On the enduring appeal of Harry Dean Stanton

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Paris, Texas

Despite appearing in such revered classics as The Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Harry Dean Stanton is not a traditional “star”. Nevertheless, he is ensconced in the mythos of American film. Perhaps the ultimate “that guy” character actor, Stanton estimates that he has appeared in over 200 films[1] (a slightly more modest 191 since 1954 by IMDB’s[2] estimation, including television) – a level of prolificacy enough for a sort of legend to spring up around him and, with it, a cult following. “If an actor has appealed in a large number of films in a supporting or marginal role,” write Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton “it can provide cult film fans with the potential to seek out as many appearances as possible, comparing the nuances of performance in relation to the film as a whole.”[3]

There is certainly much scope to do so with Stanton’s career. He has worked for a stunning range of directors, such as Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973), John Huston (Wise Blood, 1979) and Martin Scorsese – in whose Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Stanton, who spurned religion as a child[4], plays St. Paul as cynical and manipulative. In the 1980s, and his fifties, his career appeared to be on the ascendency with lead roles in Alex Cox’s grubby satire Repo Man and Wim Wenders’ Americana gem Paris, Texas (both 1984, and both cult classics[5] [6]). But stardom never followed; he was never to receive another lead after Paris, Texas and now he is 88 years old, resigned to amusing cameos for directors who grew up with his films, like Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, 2012), Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, 2012), Gore Verbinski (Rango, 2011) and Paulo Sorrentino, echoing Stanton’s two-minute role in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) when he cast him in an ephemeral but pivotal part in 2011’s This Must be the Place. Stanton’s most recent, uncredited, appearance in a mainstream film was in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand (Kim Jee-woon, 2013), in which he plays a cranky farmer who is quickly dispatched by bad-guy bullets. His trajectory has been the antithesis of what Mikita Brottman calls in Unruly Pleasures “the idea that stars get ‘discovered’ as in the old story of the accidentally-spotted soda-fountain girl who was quickly elevated to stardom.”[7]

Yet, some directors delight in finding him a more essential place in their stories. After turning down the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet, Stanton has been cast in six of David Lynch’s subsequent projects, starting with 1988’s farcical short The Cowboy & the Frenchman and encompassing comic relief turns in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Inland Empire (2006) – as well as the hapless, lovelorn assassin Johnnie Farragut in 1990’s Wild at Heart – and almost a never-made comedy series called The Dream of the Bovine[8]. “Harry Dean Stanton is a great actor,” Lynch told an audience in 2006 “and an innocent.” [9] Stanton is as naturalistic and unselfconscious as actors come, and has spoken[10] about a piece of advice given to him on the set of the 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind by its writer, Jack Nicholson; “let the wardrobe do the character.” Timothy Hodler accredits Stanton’s rejection of the psychotic violence of Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth to this lackadaisical technique; “from then on he played himself, with each new role becoming more personal and linked to his own experience, his childhood, his parents, even his grandparents and the rugged settlers before them. But he didn’t right now feel like digging into the violent side of himself. He just wasn’t Frank Booth.”[11]

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Stanton and David Lynch, from Partly Fiction.

Roger Ebert conceived of something called the “Stanton-Walsh Rule, which states that no movie with Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh can be altogether bad.”[12] Naturally, somebody as prolific as Stanton was always going to break such a rule – 200 worthwhile films on his resume would make him the world’s most consistent actor – and Ebert described Dream a Little Dream (Marc Rosso, 1988) as a “clear violation”[13]. But any inconsistency in his oeuvre only strengthens Stanton’s cult appeal in a manner akin to that of modern-day cult star Nicolas Cage – clearly himself enough of a Stanton fan to cast him in his sole directorial project, 2002’s gigolo drama Sonny – that there is an element of work involved in locating his best performances; in separating the wheat from the chaff. For instance, Ulu Grosbard’s hard-edged crime film Straight Time (1978) offers the trifecta of being one of Stanton’s meatiest roles, one of his best performances and one of his best films overall, yet only a year after its release it was selected as an “Overlooked Classic of the 1970s” on Siskel & Ebert[14] (incidentally, M. Emmett Walsh co-starred). Similarly, before he and Lynch became “a team”[15], Stanton had established a collaboration over three films with exploitation master Monte Hellman; Ride in the Whirlwind, hippy-era cult classic[16] Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and blatant masculinity allegory Cockfighter (1974). These films were seen by a smaller audience than, say, Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981) but a specialist one, some of whom made note of Stanton’s rough-hewn charm.

In his memoir X Films, Repo Man director Alex Cox describes himself as “a passionate enthusiast” of Stanton. “He had a particularly world-weary, exhausted, saddened face and made a strong impression in a number of interesting films…not only a very good actor, but someone with a bit of iconography behind them”[17], he says, citing his association with directors like Hellman, Peckinpah and Arthur Penn (The Missouri Breaks, 1976); “my generation’s heroes.” Stanton, he says, has “the perpetually sad face of someone who had been yelled at by successions of tough guy directors and actors who were bigger and more brawling than him. Yet, when he smiled, his face could light up and his eyes glitter with delight.”[18] Such is the duality of his persona; a blend of surliness and unabashed sincerity.

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“he’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction”

In interviews[19] [20], Stanton cuts a lonesome and enigmatic figure; he answers questions cryptically (on Alex Cox and Repo Man: “he cast me in the part…I can’t remember the details”[21]), seems incredulous that anybody is interested in what he has to say in the first place, or gives the same stock answers he always does, such as lamenting how “the love of (his) life”[22], Rebecca DeMornay, left him for Tom Cruise in the 1980s; an unfortunate metaphor for the way Hollywood also fled for younger, more dashing stars. “I’ve been a loner all my life,” he says, but much of his best work draws on the respect he has for friends and collaborators; a willingness to stand back and learn from the masters, so that his work can best be appreciated for how it compliments that of others. “I’ve worked for some of the best of them. Not just directors like Peckinpah and Lynch, but writers like Sam Shepherd, and singers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.”[23] Yet the man so ingrained in Hollywood legend that he lived with Nicholson, befriended Brando and was the subject of a song by “acquaintance” Debbie Harry[24] has resisted becoming some outsized, ostentatious “personality”. Brottman proposes that “for some, the star is a mirror, a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself…or a projection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.”[25] Thus, Harry Dean Stanton’s willingness to underplay roles has made him a kind of vessel; a blank slate upon which the audience can project their own emotions.

 

References

Cox, A. (2008). Alex Cox X Films. London: I. B. Tauris.

Ebert, R. (1989). Dream A Little Dream Movie Review (1989) | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dream-a-little-dream-1989 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Ebert, R. (1999). Wild Wild West Movie Review & Film Summary (1999) | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/wild-wild-west-1999 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. (2012). [film] USA: Sophie Huber.

Hoberman, J. and Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York: Harper & Row.

Hodler, T. (2013). How Dennis Hopper Got the Psycho Frank Booth Role in Blue Velvet: The Daily Details. [online] Details. Available at: http://www.details.com/blogs/daily-details/2013/02/how-dennis-hopper-got-the-psycho-frank-booth-role-in-blue-velvet.html [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Hughes, D. (2001). The Complete Lynch. London: Virgin.

Hundley, J. (2013). Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton Revisit 1972’s ‘Cisco Pike’. [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kris-kristofferson-harry-dean-stanton-652824 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

IMDb, (n.d.). Harry Dean Stanton. [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001765/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Jancovich, M. (2003). Defining Cult Movies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Lim, D. (2011). ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ took detour into cult-fave land. [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2007/dec/09/entertainment/ca-secondlook9 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Maron, M. (2014). WTF with Marc Maron Podcast – Episode 464 – Harry Dean Stanton / Sophie Huber. [online] Wtfpod.com. Available at: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_464_-_harry_dean_stanton_sophie_huber [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Mathijs, E. and Mendik, X. (2008). The Cult Film Reader. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.

Mathijs, E. and Sexton, J. (2011). Cult Cinema. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

McIver, B. (2012). French director on gritty cult sci-fi movie filmed in 1979 Glasgow. [online] Daily Record. Available at: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/entertainment/tv-radio/french-director-on-gritty-cult-sci-fi-1128779 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Mendik, X. and Harper, G. (2000). Unruly Pleasures. Guildford: FAB Press.

O’Hagan, S. (2013). Harry Dean Stanton: ‘Life? It’s one big phantasmagoria’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/23/harry-dean-stanton-interview [Accessed 5 Dec. 2014].

Phipps, K., Tobias, S., Robinson, T., Rabin, N., Murray, N. and Singer, M. (2013). Repo Man Forum: punk, consumerism, identity, and L.A.. [online] The Dissolve. Available at: http://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/19-irepo-mani-forum-punk-consumerism-identity-and-la/ [Accessed 5 Dec. 2014].

Siskel, G. and Ebert, R. (1979). Sneak Previews-Overlooked Classics…. [online] Siskelandebert.org. Available at: http://siskelandebert.org/video/Y8O2G832HBOS/Sneak-Previews-Overlooked-Classics [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

TheLip.tv, (2014). Acting Legend Harry Dean Stanton Reflects on Life, Love & The Void | TheLip.tv. [online] Available at: http://thelip.tv/episode/acting-legend-harry-dean-stanton-reflects-life-love-void/ [Accessed 5 Dec. 2014].

YouTube, (2008). David Lynch on Harry Dean Stanton: He’s an Innocent. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc0r4SWjfI4 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

 

Selected filmography:

The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)

How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall & Richard Thorpe, 1962)

Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman, 1966)

Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)

Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)

Dillinger (John Milius, 1973)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

Cockfighter (Monte Hellman, 1974)

The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975)

The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976)

Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan, 1978)

Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke (Lou Adler, 1978)

Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979)

Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)

Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)

Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984)

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

Fool for Love (Robert Altman, 1985)

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

The Cowboy and the Frenchman (David Lynch, 1988)

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

Hotel Room (David Lynch, 1992, TV)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)

The Green Mile (Frank Darabont, 1999)

The Pledge (Sean Penn, 2001)

Sonny (Nicolas Cage, 2002)

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)

This Must be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, 2011)

Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Sophie Huber, 2012)

The Last Stand (Kim Jee-woon, 2013)

Footnotes:

[1] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[2] (IMDb, n.d.)

[3] (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.84)

[4] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[5] (Phipps et al., 2013)

[6] (TheLipTV, 2014)

[7] (Brottman, p.106)

[8] (Hughes, 2001, p.243)

[9] (YouTube, 2008)

[10] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[11] (Hodler, 2013)

[12] (Ebert, 1999)

[13] (Ebert, 1989)

[14] (Siskel & Ebert, 1979)

[15] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[16] (Lim, 2011)

[17] (Cox, 2008, p.16)

[18] (Cox, 2008, p.40)

[19] (O’Hagan, 2013)

[20] (Maron, 2014)

[21] (TheLipTV, 2014)

[22] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[23] (O’Hagan, 2013)

[24] (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, 2012)

[25] (Brottman, p.105)

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