The Role of a Lifetime
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
directed by Sophie Huber
Opens at the Landmark Nuart theater in Los Angeles on Friday, September 13; openings in select cities to follow (playdates at
Director Sophie Huber and Harry Dean Stanton will be doing a Q&A this Friday following the 7:30 p.m. show at The Nuart
Film acting icons don’t have to have much to say. They’re faces, after all, etched in our collective memories –– they’re aware of that, usually –– and they’re often hollow shells who’ve lived their lives through the varied roles they’ve played, and have become an amalgamation of all these roles. So when actors are asked about how and why they acted the way they did in this or that role, or indeed what they think about global warming or the situation in Syria or such and such, they can come off rather flat-toned and liteweight. But if you care to know more about what truly makes them tick, sometimes the way they hold their faces or their bodies as they show you the paintings they bought or rave about the music they dig, or perhaps the way they deliver with such shocking insularity their views on the actor’s art or health food or 9/11 or whatever, all this can tell you a lot more than they’re capable of articulating.
Such broadbrush observations on actors and their art are givens, I suppose, but I mention them because they bear repeating
(Kids: Actors really aren’t such great role models), and because I respect actors in general for their very reluctance or inability to illuminate in words the art of acting or
even who they are. And what an interesting case in this regard is Harry Dean Stanton. He’s a film giant, for sure, one of our greatest ever, and he doesn’t talk all that
much, at least not in this artful documentary by Swiss director Sophie Huber. We see Harry Dean sitting at home, smoking endless cigarettes, patiently enduring the
director’s questions or prods to open up a little more and, you know, reveal this man Harry Dean Stanton. Huber seems to understand that it was always going to be
about what he didn’t say and the way his haggard hangdog of a face looked when the camera zoomed in on it. The excellent cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shoots in
B&W and color to paint with light and shadow; his camera reveals a sizable lump on Harry’s forehead, and those pained, remote yet penetrating eyes of enormous depth;
he also has huge ears, with very long earlobes, and if you happened to have noticed those big ears, it might’ve triggered the thought that partly what makes Harry Dean
Stanton a great actor is the fact that he’s such a listener.
Stanton’s taciturnity isn’t hostile, it’s organic,
genuine, and when he does talk, it’s tidbits of info hospitably provided as if to remove any
dead air that might make others in the room uncomfortable. When pushed, he mumbles
scraps about his life, about acting, about music, women (“everybody wants to get laid”),
non-attachment and the transience of all things, drugs and booze and his parents’ divorce
and his never-dimmed past down home on the farm in Kentucky. Past collaborators and
pals like David Lynch, Kris Kristofferson, Wim Wenders, Deborah Harry and Sam Shepard
chip in useful thoughts on Harry Dean and the horse he rode in on.
That heartbroken, mute drifter in Paris, Texas, the coke-snorting raving Repo Man, the father-hating cattle rustler in
The Missouri Breaks, all the losers and conmen and good guys and weasels and
in-betweens he’s played in something like 200 films –– Harry Dean Stanton is, unlike so many
other actors, not all of these characters fused together; it’s more like these varied individuals
were several shades of Harry Dean Stanton his own self.
Who that who might be is anyone’s guess, and meanwhile one can easily see that Harry Dean Stanton is homesick, for the Kentucky in his heart that no longer exists. But he’s okay with that. He’s a Zenlike non-Buddhist whose home is where he happens to be at any given time, a point he makes doubly clear in a few lovely folk tunes warbled sweetly and huffed on harmonica. You’ve got to hear him do “Danny Boy” or “Blue Bayou.” It’ll bring a smile to your face, and between the notes will tell you most all you need to know about this soulful enigma named Harry Dean Stanton.
–– John Payne