Sunday, November 14, 2010

Take Three: Harry Dean Stanton

Craig here with this week's Take Three. Today: Harry Dean Stanton

Take One: One of the Lynch mob

Stanton has been on regular staff rotation for four David Lynch flicks. (Four-and-a-half, if you include TV oddity Hotel Room.) From 1990 to 2006 Stanton provided characteristic screen goodness for a quartet of Lynch's most enduring works. Chronologically he’s contributed to: Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006). He was great as, respectively: disorderly PI Johnnie Farragut tailing lovers-on-the-lam Sailor & Lula; Carl Rodd, irritable and dishevelled proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park; frowzy front porch frowner Lyle Straight, estranged brother to lawnmower man Alvin; and Freddie Howard, dilapidated Hollywood has-been, both on-set and off-guard.

“I’ve already gone places” HDS laments his lot in Fire Walk with Me

They are sad-sack characters, all. Apart from Wild at Heart – his most substantial role for Lynch – he has little more than one big scene in each film. But he makes his singular moments count. His Lynch mob doesn’t vary wildly, and they’re all vividly ragged extensions of the HDS persona. I could watch him yap like a hyena in bed, as he does in Wild at Heart, and be eternally happy; I could listen to his dog anecdote from Inland Empire ten times and still manage a smirk; I could watch, and watch again, his eyes well up with tears out of trance-like regret over either the arrival of an old crone (Fire Walk with Me) or the arrival of an estranged brother (The Straight Story) and be more and more moved each time. What is it with Stanton’s Lynch figments that swerve the fatty showmanship of so much character acting and zero in on the uncanny emotion of life in minute ways? Every auteur could do with five minutes of Stanton’s blue collar characterisation in every one their best films.

"Oh Marietta Honey." HDS laments his lot some more in Wild at Heart

Take Two: x2 from 1979

Stanton’s been making films consistently for the last 54 years; it’s rare one goes by in which he’s not adding fine support somewhere or other. (Apart from 2008, Stanton has made films every year since his uncredited debut in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man in 1956.) The early ‘70s saw him hit his stride, and 1979 saw him find his very own career groove. The two, key films he made in ‘79 were: Alien and Wise Blood. (He also made The Rose that year, and very good he was in it too.)

That's not Jonesy the cat! HDS is about to experience some Alien intervention

His Brett in Ridley Scott’s Alien was perhaps one of his most fondly recalled roles.

He’s the most relaxed and nonplussed of Nostromo’s crew (the polar opposite of Ripley). He showed more concern about retrieving Jonesy the cat than taking all this Xenomorph business seriously  - but he paid for that blithe unconcern, ultimately. His expression when the alien’s shadow glides over his face is similar to that when Grace Zabriskie’s mad voodoo woman offs him in Wild at Heart: it’s resigned, depleted of struggle. It's pure HDS. It’s the face he wears throughout Alien: that of an old-school astronaut whose days were likely numbered long before the facehugger burst onto the screen.

Left: Harry Dean as Asa in Wise Blood.

As Asa Hawkes, the “blind” street preacher who dragged his daughter around for religious sermons and ground-level grovelling (“Jesus is a FACT!”), he hid his sly expressions behind a pair of glasses in Wise Blood. This being John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel, high Godly fervour and maniacal, hothouse dramatics were the order of the day: Stanton gave us gritty variants of both in the film. His duplicitous, phony God-botherer didn’t convince the crowd ultimately, but the acting bowled a strike. In films as unique and as bewilderingly uncharted as this, it’s a good sign when Stanton comes along.

Take Three: "I knew these people... these two people..."

When Stanton wanders back to civilisation at the start of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) we scrutinise his ragged face for signs of life, as much as his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) does. Who is this silent, scrawny, no-name nomad in shopworn attire and with an expression even a dog would hesitate to wear on its most desperate days?

HDS gives the windswept look a go in Paris, Texas

He was Travis Henderson. The hangdog look had been eroded not only by four years' worth of desert winds but also a lifetime’s wash of salty, regretful tears. A bad past had left him unanchored and adrift. He and Jane (Nastassja Kinski) had a life together - of trailer parks and dead-end jobs - but that’s all backstory. It’s in the way Travis attempts to reunite his young son Hunter with Jane, and, more significantly, the journey father and son take to get there, that Wenders’ film blossoms into the unforgettable and quietly majestic road movie that's staked a beloved claim on many cinephile's hearts.

Stanton was settling in to a fruitful phase in his career; Paris, Texas was his juiciest role. It was the kind of lead a tried and tested character actor of his calibre could only make his own. And he did. If Travis defines HDS’ career, then it’s a sound definition. It’s a performance that demands to be championed time and again through ongoing celebration. It’s a subtle, instinctive turn too: Stanton clearly knows Travis. So he never over-eggs his peculiarities. He doesn’t initially appear to undergo a vast transition over the film’s 147 mins, but by the time he’s in his car in the parking lot at the end, he’s a different man. His persona, for so long in freefall, has been altered for the better. Everything else is unquestionable class. And those zany walks, across the road from Hunter when he picks him up from school? That's acting.

Three more key films for the taking: The Hostage (1967), Repo Man (1984), The Green Mile (1999)


Dan said...

Top, top actor! Repo Man is one of those little known films that deserves to be seen by more people.

Paul Outlaw said...

Repo Man!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Craig,

Great retrospective of Mr. Stanton. He's created some truly memorable characters and always so subtle, so 'everyday' like he isn't even really trying which is probably one of the most rare attributes in Hollywood these days. Everyone ends up playing 'themselves' and while Stanton brings a certain amount of Stanton to every role, he does it with a thumb in your eye, always a little unexpected and yes, Repo Man is a gem that doesn't ever garner the credit it deserves.

Anyone see the dismal RepoMen? Not even worthy of mention except for the name.

City_Of_Lights said...

I discovered Harry Dean Stanton when I was a kid and the Disney Channel played One Magic Christmas every year. Such a cool guy. Love him in Two Lane Blacktop, Wendell Baker Story, Pretty In Pink, Cool Hand Luke, Mr North. I've probably seen more of his smaller movies than the ones he's actually known for.

Blinking Cursor said...

I just saw the Straight Story last night, and though HDS has only one small scene at the end of the movie, it's such a pivotal scene, and he totally sells it. He had at most perhaps 5 minutes of screen time as Lyle Straight, but he creates a fully realized character in those few moments, his eyes welling up with tears when he realizes his brother, Alvin, drove from Iowa to Wisconisin on a John Deere lawnmower to see him. HDS a master character actor, indeed!

Anonymous said...

I know him from Big Love, but - Paris, Texas is AMAZING!

adri said...

"Repo Man", "Escape From New York", "The Straight Story", "Paris, Texas" - loved him in all of those.

I also loved him in an Bertrand Tavernier film, "La Mort en direct" (Deathwatch), with Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider.

Stanton also gives one of the best film speeches ever as Doubting Thomas in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ". He makes the character understandable and reasonable, an almost impossible task for a Biblical character. Harvey Keitel is the only other actor in that movie who also makes sense.

adri said...

And how could I forget, "92 in the Shade" where Stanton gets to be deeply in love. She doesn't love him as much back, but that doesn't sway his love. How rarely do we see an actor play that and we believe it?