The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered

Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema.

The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered
Photo: Adopt Films

Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.

One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.

Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.

Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.

Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.

Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.

Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.

In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.

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.

Greg Cwik

Greg Cwik's writing has appeared in The Notebook, Reverse Shot, Playboy, Brooklyn Rail, and Kinoscope.

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