. Both were young actors, students of Lee Strasberg, the great teacher of Method acting, when they met in New York City, cast together in a play called Mandingo. Brooke loathed Dennis, Dennis fell in love, and—once Brooke came around—one of the more colorful and consequential alliances of the ’60s was born.
This is the story Mark Rozzo’s Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles presents, in terms that are mostly gripping. It is a tale driven more by encounter than incident: Hopper and Hayward collide herein with just about every major cultural personage of the American mid-century—including Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King Jr., David O. Selznick. The trajectory of their marriage itself, by contrast, is less meandering than a straight line from youthful, if uneasy, semi-bliss to abusive, drug-stoked disaster in one long stride. If you want narrative complication, look elsewhere, but if you want a vibrant depiction of how some of the most substantial creative figures of the 20th century jostled against and inspired one another? Look here. What makes Rozzo’s book exciting is not just the collective artistic firepower of the various names involved, but the many surprising ways in which these names interact, and the ways in which these interactions occasionally give rise to significant cultural events.
Rozzo wisely begins his telling with what might be its most stirring dramatic episode: It’s 1961. Hayward and Hopper are young newlyweds, freshly settled in Bel Air, when the canyon their house is situated in catches fire (nearly 500 homes, including Zsa Zsa Gabor’s and Aldous Huxley’s, would be destroyed). The couple, along with Hayward’s two children from a previous marriage, are forced to relocate, and everything they own is gone. They must start again, and that starting again—together they buy a home at 1712 N. Crescent Heights Boulevard and fill it with contemporary art, and contemporary people—makes up the story of Rozzo’s book.
Hayward is a promising young actor at this point, freshly launched on her Hollywood career with a feature called Mad Dog Coll, and Hopper is a former protégé of James Dean’s (the two had appeared together in both Giant and Rebel Without a Cause) who has already exhausted the patience of the mighty Hollywood powers. (Most famously, he’d colorfully told off Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn in a meeting that might otherwise have landed him a starring role opposite Kim Novak in 1955.) Now he’s at once a has-been and a wannabe: a painter, a photographer who will soon latch on to his dream of directing a movie, but for now is scraping out a living doing bit parts on television shows such as 87th Precinct. As Joanne Woodward put it when she accompanied him to the Giant premiere: “Dennis is a genius. I’m not sure of what, and I’m not sure if Dennis knows of what.”