Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.
A pair of fine memorials remind us what a unique presence we lost with the passing of Harry Dean Stanton. Drew Fortune rounds up a baker’s dozen of friends, collaborators, and fellow barflies to share memories of a flinty buddha who wouldn’t hesitate to cut you down to size even as he remained your boon companion. (“He’ll tell ya, ‘You’re nothing.’ Everybody would get mad, because they didn’t understand why he’d always be saying that. It’s his way of expressing that we’re all just individuals on the planet Earth—that you’re no bigger or better than anyone else. Him and Marlon Brando were tight, and he used to get Marlon all the time. He’d say to Marlon, ‘You know, we’re all nothing.’ Marlon would say, ‘What the hell do you mean?’”) And Brian McGuire, who directed Stanton in four films and acted as a special sort of assistant on the actor’s last, Lucky, recalls the headaches and concomitant great rewards that came from working with such a marvel. (“A million questions, all for just one short scene and one line! I made up answers on the fly, but Harry had yet more questions. ‘Where are we going after we leave the apartment?’ I said, ‘You’re going out to a nice restaurant for a celebration meal.’ Harry: ‘Where?’ I quickly spat back, ‘I don’t know, Harry, it’s been a long time since I had a nice meal. So you’re gonna have to pick the place.’ There was a long silence. Shit, did I just blow it? Did I go too far? Then I heard that classic old man voice say, ‘OK, I think I can do your picture.’”)
“There is beauty to burn here, and a hint of desolation in the train’s mournful horn as it pulls into Livingston, a town in the wide-open spaces of a state that has earned the nickname Big Sky Country. In and around that small town, we meet three strong-willed, uneasy women trying to shrug off or rise above or transform lives that feel too small for them. Each gets her own story in this portmanteau film, and though the women may brush against one another in passing, they will never meet. By the end, you might wish they had, if only to dissipate the loneliness that rises off them like morning fog. Reichardt weaves in comedy, in varying shades of wicked black, but she’s never one to shy from despair, even at the close of a film.” Ella Taylor plumbs the human depth behind the minimalist surface of Reichardt’s Certain Women.
[Originally published in The Weekly, December 19, 1984]
In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a film employed to throw a cultural frame around Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, a character says to Abe, “Never saw a man look at a river the way you do.” No filmmaker has ever looked at a road the way Wim Wenders does. He sees it in all its purity and directness of line, its beauty as a brave and silent sign of man’s efforts to impose coherence and continuity on the awful indifference of landscape; sees above all, perhaps, the beauty of its effective invisibility. We don’t really look at roads, even as we rely upon them absolutely as the arterials of modern life, the reminders that, as sedentary beings who live out most of our lives in place, we never entirely shake free of the atavistic allure of being a nomadic race.
[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. The New Land begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting Long Goodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in Rancho Deluxe).
“Do I have any lines? I don’t want any lines. How about I do nothing? How about silence?”
Harry Dean Stanton, the veteran character actor with (by his own count) over 250 film appearances to his credit, would rather not talk about himself. Or about his family, his life, his career, or the craft of acting. Which makes him a curious subject for a documentary. Director Sophie Huber follows him around Los Angeles, films him hanging out at his favorite L.A. bar, Dan Tana’s, where he’s known the bartender for more than 40 years, and shoots him in his home singing folk songs and standards between sessions trying to get the actor to open up.
“How would you describe yourself?” asks friend and frequent director David Lynch. “There is no self,” he answers, his craggy, lined face maintaining a nearly unreadable stoniness. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” He’s not simply an actor with nothing to prove. He’s a private man who prefers to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself and a few chosen friends. Stanton opens up a little over coffee and cigarettes with Lynch, who makes a game of lobbing questions from a card provided by Huber and then spins off in remembrances of their long history together, and he eases into reminiscing with Kris Kristofferson, who credits Stanton for his first film role in Cisco Pike and then launches into his iconic song “The Pilgrim”: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker. He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher. He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.” Stanton was one of the inspirations for those lyrics, according to Kristofferson, along with a few others, and the two start checking off all those early seventies characters who fit the bill.
[Originally published in The Weekly, May 28, 1980]
I preach that there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth…. Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.
—Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, chapter 10
Throughout his career, John Huston has kept faith with a vision of mankind as a valiant, fumbling lot, and life as a mostly doomed quest after holy and unholy grails: truth, riches, peace of mind, personal and cosmic vengeance, kingly selfhood. His Homo sapiens is a quirky, charming, exasperating, sometimes weirdly noble species occupying a tenuous ascendancy in the evolutionary scheme of things. The director contemplates his protagonists’ foibles and virtues, triumphs and catastrophes, with equal indulgence, but he never suspends the rules of the existential game, never reaches in to prop his people up or knock them down. He just watches, sees the way things are, shows them as clearly as it is in his power to do, and then shares with us his sad, ironical smile.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a fierce-eyed cracker who returns from an unspecified modern war, pensioned off because of an unspecified wound, to find the family homestead in ruins and his Georgia village permanently bypassed by the highway. Changing his Army uniform for an $11.98 suit at the general store, Hazel entrains for “the city” determined “to do some things I never done before.” These all have to do with his violent need to establish “a place to be,” not only in space—a klunker car and a rented room will serve for that—but also in spirit, which only a dismantling of the entire Judaeo-Christian worldview will achieve.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
More than a fair share of iridescent, long-shadowed mornings and ghostly blue, otherworldly evenings mark the twilight of an era in The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn’s end-of-the-West Western. Penn’s Little Big Man was also an elegy of sorts, an iconoclastic and morally allegorical taking-apart of a corner of Western legend that has turned into (as in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) an artifact consigned to a past made all the more poignant and irredeemable when contrasted to the poverty of a present trying to understand it. In Missouri Breaks, though, Penn and Thomas McGuane seem to be dealing their hands from within the form of the Western, letting the conventions subvert themselves, allowing a marked dissipation of generic coherence (a quality central to Penn’s Night Moves), to leave Penn’s world almost uninhabitable for the people left to muddle out the riddles of life within it. Missouri Breaks unfolds in a country that seems just at the peak of ripeness, ready to go to rot, thick with the flora of a virgin country and yet violated within minutes of its unveiling by a rather nasty hanging that seems a grim but nearly extraneous afterthought to a throng of onlookers gathered socially out in this green world, singing “Oh Susanna” and arguing politely about who ought to kick the horse out from underneath the condemned man. It’s a voracious landscape, even if Samuel Johnson does claim that a blade of grass is just a blade of grass.