In an interview included with the Repo Man DVD, he’s asked, “Does the way you look at the world influence the way you act? In a film?” After a moment of silence, he says, “Obviously.” He was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926. His father was a tobacco farmer. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and was in the glee club, and served in the Navy during WWII, surviving the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, an experience that hardened him, left him thankful to be alive but with a detachment that seems to have manifest in emotional diffidence in interviews, his low-key deliveries in films. After his home was robbed in 1996 and he was tied up and had a gun pressed against his face, he mused to reporters, “I think I’m blessed with a pretty tough psyche.”
He was reluctant to disclose much of his personal life. In Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, he croons “Blue Moon” in response to the question, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” He turns Americana into a koan. His placidity earned him the nickname “Harry Zen Stanton.” His penchant for ontological musings and belief in predestiny, a word he said “scares people shitless,” didn’t extend to sincere supernatural beliefs. He wasn’t religious in a conventional sense. He could quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Book of Revelations at length but preferred the “more human” Jesus of The Gnostic Gospels. He also did a series of quotidian exercises called the Five Rites, a Tibetan practice to “stimulate your chakras” that predates yoga. He thought, he hoped, that after life there would be nothing. His turn as the mendacious, self-professed prophet with 14 wives on Big Love has a skeptical quality to it, the performance of a man who didn’t believe the bullshit his character posited. “I’m big into Eastern concepts,” he says in Partly Fiction. “The horror of life, the love of children, the whole phantasmagoria—it’s all meaningless.”
Reticent, even cryptic, he spoke with terse, exacting language, with an acerbic wit, but sometimes he just spoke his mind. While recording a podcast in 2013, Jen Kirkman asked Stanton what he thought about the guy Molly Ringwald ends up with in Pretty in Pink. He said, without missing a beat, “I don’t give a fuck.” When Kirkman pressed, irksomely asking how he would feel if he had a hypothetical daughter, she correctly predicted he would, again, not give a fuck.
Singing, Stanton’s first passion, seemed preferable to speaking, and he wasn’t shy to flaunt his chops. In 1962, on a forgotten show called Checkmate, Stanton first showed off his vocal prowess, tinged with a self-aware ennui. With a guitar slung over his leather jacket, he belts, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” His musical talents were used more prominently a few years later, in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke; he gazes off, a thousand-yard stare, a death-row stare, cooing a hymn of futile hope. The camera zooms in on that great, lissome face, toward those wispy lips, beads of sweat clinging to his stubble.
A suspicion of fatalism suffuses his performances. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, he plays Brett, the engineering technician on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. Stanton, who didn’t like horror or monster movies, plays the role the way he played all his others: with an authentic nonchalance, a middle-class denizen grinding away, waiting for his paycheck—which is to say, “right.” While looking for the cat, which he let escape, Brett becomes the first of the crew to meet the fully grown alien. Looking up at the creature, a hulking black something that looms over him like inevitable judgement, he has the same nonplussed face as the cat. How else should one react to the unfathomable?
Because Stanton was already middle-aged by the time he appeared in Alien, most moviegoers never knew him to be young; he seemed to have drifted into popular culture like a piece of space debris, or maybe a tumbleweed from one of his early, generic western films. The ’80s turned out to be Stanton’s decade. There was an acidic quality to many of his films, the corrosive remnants of halcyon memories and bad decisions lingering, scarring. He seeped into the mainstream while etching out his own niche in smaller, odder films.
On the cusp of 60, with nearly three decades of credits to his name, Stanton finally got the leading role he’d wanted, in Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas. Moviegoers remember the red baseball cap, vibrant against a beige expanse, an image that circulated social media after the news of Stanton’s death, but the devastating beauty of the film stems from the raggedy sapience of the performance. Travis, who remains mute for much of the film, is a cipher whose identity, whose anguish, is slowly revealed, in drips, culminating in a Sam Shepard-penned story about a dissolving relationship. After so much silence, the unflustered, epiphanic delivery is deafening. A peepshow, a two-way mirror, a phone call with the mother of his missing son. The camera goes back and forth between Travis and Jane, who doesn’t know with whom she’s talking. His voice doesn’t give him away; the story does. A man, in love, plunges into alcoholism, into mental degradation. His life falls apart, his family leaves, his house catches fire. He’s not performing a recital but recalling a moment lodged in time, in stasis. It’s a realization. “Now he got really crazy.” It’s a story of paranoia, of anger—and eventually, he finds penance. He’ll end up alone, of course, but he’ll find serenity.
Like Mitchum, Stanton often uses passivity, a kind of pensive ennui, to tell an internal story that defies words; unlike Mitchum, normally languid but capable of volatility and biblical violence (most notable in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter), a man who had a Sisyphean desperation to him, Stanton remains devastatingly unperturbed. His most famous role is one of self-realization, sacrifice, one that doesn’t erupt but, at the right time, fades into the horizon. The performance is daring in its subtlety. Given the chance to finally lead a film, Stanton lets the landscape out-act him.
That same year, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, he played the garrulous mentor to Emilio Estevez’s punk. “Look at those assholes,” he snaps. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Stanton, who had played working-class washouts for over 20 years, was ready to move on. His star had risen. David Letterman called him “the world’s greatest character actor.” Roger Ebert said that no film featuring Stanton could be altogether bad. He hosted Saturday Night Live. Then he went back to playing supporting roles. And American cinema was better for it.
Also Starring Harry Dean Stantaon runs at the Quad from September 23—30.