Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
There were a lot of things about the first Avengers film that I really enjoyed. If we’re being honest, Harry Dean Stanton’s cameo, as the security guard who discovers a naked Bruce Banner in a crater inside a warehouse, is pretty high on the list. It’s a brief, fairly unimportant role, but the delight in just seeing Stanton alive and well was enough for me. That doesn’t mean that simply seeing him in things like Seven Psychopaths, the HBO series Big Love, or the new Twin Peaks is purely a novelty. At the tender age of 91, Stanton remains an actor who has retained nearly all of his everyman qualities, which have been combined seamlessly with his instincts and other gifts as an actor over the years. Although obviously slowing down a little, Stanton continues to prove he’s still got it at a surprisingly brisk pace.
Surprisingly, considering Stanton’s love of the nightlife. And the fact that he smokes what appear to be around 900 packs of cigarettes a day (unfiltered? I wouldn’t be surprised). And the fact that he enjoys a cocktail or several. And the fact that he continues to be known to stay up until dawn, drinking, talking, and even singing/playing the guitar. Keith Richards and Harry Dean Stanton are clearly going to the same place to get their blood switched out every decade.
The lovely, fascinating 2012 documentary about Stanton, entitled Partly Fiction, gives us a lot of insight into the man himself. It also provides us with a whirlwind tour of the directors he has worked with (David Lynch, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, John Carpenter, Joss Whedon, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and on), the stories he has accumulated, and the remarkable variety of roles he has tackled over the years. He has played sympathetic father figures, cunning leaders capable of stunning monstrosities, working class losers, dangerous lawmen, tragic leading men, and more.
In watching the documentary, it becomes clear that after 60+ years and 100+ TV show/film appearances, picking just five Harry Dean Stanton movies is going to be almost impossible.
And although I haven’t seen it yet, my suspicions about Stanton as the star of 2017’s Lucky are as follows: Don’t be surprised when Stanton gets an Oscar nomination for playing the 91-year-old hero in John Carroll Lynch’s debut film. It’s an accolade I wouldn’t imagine Stanton is particularly concerned about. Nonetheless, from at least the perspective of one fan who has watched his characters and performances for several years, it’s about goddamn time.
Where do you even start with a career as far-spanning and varied as that of Harry Dean Stanton? We’re starting with 1979’s Alien, which also means we’re starting with one of the most influential, enduring horror and/or science fiction franchises of the past forty years. We’re also starting at a point in which Harry Dean Stanton had already been working as an actor for over twenty years. His career began in the late 50s with a slew of small roles in films TV show. He moved between the mediums as most young character actors in his period did. Not surprisingly, he did a lot of westerns. His expressive, constantly alert face, particularly around the eyes, made him suited to playing sympathetic, weak friends, conniving rat bastards, crooked cops, or cops who only seemed crooked. Perhaps, they’re just assholes. Or they’re exhausted from the constant bullshit that inevitably follows simply getting out of bed.
Stanton eventually moved to larger roles, with Alien being a prime example, because people could accept him as nearly anything. Stanton didn’t just look like an everyman. He took on roles that reflected it, as well. Even in movies with just a few minutes of screen time, Stanton could create characters who were strangely captivating, even if they weren’t really written to be that way. Roles in Straight Time, Cockfighter, Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heroes, Two-Lane Blacktop, In The Heat of the Night, 92 in the Shade, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and many of the other films he did prior to Alien are compelling evidence of Stanton’s talents and reliability.
By the time he got to Alien, which launched the careers of names like Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott, he was firmly in the “Hey-I-Think-I-Recognize-That-Guy” category. If you watched westerns, gangster films, or horror movies, you probably saw Harry Dean Stanton.
While Alien didn’t make Stanton a star, it remains one of his best roles. Amid the intense claustrophobia, the body horror, and a relentless atmosphere of death breaking down the muscles that allow you to flee from the hell ripping through your ship in the deep of space, Alien has strong, believable performances from the humans in jeopardy. Stanton is one of the best elements of showcasing the bleak, frank world in which Alien begins (and continues to this day). Rather than a United Federation of Planets, or a heroic showdown between distinct entities representing good and evil, Alien is set in a galaxy that feels a lot like our planet in the 21st century. People are still essentially people in Alien.
Corporations are still corporations, too. The people who work and eventually, needlessly perish under the demands of these corporations are brilliantly captured in the performances of the entire cast of this film, which serve to enhance the horror elements that make Alien one of the scariest movies of all time. Stanton’s performance and characterizations as Brett is one of the best connections to all of these thoughts.
Paris, Texas (1984)
A consistent theme with this column is my love of actors and actresses who are more often than not brilliant, even in small roles, and who work at an exhaustive pace across a great scope of films. Harry Dean Stanton obviously qualifies. Between Alien and 1984’s Paris, Texas, which saw him working with the great writer/director Wim Wenders, Stanton appeared in ten more films. Some of those movies are cult classics with essential performances from Stanton, always in a supporting capacity. Between those two films, Stanton appeared in Repo Man, Wise Blood, Death Watch, Private Benjamin, Escape from New York, Christine, and One from the Heart. We just can’t discuss his work in all of them, although anyone who knows those movies will tell you to at least check out Stanton in Alex Cox’s Repo Man and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. His work with Brad Dourif and director John Huston in Wise Blood is another one worth watching, when you’ve finished with the five here.
Paris, Texas was the first time anyone thought Harry Dean Stanton could make for a credible leading man. It remains one of my favorite films of all time. Beyond Paris, Texas being one of the best road trip movies ever made, it is a beautifully realized story of redemption of a most sobering, haunting kind. When we meet Stanton’s character Travis Henderson, he is wandering the South Texas desert in a seemingly hopeless daze. We quickly learn there is some measure of purpose to this wandering, but we then understand that it is nonetheless the efforts of a man who has been left in ruins. We learn more about that as the movie goes on.
We meet Travis’ brother Walt (the perfect Dean Stockwell), Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), and Travis’ son Hunter (adopted by Walt and Anne, after Travis disappeared four years earlier). Relationships are cautiously repaired by all concerned. Stanton’s masterful work in transforming Travis into someone who is once again connected to his past, present, and possible future is one of his greatest achievements as an actor.
When we finally meet the most crucial figure to Travis’ past, his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), we have already learned as much about her as we’ve learned about Travis. Part of that is because of the exposition the movie occasionally offers against stunning, lonely shots of the endless southwestern desert. Part of that is because of Stanton, whose performance creates not only an impression of his character, but impressions of all of the other characters in the film. His mute, blank stare tells us a great deal at the beginning. His heroic, human effort to make things right creates not just a portrait of the character, by the time the movie ends, but it creates a portrait of the entire film’s soul.
For me personally, it is one of the best performances of all-time in one of the best movies of all-time.
Despite being completed in 1981, UFOria didn’t see a theatrical release. It didn’t do particularly well when it was finally put out, although the few who did review it (Roger Ebert being among them, giving the movie four stars) liked it. The movie was not released to VHS until 1987. To date, it has still not found its way to DVD.
In other words, this movie is hard to come by. I’m really sorry about that. Still, if you’re willing to look, and you want something that offers Stanton in one of his best comedic roles of all time, UFOria is everything you’ve ever wanted in an offbeat, unloved cult film. It even has Fred Ward in the cast, for god’s sake. Stanton’s turn as an extremely dishonest, smirking faith healer/conman is another one of his great performances. Even when we can’t believe someone could be so unscrupulous, we’re largely on board with everything Stanton’s Brother Bud has in mind. Stanton has played a scumbag in the past, or at least someone with loose morals, who is ultimately as moral as most of us. Repo Man is kind of like that. However, while that movie is arguably better than this one, if we’re just talking about performances, I’d have to go with UFOria. Stanton’s relatability as an actor can seemingly match the tone of any movie imaginable.
Wild at Heart (1990)
If you ever get the chance, read the entire Sailor and Lula saga from the great, underrated novelist Barry Gifford, whose David Lynch connections also includes writing the screenplay for Lost Highway. Wild at Heart is one of at least two David Lynch films that could be categorized, however loosely (this is Lynch we’re talking about) as a road movie. So was Paris, Texas. Both films feature Harry Dean Stanton in the cast. Although in Wild at Heart, he’s playing a supporting role as the hapless, pitiable, and understandably weary private detective Johnnie Farragut. Poor Johnnie is just about the only person in Lynch’s adaptation of Gifford’s more straight-laced novel who isn’t out of their fucking mind. In terms of the world of the movie, it’s amazing that he’s lasted as long as he has. Stanton is sad and hilarious in the role, which manages to be the most distinctive element to Wild at Heart that isn’t maniacally played past the hilt of normalcy. Still, Farragut had a larger role in Gifford’s series of novels (which deal in the strange, but not quite to the extent this movie reaches), and it would have been nice to see Stanton play Johnnie through the years.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
We jumped another 12 years in this column. Again, I apologize, because we’re once again jumping over memorable performances and humorous or tragic cameos. Directors understand that even in a small role with a handful of minutes of screen time, Harry Dean Stanton can provide the essential humanity the scene or movie needs for its core. Obviously, The Quaker in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is not a character steeped in cheerful whimsy. In McDonough’s complex dark comedy gets better with repeated viewings. This is particularly in terms of how it filters its fairly ambitious, multi-character story into a fascinating character study for Colin Farrell’s struggling, weak-willed writer.
The Quaker is a small part to the whole thing, but the character, as well as Stanton’s performance, serves as a sinister-yet-humorous opening to the rest of the movie. Even at this late stage in Stanton’s ongoing career, one truth rises above any other. Even with just a few minutes of your time, Harry Dean Stanton can give you one of the most memorable performances you could hope to see.