Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, March 29, 2010


I walked down to Hollywood Boulevard to see Dennis Hopper getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; 11.30, Friday morning. March 26th, 2010.

I’ve always thought that the placing of the stars, on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, is a strange combination of the fiercely hierarchical and the utterly random. Why exactly is James Brown’s star on Vine outside Bed Bath and Beyond? Still, for whatever reason, Hopper’s is perfectly placed right outside the Egyptian Theatre. This is as good as it gets; classier and more iconic than getting one outside Grauman’s Chinese or the Kodak Theatre. Those places are tourist spots. The Egyptian, one of the homes of the American Cinematheque, is for true movie lovers.

The Hopper ceremony was much reported in advance, since he’s simultaneously dying of prostate cancer and fighting (or rather refusing to fight, because his doctor says he’s too ill) a bitter and ugly divorce, from Victoria, his wife of 14 years.

Years back I saw Hopper and his wife in the Borders bookstore in Santa Monica. I’m sure I wasn’t the only on e who recognized him but nobody approached. He was looking at the new titles, the serious hardback fiction, and the woman he was with – V I now know – was standing beside him bored and restless, and eventually she said to him, “I’m going to look in the visual section.” Dennis gave a long-suffering grimace.

I’d never been to one of these unveiling events before, though I’d seen plenty of photographs. They always looked like modest celebrations; a photo op with a few dedicated fans and officials, and since the star is usually being placed in the middle of a narrow sidewalk there’s not much room for a crowd anyway.

As I approached the Egyptian, I could see from a block away, there were maybe a dozen film crews, on both side of the street, some of them raised up on stepladders. A crowd of onlookers filled the sidewalk. I joined them. Subsequent reports said hundreds of people were there, but I’d have guessed it was way less than that.

A temporary metal fence had been put in place to stop the crowd spilling from the sidewalk into the traffic, and it was very tempting to perch on top of the fence to get a better view of things. There was a single cop policing the event and a large part of his job involved telling people not to do precisely that. He was standing in the road, and traffic had to swerve to avoid him, but if they swerved too wide, it was also his job to yell at them and tell them to stay in lane.

Even though the sidewalk was full of people, it hadn’t been closed off and some passersby insisted on their right to walk right through the crush of people. One or two baffled pedestrians saw how just difficult that would be and plaintively asked the cop what they should do. He suggested, with barely suppressed rage, that they might walk on the other damn side of the street. This seemed to strike the would-be walkers as a baffling new concept.

But the real action wasn’t on the sidewalk, it was on the forecourt of the Egyptian Theater. That’s where the invited guests and VIPs were. They all looked like Hollywood somebodies though I couldn’t put any names to faces. The men were older, favoring grey pony tales, loud patterned shirts, suits of fashionably eccentric cut. The women, with few exceptions, were young and hot.

But then I saw my first celeb, David Lynch, looking EXACTLY the way you’d want David Lynch to look – the thick white hair, the sunglasses, the white shirt - tieless but buttoned at the neck. And there was another one: Dwight Yoakum in his trademark cowboy hat, then Viggo Mortensen looking ruggedly saturnine, and somebody shouted that they’d seen “Nicholson” meaning Jack, but I never caught sight of him.

Someone came pushing through the crowd, a short, soberly dressed Mexican with a pitted face, dragging a plump middle-aged woman behind him. He didn’t seem angry or threatening but he did seem very determined to get through the crowd, and then I realized it was Danny Trejo – star of the Robert Rodriguez trailer “Machete.” Will it surprise you if I say he looks much taller on screen?

Hopper arrived early, a few minutes before the appointed time. People do that in LA. A huge yelping cheer went up and I joined in. How could you not? He looked frail, had people to help him walk, and there was a bandage on his forehead, but the vibe, the smile, the wolfishly sensitive face, that was all pure Hopper.

There were speeches. I hadn’t expecting that. A producer, name of Mark Canton, declared that Dennis Hopper was the coolest man on the planet, and at that moment, who would have argued? Hopper himself said, “Everything I've learned, I've learned from Hollywood,” which you might think makes for a rather patchy education, but again this wasn’t a moment to quibble.

He also explained the bandage on his head. It was a paparazzi-related walking accident. He was walking outside his house and heard somebody call his name. He thought it was somebody he knew so he turned around to look, but it was just some cameraman. Turning around was enough to make him lose his footing and he’d fallen over and hit his head on the ground. "I know you have a tough job," he said, "but maybe sometimes you should be a little more sensitive." A fully fit Hopper would surely have reacted way more vehemently.

Having read Nathanael West’s “Day Of The Locust” we’re supposed to find Hollywood crowds vile and predatory, but I couldn’t square that with the people who were there for Hopper that day. Of course we’d come to gawk. This was perhaps our last chance to see a member of an endangered species, but they (we) seemed perfectly good humored and benign. We were enthusiastic and admiring. The warmth for Hopper was real and palpable.

When I got home I turned to the end of “Day Of The Locust.”
“He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.”

Well, you’ve said a mouthful there, Nathanael. I know that times and social attitudes change, but today it’s hard not to read that as self-serving snobbery. There on Hollywood Boulevard, it was hard to imagine the kind of conflagration West imagines in his novel. For better or worse, “The Burning of Los Angeles” will have to come from other sources than movie fans.