2017 Film Essays

Clothes Make the Man: Remembering Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton died on September 15, 2017. During his 60-year film career, he would sometimes appear at the center of movies, but more often at the margins. He was a character actor par excellence, elevating films by his presence, one that conveyed a detachment, an ease, a malaise or any shade in between such feelings. With his gaunt physique, sunken eyes and hallowed cheekbones, Stanton was often given roles in which he was the shyster, the big boss man’s sideman, the front man’s backup singer, the main character’s archrival. At a certain point in the 1980s, the iconic character actor simply became an icon, one of insouciant cool hipsterdom, with Debbie Harry singing “I wanna dance with Harry Dean” (“I Want That Man”) and David Lynch giving him roles.

Born in West Irvine, Kentucky in 1926, Stanton was raised by stern Southern Baptist parents. After high school, he served in the Navy and fought in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. After the war, he followed several interests — such as joining the American Male Chorus. Although it infrequently came across onscreen, music — along with Eastern religion and philosophy — was an integral part of his life. In Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012), a documentary that rehashes his life and the stories that he told repeatedly in interviews, Stanton sings Irish, Mexican, folk and blues tunes in his melancholic voice.

In the 1950s, Stanton made his sojourn to Hollywood. He worked on anything and everything. He pops up in Cool Hand Luke (1967) singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” He appeared in several episodes of the long-running TV Western Gunsmoke (1955–1975). At the time, when Stanton’s life-long pal Jack Nicholson blew into Hollywood, landing at Roger Corman’s American International Pictures with the counterculture crew of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, he wrote a part just for his friend in Ride the Whirlwind (1966). In Monte Hellman’s existential Western (produced by Nicholson), Stanton plays Blind Dick Reilly, the head of a gang who wears a derby and an eye patch. “Let the wardrobe do the acting and just play yourself,” Nicholson said. This piece of advice stuck with Stanton and informed the way he would approach acting from here on out — acting by non-acting.

Just look at the wardrobe Stanton wears in Cockfighter (1974): Hellman introduces him first with his two-tone shoes, then tilts up revealing his cream-colored suit, pinkish purple striped shirt and ascot. His outfit screams puffed up confidence. In John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979) Stanton wears all black with his darkened shades and hat. He’s Hawks, a huckster posing as a “blind” street preacher lead around by his daughter. In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), distinguishing himself from the small Nostromo crew, he wears a Hawaiian t-shirt and a baseball cap. As Brent, he’s a monosyllabic, chain-smoking maintenance man griping for his pay and a bonus with his brother-in-arms, Parker. In Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), he’s the salty seen-it-all repo man who hates “ordinary fucking people,” snorts a few lines of coke and teaches the “repo code” to Otto.

Now, a few weeks after his death at the age of 91, one of Stanton’s last performances — a rare leading role — makes it to the screen in John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky (2017). It’s a film tailored to the life and legacy of Stanton, and in this way, it is also retrospective for many of his close friends appear in the film (David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr.). Stanton plays the titular role, a man with a routine way of life. Lucky gets up, has his cigarettes, drinks his glass of milk, watches his game show and exercises. He’s a man known and liked all over the small town that he resides in somewhere in the American Southwest. He has no wife and kids; he’s not lonely, just alone. After a fall, he becomes conscious of his looming mortality and suddenly feels the weight of his existence. He comes to the realization that life is a meaningless void and it’s best to just smile.

Too reliant on its scripted readings, Lucky is a sincere yet simple tribute to a great actor who seldom used the full depth of his abilities. Lucky opens with a low-angle shot of Dean Stanton, his head set against a deep blue sky. It’s an homage to the opening of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), which contains a performance that’s Dean Stanton’s crowning achievement. Wandering through the desert with his red cap, his water jug, his raggedy suit, not saying a word for the first 20 minutes of the movie, Dean Stanton’s Travis evokes a void. It is not something spoken like in Lucky. Where his identity is, there is an absence, one that’s been gone for four years. This is deeply felt in Stanton’s presence on screen, and when Travis does begin to talk, coming back to life, he’s frail, polite and soft-spoken — the weight of his former life hangs on his shoulders. Look at the way his eyes radiate when he sees his wife Jane in home movies, or when he finally sees her in a peepshow.

Harry Dean Stanton was dependable, durable and made whatever part his own, no matter how big or small. But it took Wim Wenders to capture the solitude that lay dormant in the actor’s presence. Other roles merely hint at it, but with Paris, Texas’ Travis, Stanton played a character that stands shoulder to shoulder with those enacted by Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart in their infinite sadness.

Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope, and The Village Voice. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, Letterboxd, and WordPress.