The Essential Harry Dean Stanton

One of the great character actors in movies, the legendarily laconic and sad-eyed Harry Dean Stanton passed away this weekend at the age of 91. He possessed the recognizable hound dog face the average moviegoer might recognize as “that guy.” For us cinephiles we knew him as kind of cinematic legend, like a Red Wood tree that would never fall. Even in his 90s, Stanton didn’t look like he was ever slowing down. Deeply underrated as an actor, Stanton was someone who could give us a world of emotions with a single glimpse at his dark, sorrowful eyes. The six essential Stanton performances we chose are not the be all end all, they are only the starting point, the recognizable bunch that the mainstream would no doubt mention with his passing. If you want to be more adventurous you can find countless gems in Stanton’s filmography. Take for example Bertrand Tavernier‘s brilliantly underrated “Death Wish,” in which Stanton’s reality TV tycoon feels more like a prophetic statement for our smartphone times, or how about his great performance in “The Rose,” in which he plays the country music superstar that puts down the ego of Bette Middler‘s Mary Rose Foster” who idolized hm as a kid? Or how about the fake blind man in John Huston‘s “Wise Blood,” a fraudulent sidewalk preacher that represents the ironic contrivances of religion.
Why didn’t he become a leading actor after his breakthrough performance in “Paris, Texas,” the Wim Wenders film that went on to win Cannes’ coveted Palm d’Or prize? He just moved to the beat of his own eccentric drum.
“Yeah, I was offered a series by John Carpenter after I did the movie “Christine,”and I would’ve been a leading man after that,” he explained to Vulture in 2013. “I would have played a private investigator. And I was offered a great deal — I would be involved in the direction, casting, everything, and whatever. It was whatever an actor wants, and I didn’t take it.” But he eventually passed on the role.
“Why didn’t you take it?” the interviewee asked. “I don’t know, I just … I like to do nothing,” replied Stanton.
Stanton was more than just the guy that was killed by a xenomorph in “Alien,” more than just the corrupt polygamist on the HBO series “Big Love,” and if you look closer you’ll find that what he achieved in his career was something nearing a minimalist miracle.
“Pretty in Pink” (1986)
Set during the era of the famous ’80s brat pack squads, in John Hughes‘ classic teen dramedy Molly Ringwald plays Andie who is torn between two opposite affections, Duckie (Jon Cryer) whose puppy love for her is sweet, endearing and innocent, and Blane (Andrew McCarthy) a handsome rich kid that has girls everywhere swooning over him. Ringwald’s iconic role all but cemented her poster-status on boys and girls’ walls nationwide. Stanton is her sweet-natured loser father Jack, a man disappointed in not only himself but at the lack of opportunities he’s given his daughter’s life. Their scenes together are heartbreaking and bring about a whole other dimension to what is a sweet, but mostly safe and predictable Hughes universe movie. There isn’t a false note in his performance, which is benefited by the sad brooding puppy eyes we’d come to know and love over the years.

"Repo Men" (1984)
Another movie from 1984. At his best, Stanton proved to be a leading scene-stealer in Hollywood and “Repo Man” is a perfect example. Stanton’s Bud is the guy that sets up the twisted world of “Repo Men” for us. Punk-rocker Otto (Emilio Estevez) is fired from his pathetic supermarket job after being impudent to the boss. Wandering the streets, alone and confused, he meets Stanton’s car repossession agent who offers him a job working as a repo man which, much to Otto’s delight, basically means being a legally-empowered car thief. What ensues is the very lifestyle that Otto seemed to glamorize as a teenager: drugs, car chases, fights, cool cars and lots of money. He also gets to hang out with Stanton’s ornery character who teaches him the tricks of the trade as the more experienced repo man. Stanton is fantastic and his rapport with Estevez hilarious. Who could ever forget Stanton telling Estevez, “I don’t want any communists in this car……and no Christians either!” No one else could play the Repo Man with such chilled out weirdness.
“Lucky” (2017)
With over 60 years of deeply felt performances to his name, “Lucky” caps off Stanton’s career and life in meditative perfection. While “Lucky” is conceptually ordinary, its existential subtext sets the stage for a performance so perfectly nuanced for Stanton but executed in its full potential by none other — it’s a sobering portrait dedicated to one of cinema’s greatest actors. In hindsight of his passing, Stanton’s final performance is quite haunting as he transmits an entire career built upon levity into this grouchy old cynic nicknamed Lucky. Stanton frames this existential experience by infusing his pronounced stoic grace. After watching “Lucky” it’s hard not to notice Stanton’s impenetrable comfort with the inevitability of death — you could hear it in each uttered line and see it within his somber eyes. With being able to work alongside his good friend David Lynch one last time in the return of “Twin Peaks” and his devastatingly beautiful performance in “Lucky,” it’s quite difficult to imagine a more picturesque way for the prolific Harry Dean Stanton to ride off into the sunset. Full review here.

“Paris, Texas” (1984)
Directed by Wim Wenders in what is arguably his greatest film, Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis, a gentle, kind, but depressed man haunted by personal demons. This emotional black hole is forever changed when he is reunited with his brother (Dean Stockwell), who’s been raising Travis’ young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson) with his wife. This sudden reconciliation forces Travis to slowly reassess his past, more specifically to meditate on his long lost wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinksi), whom he still madly loves. Their reunion is part of the cinematic time capsule, a masterful display of restraint from the film’s director. As Travis confronts her through a booth, and tells her what he did and why he did it, he encapsulates a world of emotions in a single speech. It echoes the great scenes of epic literature from Ulysess meeting Penelope to, hell, even the return of the prodigal son. It provides an exemplary power of cinema as great art. Stanton’s performance is poetic, haunting, and just plain beautiful here.

“Wild At Heart” (1990)
By now, you’ve seen David Lynch extol the many virtues of his fallen comrade Harry Dean Stanton on Twitter (see below). While never much of a lead actor in any of his work, aside from “Paris, Texas,” Lynch and Stanton worked together five times (“Wild At Heart,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “Inland Empire,” “The Straight Story” and “Twin Peaks: The Return”), and six if you consider their close collaboration in the aforementioned “Lucky” where the two friends acted alongside one another. Stanton’s supporting roles were all memorable, but perhaps none quite as extraordinary as the small, but unforgettable turn in Lynch’s idiosyncratic fairy tale “Wild At Heart.” Stanton plays Johnnie Farragut, the private detective hired by Marietta (Diane Ladd) to locate her daughter. Farragut, a tender, mild-mannered man is also Marietta’s on-again, off-again boyfriend and really eager to please her in his easy-going, yet pained way. Of course, Marietta is essentially leading him on and manipulating Johnny for her own means. Poor Johnnie Farragut, he’s a two-time loser and as played by Stanton, you can’t help but have an overfull amount of empathy for the can’t-catch-a-break character. Stanton uses his laconic and affable mien to craft a melancholic character just trying to assuage, that sadly meets a gruesome ending. Fun fact: Farragut’s death was originally a graphic torture scene, but Lynch cut it after a torrent of audiences walked out of two test screenings. Instead, the scene, still emotionally brutal, is shot in a less stomach-churning, yet no less disturbing manner.

“Alien” (1979)
Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi has incredible talent within its cast (Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt). Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t really utter much dialogue in the film, but his facial expressions tell us everything we need to know about the good-natured traits of his character. Playing Brett, he brings some much-needed comedy relief to the USCSS Nostromo. Too bad then that his affection for Jonesy, the resident cat of the vessel, is reason for his downfall under the hands of the xenomorph, it’s one of the more disappointing departures in the film as Brett turns out to be one of the more likable characters on-board. Couldn’t Ridley spare him a little more time in the films? – with Rodrigo Perez and Kyle Kohner
Additional movies with memorable Harry Dean performances worth tracking down include “Escape from New York” (1981), “Christine” (1983), “The Green Mile” (1999), “The Last Temptation of Christ“(1988), David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and even a small part in Francis Ford Coppola‘s “The Godfather: Part II” (1974).
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