Sunday, September 17, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton RIP

With the passing of Harry Dean Stanton we may have to permanently retire the phrase 'hang-dog expression' as no one else may ever fit it so well. Those soulful eyes set deep and resting atop oftten un-shaven jowls (jowls - on a skinny guy) could convey hardness and cynicism as effectively as bottomless wells of tender-hearted warmth and vulnerability.

His body of work includes too many important (to me) films to try and cover in a single piece, but I've assembled a very personal top-five Harry Dean Stanton moments.

Big Love - As Roman Grant, patriarch and prophet of a polygamous Mormon cult who travels everywhere in a well-armed caravan of white SUVs, he is a straight up gangster bringing physical as well as spiritual menace to the proceedings - especially in the first few seasons of the show. The first scene of him trying to muscle in on estranged son in law Bill Paxton's successful business via blackmail is some shiver-inducing shit. 

Paris, Texas - As the lonely figure wandering through the desert in Wim Wenders' adaptation of Sam Shepard's play he spends the first eternity of his performance almost entirely mute - confused, haunted, determined - but he drops the heavy anchor of the film's emotional core in a scene of dialogue with peep-show performer Nastassja Kinski. Separated by a one-way mirror and using a telephone, the barriers between the characters are slowly dissolved and the stage is set for a second similar encounter that packs a wallop. 

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - A bit player in Sam Peckinpah's oft-maligned (and I've only seen the restored version - so maybe it really did suck for decades) meditation on betrayal, Harry Dean Stanton has a single show-stealing moment that nicely frames the whole film. When Kris Kristofferson's laconically charismatic Billy breaks out of jail and unexpectedly catches up to his gang bunked out in the middle of the night Stanton's Luke gives up his spot in the bed he's sharing with a woman Billy wants to sleep with. He's disappointed to, he's jealous, but he's also happy to see his friend alive and assumes beta-dog position without it a showdown. The look on his face and his body language in the scene pretty much sums up all the film's themes. Breaks my heart every time.

Repo Man - As Bud, mentor to Emilio Estevez's Otto in Alex Cox's weird masterpiece, Stanton has the lion's share of good lines, but it's hard to imagine another actor who could take the contempt the young punk throws his way and hand it back to him so expertly folded and origami'd that initial scorn becomes admiration and hero worship. The 'the life of a repo man is always intense' scene deserves iconic status.

Wild At Heart - As Johnnie Farragut, P.I. and whipped dog to Diane Ladd's Marietta Fortune in David Lynch's expanding adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel, Stanton has many memorable moments - driving across the swampy south tapping his fingers on his way to New Orleans, yipping at a hyena on the hotel television and bemoaning the sexual possibilities he and Ladd are passing up by hitting the road instead of staying in that king-sized bed - but it's his final doomed moments being tormented by Grace Zabriski, Calvin Lockhart and David Patrick Kelly as a trio of hired voodoo killers that he looks at the camera, sighs 'oh Marietta' and conveys that he may be a sap and a cuck-hold, but he's no fool - he knew this end was a strong possibility, but he made his own choices  with his eyes open, and he'd probably make them again, for the love of a woman who doesn't return it. 

A few more films I love that he sometimes anchored, other times supported and occasionally made no more than a cameo-appearance in, but, held so much character in his face that he, enriched and sold the entire atmosphere of: Alien, Alpha Dog, Cockfighter, Cool Hand Luke, Dillinger, Escape From New York, In the Heat of the Night, 92 in the Shade, The Pledge, Ride in the Whirlwind, Seven Psychopaths, The Straight Story, Straight Time, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Two-Lane Blacktop.

I was already very much looking forward to John Carroll Lynch's Lucky, but oh man, now I bet it's going to land like an anvil on my heart. 


Eryk Pruitt said...

I'm such a huge fan of his singing in COOL HAND LUKE.

Jim Thomsen said...

His role in RANCHO DELUXE is small but memorable (should that be a default statement about 91 percent of his filmography?), if only for the scene in which he falls for his employer's comely young niece, and the camera holds on his face as he gets a blowjob in the woods.