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Harry Dean Stanton: An Enigmatic Icon Whose Final Starring Role Might Be His Best

As Ry Cooder’s slide guitar sounds melancholy echoes, the man suddenly appears in the desert, walking purposely toward some vague destination off in the distance. His sunbaked face covered with several days of beard, his pinstripe suit dusty and ill-matched with a red baseball cap, he is plainly driven by some inner demons. Just as plainly, he isn’t going to last much longer.

That’s how Harry Dean Stanton first appears in “Paris, Texas,” the classic 1984 drama directed by Wim Wenders from a screenplay credited to Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. And while taking stock of the much-respected actor on the occasion of his passing — Stanton died Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 91 — I cannot help viewing that unforgettable image as metaphoric: After a long trudge through a wilderness of secondary roles, he finally broke through in this film to get the attention he so richly deserved.

Of course, like most metaphors, this one requires as much romanticized interpretation as clear-eyed observation. By 1984, Stanton had already established himself as a familiar face, if not quite a household name, through nearly three decades of TV and movie appearances. Several weeks before “Paris, Texas,” he had begun a next-level ascendancy by blowtorching his way through Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” as a caustically cynical yet insanely driven auto repossessor who takes ferocious pride in his work. (“The life of a repo man is always intense!”)

But never mind: Print the legend. “Paris, Texas” allowed Stanton to demonstrate he was more than ready for his close-up by giving him the signature role of Travis Henderson, a forlorn wanderer who, for reasons only gradually made clear, exiled himself from his brother (Dean Stockwell) and his much-younger wife (Nastassja Kinski) years earlier, and returned to his half-remembered roots for, if not forgiveness, then understanding.

Stanton’s utterly fearless performance is so unaffectedly mesmerizing in its stripped-to-essentials authenticity, it seems like something torn out of a soul by the bloody roots. While watching him, the audience easily, immediately grasps Travis is a man who has survived a hell largely of his own making, but who knows he has not yet finished suffering. He’s funny but never silly, vulnerable yet strong, longing to belong and always an outcast. There’s little self-pity to Travis, and even less bitterness. He reveals a flash of anger only once, briefly, when speaking to his sister-in-law about the absent mother of his young son. (The sudden eruption of passion has the impact of a fist dropped down onto a table.) And during a long, climactic monologue, in which Travis explains himself and seeks forgiveness, you can almost hear his heart shattering into a zillion slivers. It is a moment comparable only to the final shot in Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” another indelible portrait of a man who feels totally unworthy of the woman he loves.

“Repo Man” and “Paris, Texas” arrived in theaters within months of each other in 1984 — the year Stanton turned 58 — and can be viewed in retrospect as the launch of a remarkable two-year stretch during which Stanton revealed his protean range by portraying several strikingly diverse characters. Consider: During this period, he was Mr. Eckert, a defiant father of young guerrillas in Russian-occupied America who urges his sons to avenge him in John Milius’ “Red Dawn;” Brother Bud, a sly con artist preacher who plots to exploit townspeople earnestly awaiting extraterrestrials, but privately admits to the possibility of genuine miracles, in John Binder’s criminally under-rated “UFOria;” Gideon, a sad-eyed, weather-beaten cowpoke intent on earning his wings as a guardian angel (literally, not figuratively) for a cash-strapped family in Phillip Borsos’ “One Magic Christmas;” and two more fathers — a kindly yet discontent dad for Molly Ringwald in Howard Deutch’s John Hughes-scripted “Pretty in Pink,” and an enigmatic and domineering wastrel who fathered, with two different women, the on-again, off-again lovers played by Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger in Robert Altman’s film of Shepard’s “Fool for Love.”

I had my first and only opportunity to interview Stanton during a 1985 press gathering for “Fool for Love,” in a Manhattan hotel suite where I initially found him, I regret to say, in a mood alternating between exhaustion and anger. It was his sixth interview of the day, and he wasn’t holding up well. His weary, bloodshot eyes resembled roadmaps of purgatory. His chin collapsed into his chest as he considered questions; raising it again required a visible strain. Occasionally, a hacking cough caused him to tremble. For the most part, though, he was exceedingly still, slow to speak and frequently pausing, as though he were fumbling for the right word.

“Yeah,” he began ominously, ‘”I had an interview this morning… Some woman, she didn’t have… she’s lame, you know? Walking wounded.”

What did she say to upset you, Harry?

“She’s the one… She starts out the interview by telling me about some review I got in Denver, where it said the character I play in ‘One Magic Christmas’ looked like a child molester. Well… that’s what she opened with… So from then on, for the next hour, I just sat there, just looking at her. I didn’t give her the … time of day, you know?”

Fortunately, Stanton was far more forthcoming with me, perhaps because I approached him respectfully, and framed my questions as cautiously as someone navigating a path across a minefield.  By mentioning Sam Shepard’s name, I actually managed to bring a smile to his haggard face. Stanton was grateful to the playwright for writing what he thought were two of his best recent roles, in “Paris, Texas” and “Fool for Love.” “I have a kinship with his characters,” Stanton said of Shepard. ‘”I think they have a universal appeal, because of the truth that Sam has. So…”

Pause.

On what level did he personally identify with the characters?

“Um, I don’t know.”

Longer pause.

“This pain… I can identify with that… The emotional pain… The need for a woman, a workable relationship with a woman… And the loneliness of both of those characters…”

A native of West Irvine, Ky., Stanton attended the University of Kentucky for three years after his wartime service with the U.S. Navy. (“I was in the Pacific,” he said. “The Pacific Theater, as they say.” What he didn’t say: Stanton served aboard a tank-landing ship during the Battle of Okinawa.) During his childhood in Lexington, “I sang barber shop harmony, and sort of got into performing. And it just came naturally. Then, when I was in college after the war, I did a play, ‘Pygmalion,’ by George Bernard Shaw. And from then on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Stanton earned money by picking tobacco, then went west to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his movie debut in “Revolt at Fort Laramie” (1956), leading to a decades-long career as a journeyman character actor in film and television. He made memorable impressions in movies as diverse as “Cool Hand Luke” “The Missouri Breaks,” “Straight Time,” “Escape from New York,” “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Alien” (“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!”), and savored some choice Thomas McGuane dialogue in Frank Perry’s “Rancho Deluxe” and McGuane’s own “92 in the Shade.” For a long time, however, he rarely got the girl — although he did play the ennui-stricken husband of a baton-twirling Elizabeth Ashley in “92 in the Shade” — and never played the lead. He admitted that by the time his career was kicked up a notch with “Repo Man” and “Paris, Texas,” a fair amount of skepticism had crept into his outlook.

“I’m not overly impressed with it all, you know?” Stanton said in 1985. “After you get in your 50s, I mean, you’ve been around quite a while. But it’s fulfilling… It makes life easier… Fame in itself is, you know… It involves a whole discussion on just that word, ‘fame.’ It’s a power, it’s another degree of power, to be famous. I think it’s obvious, you have more influence, the more well-known you are. And, hopefully, it’s righteously used.”

Stanton warmed to the observation that, already, he was serving as an inspiration to others in his field. Did he think many younger actors respected his versatility, his willingness to take chances?

“Yeah, I hope so,” he replied. “That’s a very good point. I hope that’s the kind of influence I’m having on younger actors. I think that’s righteous… strengthening… valid.”

Harry Dean Stanton never did become a superstar. And, judging from his comments to other interviewers over the years and the overall trajectory of his subsequent career, he didn’t lose much sleep over that. Much like the late, great Warren Oates, with whom he appeared in “92 in the Shade” and Monte Hellman’s “Ride in the Whirlwind,” “Cockfighter” and “Two-Lane Blacktop,” he consistently impressed audiences and acquired a cult following with his willingness to tackle almost any kind of role in almost any kind of project, paying little heed to the length of his screen time or the prominence of his billing. Time and again, new admirers would “discover” him while longtime fans would applaud him in Hollywood and indie features (“The Green Mile,” “The Wendell Baker Story,” “Marvel’s The Avengers”) and TV dramas (“Big Love” and, most recently, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” reboot). Few would argue with Roger Ebert’s observation that “no movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton… could be altogether bad.” (Although, to be fair, a few came awfully close.)

In Sophie Huber’s “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” a celebratory documentary that had its world premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, Stanton, then in his mid-80s, appeared to comfortably revel in his own status as an enigmatic icon who had long ago run out of damns to give. He was alternatively playful and nihilistic as he hung with pals, performed music — he could sing anything from rock to Mexican folk tunes, on screen and off, and sporadically appeared in concert with his own band — and sometimes answered, but mostly dodged, the director’s probing queries. (In a rare revealing moment, he gleefully admitted that, once upon a time, he and Deborah Harry were more than just good friends.) Friends and collaborators were a great deal more generous in providing bits of biographical detail and repeatedly waxing enthusiastic about the “actor’s actor.” But Stanton evinced little regard for his resume, and seemed to be only half-joking when he claimed, “I’ve avoided success artfully.”

Earlier this year, Stanton loomed large in another SXSW premiere: “Lucky,” John Carroll Lynch’s abundantly amusing and stealthily affecting comedy-drama, which kicks off its theatrical release through Magnolia Pictures Sept. 29. In a way, the movie brings Stanton full circle, back to the desert from which he emerged in “Paris, Texas.” But this is a different story, and he’s playing a very different character. Indeed, it’s not an overstatement to say that what has turned out to be Stanton’s final starring performance is the performance of a lifetime.

As I said in my Variety review from SXSW, everything Stanton did in his career, and his life, brought him to his moment of triumph in the title role here as a doggedly self-sufficient eccentric who, despite his proudly independent streak, grudgingly enjoys more often than not his interactions with neighbors and acquaintances in an off-the-grid desert town. Having outlived and out-smoked all of his contemporaries — Stanton was 89 during the 18 days of filming, and Lucky appears to be in the same ballpark — he finds himself near the end of his road, and anxious to make a graceful exit. A resolute and lifelong atheist, he tends to view his life as largely meaningless, and believes nothing awaits him on the other side. (Indeed, he customarily barks “Nothing!” as a bemused response to greetings from fellow townspeople who, fortunately, are in on the joke.) Almost in spite of himself, however, Lucky is roused to begin a journey of self-exploration, moving toward achieving something like enlightenment.

According to Lynch, a veteran character actor making his directorial debut with “Lucky,” the film is “in essence biographical,” written with Stanton specifically in mind. “We all felt an immense responsibility to create from Harry’s life, and from Harry’s interactions, a story about a man who suddenly brings into his heart that he might have weeks and months to live, not years and decades. It also had to reflect Lucky’s journey from something to nothing, but not through ‘bucket list’ experiences. No bank robberies, or jumping from planes. While those things are dramatic, they don’t represent most of our experiences. We change from the inside. Not the outside.

“But it definitely was created to celebrate Harry. That’s why the film in the titles says Harry Dean Stanton is ‘Lucky.’”

Don’t misunderstand: “Lucky” wasn’t supposed to serve as a final bow for Stanton. But it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to conceive of a more appropriate vehicle for satisfyingly summing up his life and work. He has gone back to the desert, or wherever he might peace. But his memory lingers. So do his movies.

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