' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Harry Dean Stanton

Monday, September 18, 2017

In Memoriam: Harry Dean Stanton

The first time I saw Harry Dean Stanton in a movie he looked old. He was old, of course, in a manner of speaking, past 50, because this was “Alien” where I dare say many of my generation first saw Stanton, and even though that resplendent sci-hi haunted house was a high-profile Ridley Scott joint it was nevertheless willing to employ older odd ducks like Stanton rather than a bunch of up and coming bland, pretty faces. Thank god too. As the years have gone by it is the bitching of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, playing a couple grunts who just want to get paid, as emblematic of a Crisis of Confidence as 2121, that has stayed with me just as much as Tom Skerritt’s fateful foray into that vent. And that bitching was just as indicative of Stanton's place in the pantheon as an indelible character actor. He was not just there waiting in the wings to get picked off. And though he did get picked off, naturally, he had to, the moment was as much about his unforgettable visage — a countenance that cut like a Merle Haggard song, like it had seen some shit — as the alien itself. With that face, Stanton knew he didn’t have to scream or such; no, he just had to stand there and look up.

Harry Dean Stanton died last week at the age of 91, which for someone who always felt old somehow still feels too soon. Even so, that age invokes his long career, one that began not on the movie screen but at sea, serving as a cook in the US Navy during WWII. He began making acting appearances in just about every TV show you ever heard of in the 50s and 60s, eventually gravitating to film, in uncredited roles and bit parts, though he could still make an impression, like “Cool Hand Luke”, where even if Stanton was unknown director Stuart Rosenberg could so clearly see something in the actor’s face that he zoomed in on Stanton as he sang Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” (If you’re an unknown getting a close-up in a Paul Newman movie, man, you’ve got It.)

If his character actor abilities and unlikely visage made him perfect for the 1970s, in something of an upset he made his most indelible mark in the 1980s, wandering out of the desert as Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (1984) opened, stricken and searching for salvation. Even if it was his first leading role, he had been around so long, deep into his 50s, that he nevertheless never played the part with something to prove, which added to the character, enigmatic and silent and then, gradually, repentant without any people pleasing petulance. That same year he also starred in the cult classic “Repo Man”, more in support yet still taking center stage, and appearing in John Milius’s “Red Dawn” in a walk off cameo as the father of the hero boys suddenly thrust into the center of WWIII. If being forced to shout “Avenge me!” was disappointing overkill dictated by the screenplay, in the moments leading up to it Stanton’s solemn tough love, spoken plainly, still winningly came through. It was a different kind of fatherly affection then what he played two years later in, of all things, “Pretty in Pink”, as the broken-down elder to Molly Ringwald, where she took care of him as more than he took care of her, a sad sack vulnerability completely apart from his “Red Dawn” unsentimentality.

Stanton was famously reticent off screen, at least about the topic of himself, as Bilge Ebiri’s interview with him four years ago noted, but he brought that silence with him to the screen. When Ebiri asked about “Paris, Texas” Stanton replied: “I related to the fact that he didn’t talk for a half an hour in the film”, deeming it “The syndrome of being silent.” Indeed, in “The Straight Story” (1999), Stanton played Lyle Straight, the brother of Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin, who rode his tractor 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin just to see his long-estranged flesh and blood one last time with both of them teetering on death’s door. Because their meeting cannot arrive until the climax, Stanton is barely in the film, and while another movie might have made time for a Big Speech or a Meaningful Conversation, director David Lynch valued The Syndrome of Being Silent and simply let Stanton’s presence trigger the catharsis. Indeed, a man who lived so long and did so much and who rarely, right up until the end, ever seemed without a cigarette, always demonstrated, better than most, the value of screen of moderation.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

So happy you ended this lovely post with The Straight Story. That final scene between the two of them is so special, and now even more poignant than before. HDS will certainly be missed.