Monday 2 October 2017

Vale Harry Dean Stanton - John Conomos remembers "one of the greatest contemporary character actors"

Harry Dean Stanton
Nearly two weeks ago, Harry Dean Stanton (July 14, 1926 – Sept 15, 2017), one of the greatest contemporary character actors, passed away. He was 91 years old. His was a craggy weathered face, deep-socketed brown eyes, a rasping smoke-saturated deadpan voice of his that could send shudders down our spines when it broke into song, a curly-edged thin-lipped mouth, slow body movements that spoke seismically of the prevailing absurd and existential zeitgeist of our post-war times, and his laconic monosyllabic utterances that always reminded one of his enduring ‘barfly’ wisdom of just breathing your life without entertaining any romanticised, idealistic expectations about life itself.

In a word, Stanton as an actor, singer and musician, was a cult figure of immense popular appeal, whose perennial self-mocking nihilistic attitude towards life kept us anchored in the commonplace banalities of our everydayness. As he would often remind his friend Marlon Brando, he was ‘nothing'. Despite all the critical acclaim that Brando received in his meteoric career as an actor, Stanton was always there to gently remind him of the Zen Buddhist wisdom that ego was zero in the grand scheme of things. Stanton was influenced by the existential ‘open road’ poetics of the Beats, Alan Watts' popular Zen Buddhist views of the 1960s, and the ancient Chinese classic the I Ching, otherwise known as the Book of Changes. In sum, you may say that Stanton’s worldview (on and off-screen) amounted to, if you will, the excoriating nihilism of the cult rock band The Fugs and their song “Nothing” penned by the poet, cartoonist, anarchist and singer Tuli Kupferberg who co-founded the band along with Ed Sanders. The lyrics of this song are chanted and appropriately enough drone-like: “Monday, nothing/Tuesday, nothing/Wednesday and Thursday nothing/Friday, for a change /A little more nothing/Saturday once more nothing.”

However, don’t think that Stanton was just a catatonic character drinking himself to the wee hours at his favourite bar, Dan Tata’s in Hollywood. Far from it, though he was a fixture there amongst his friends - Helena Kallianotes (belly dancer and Stanton’s oldest Hollywood friend), Dennis Fanning (retired LA detective), Ed Begley, Jr (actor and environmentalist), Laila Nabulsi (producer), Mouse (barfly) , Foster Timms (singer/songwriter) and John Carroll Lynch (actor and director of Lucky, 2016) Stanton’s last film, amongst others.

An early apparition, Rawhide
He was quite active in his many years as the consummate journeyman character actor appearing in over 200 hundred films and television episodes. From the mid-1950s till last year Stanton, Hollywood’s key proletarian flâneur, was busy playing all kinds of roles that were indicative of his effortless versatility as an iconic character actor. Unlike his peers who would usually be stuck within a much more limited role range, Stanton played them all - deranged killers, tough guys, criminals, cops, bar bums, drifters, etc – and his worldview was ideally customised to suit his singular, slightly eccentric and markedly maverick independent phlegmatic character, who was, in the context of Hollywood, such a late developer in his career. Perhaps Stanton was one of the last of his generation of the great American character actors who graced the screen with such vivid dramaturgical presence. Stanton’s gaunt chiselled face immediately reminded one of other similar looking major character actors such as John Carradine (1906-1988) and Royal Dano (1922–1994), amongst others.

Stanton had the unmistakable mesmerising knack of knowing how to make stillness and silence his most powerful personal means of on-screen communication. Like Robert Mitchum’s persona of a cool fatalism that stamped his life and work, and was foregrounded always in his films, a delicate see-saw dialectic between just breathing and not over acting, just being, Stanton too had this rare performative gift of knowing when to just breathe in front of the camera, and never straining to put on an act a la Method , etc. You may say Stanton instinctively knew when to act and not to. Just like his two British grand theatre contemporaries, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, as described by Harold Pinter thus: “They were waiting to go on, and I heard them say: “Where did you have lunch today, old boy? – Oh, Rules. Where did you?- The Savoy Grill. What did you have? – The rognons de veau was superb. And claret ? – Yes, a great glass of claret.’ …. I like that, because there’s so much bullshit about preparing your part . These were actors who just knew that when you got on stage you acted. When it started, and not before.” (1)

Stanton as Blind Dick Riley,
Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman)
Stanton’s deadpan wit was also an essential ingredient of his relaxed knockabout off-screen demeanour. Witness the Jack Nicholson 1994 AFI Life Achievement Award tribute where Stanton talks of his friendship with Nicholson in the 1960s after having met him at a Martin Landau acting class and then sharing a Laurel Canyon house for three years. And specifically witness the eye-patched gangster part of Blind Dick Riley that Nicholson wrote for his friend in Monte Hellman’s western Ride In The Whirlwind (1966). In Stanton’s own humorous words, Nicholson said to him “I have just written this part. It’s called Ride In The Whirlwind…… I just don’t want you to do anything. Just be yourself totally. Now that ‘s a load off my mind and I have been working ever since.” (And on the same occasion, with Art Garfunkel, Stanton sang the Everly Brothers "All I have to do is Dream".   It was Nicholson’s suggestion to do it.)

Earlier on his career Stanton was torn between acting and music, but in the end, he surrendered to the former (and the latter would surface if the role required it like in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), or certain occasions when he guest headed an episode of Saturday Night Live or when he appeared as guest on the Dave Letterman show and he sang so tenderly a mariachi ballad (much to the visible discomfort of Letterman himself who would rather pigeon hole him as only an actor ). This act of surrendering to acting and life was once explained by him as “I just surrender to it in much the same way I surrender to life. It’s one big phantasmagoria anyway in the end. I’ve really got nothing to do with it. It just happens and there’s no answer to it.”

These talismanic words of Stanton’s acutely reflect his overall cool demeanour which is so expressive of the cool aesthetic that swept the United States in certain forms of jazz in the late 1940s and 50s (Bebop and West Coast, for instance ), in Beat literature, and in the cinema of the time. Stanton’s existentially laid-back world view was further augmented by his life-dawning realisation that as “you get older in the end you end up accepting everything in your life – suffering, sorrow, love, loss, hate and yet it’s all a movie anyway.” Life the Movie, the Spectacle, that consumes our world making it Reel.

 But it should be underlined Stanton was never a denim jean and t–shirt poseur clicking his fingers to the pervasive cool beat of the times. Small wonder then when Stanton met Sam Shepard once in a bar he complained to him how he was always doing small supporting roles but never anything challenging as a lead role. Hence, from this chance encounter between Shepard and Stanton in the mid-1980s, he was given one of his rare two lead roles in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), and Wim Wenders’ critically acclaimed Paris, Texas (1984). Both were breakthrough films for Stanton and were his most favourable two roles. Written by Shepard and L. M. Kit Carson, the bleak landscape of Paris,Texas (that consummately suggest the influence of Edward Hopper and Ed Ruscha in the film’s distinctive minimalist and existential mise-en–scène) is ideal for Stanton’s gaunt-faced forlorn wanderer. Wenders wanted to originally produce a film that speaks of America with its (post)modernist parable connotations as a broad canvas of loss, love, redemption and vulnerability. And to that end the selection of Stanton as its main silent protagonist who seeks to reunite with his estranged family was perfect.

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Just before Stanton delivered perhaps his greatest performance in his long winding road of a career of teeming small parts in film and television before Paris, Texas, he gave one of the most graphic signature performances as a crazed repossession agent called Bud in Alex Cox’s hugely successful anarchist-inspired sci-fi comedy Repo Man (1984), a modern ‘gonzo’ sci-fi morality roller–coaster of a tale about capitalism, illusions, and extraterrestrials. 

Emilio Estevez, Stanton, Repo Man (Alex Cox)
His initially reluctant apprentice associate is a young LA punk rocker Otto (Emilio Estevez) who does not really want to be a repo man , but as to be expected Otto learns the proverbial ‘ropes ‘ of his manic-paced job from his eccentric, possessed mentor Bud.

In 1984 Stanton was 58 years old and in the following two years as an actor he convincingly displayed a protean range of knock-out performances and diverse characters in so many indie and cult films. Just consider the following in this watershed period of his career: as a defiant father Mr Eckert of young guerrillas in Russian-occupied US seeking his sons to avenge him in John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), or the aforementioned repossession agent Bud in  Repo Man, or as tent preacher Bud who schemes to exploit townspeople who are sincerely awaiting extraterrestrials but privately believes in the possibility of miracles in John Binder’s underrated UFOria (1985), or as Gideon, a sad-eyed weather-beaten cowpoke in Phillip Borsos’ One Magic Christmas  (1985) trying to be a guardian angel for a poor family, and not forgetting also Stanton’s two father roles – in Howard Deutch’s Pretty in Pink (1985) as Molly Ringwald’s kindly but dissatisfied father and in Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985), where Stanton plays a rather enigmatic, domineering, good-for-nothing character who has fathered, with two different women, the ambivalent conflicted lovers performed by Kim Basinger and Sam Shepard, who scripted the film based on his original 1983 same-titled play.

Kentucky-born and raised Stanton was born in a small town where his father Harry Sheridan Stanton was a tobacco farmer and barber, his mother Ersel was a hairdresser and cook. He had a strict and grim Baptist upbringing. Stanton left high school he went into the Navy seeing action in the Pacific Theatre particularly in Okinawa. Subsequently Stanton went to the University of Kentucky where he studied journalism and radio production. There Stanton became seriously interested in acting after he performed Alfred Doolittle in a college production of Pygmalion”.

Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)
Dropping out of university Stanton drifted to California where, along with Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, he acted in the celebrated Pasadena Playhouse. Four years later Stanton joined the American Male Chorus touring all over the country singing, playing harmonica, bass and guitar. It should be remembered that later, during the production of Paris,Texas, featuring Ry Cooder’s immensely popular evocative blues slide guitar soundtrack, it was Cooder who encouraged Stanton to continue with his singing. As earlier suggested, Stanton's gospel singing talent comes to the fore in Cool Hand Luke singing the classic number Just a Closer Walk with Thee  and accompanying it with a guitar. It is a remarkably resonant moment in the film registering the role of popular music, especially gospel, in defining the transcendental character of past and contemporary America and how American cinema has been shaped by the poetic and metaphorical force of American popular music and culture in defining the many different generic contexts and narratological undercurrents of the cinema itself. Cinema, culture, music, place , history and storytelling all sinuously braided together to collectively define America in all of its myriad dynamic expressions.

Stanton ‘s first television appearance was in 1954 and his film three years later in Lesley Selander’s 1957 western Tomahawk Trail and between 1958 and 1968 he appeared in many notable television series such as CBS’s Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza and The Rifleman. Later in his career between 2006 and 2011 in the HBO television series Big Love he played the role of Roman Grant, the manipulative prophet of a polygamous sect. 

Stanton, Warren Oates
Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
He appeared in so many significant indie and cult films in his sixty year career including Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) etc., and as many key Hollywood mainstream productions like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man ( 1957) , John Ford/Henry Hathaway/George Marshall /Richard Thorpe’s How the West was Won (1962), Frank Tashlin’s The Man From the Diner’s Club (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), Sam Peckinpath’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) , Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog (2006), John Carpenter’s Christine (1983), Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999), and David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) and  Inland Empire (2006), amongst numerous other examples. Stanton’s swan song film John Carroll Lynch’ s Lucky (2017) about a wandering 90-year-old atheist’s spiritual journey and the many eccentric marginal characters he meets and outlives in his world of self-exploration is itself, generally speaking, an engaging, witty metaphorical commentary on the actor’s existential life-world trajectory.

David Lynch, Harry Dean Stanton
If the late Ian and Elizabeth Camerons  two influential books of the mid- to-late 1960s, “The Heavies “ and “The Broads” were updated today Stanton would have needed his own separate chapter in their first book because of the vast number of film and television appearances this archetypal nonchalant character actor made during his very active long career. (2) To many Stanton represented an actor’s actor. He was asked once who of the many directors that he worked with over the years did he like? He singled out Alex Cox, Sam Peckinpah, and David Lynch, directors who have an odd–angle maverick vision of their world, and the feeling was mutual in that these directors, and others like Monte Hellman and John Milius, regarded Stanton as one of their favourite actors. Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Depp, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch and Jack Nicholson were some of his cherished friends.

Lynch’s telling tribute (hagiography aside) to him encapsulates the screen veteran’s importance as an actor and as a human being stressing that what mattered to Stanton above everything else was that the latter was of more lasting value to him than the former. Once one was in his company this became crystal clear. “The great Harry Dean Stanton has left us. There went a great one. There’s nobody like Harry Dean Stanton. Everyone loved him. And with good reason, he was a great actor (actually beyond great) – and a great human being – so great to be around him !!! You are really going to be missed Harry Dean !!! Loads of love to you wherever you are now !!! “

(1) See David Thomson, Why Acting Matters, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2015. Pinter’s words are cited as one of the two prefatory quotes (the other is by the British film and theatre director and memoirist Richard Eyre) that are unpaginated before the beginning of the main text of the book.
(2) Ian and Elizabeth Cameron, “The Heavies “(1967) and “The Broads “(1969) Both published by Movie Paperbacks, London

Editors Note: Final treats. Harry Dean Stanton and friends sing Help Me Make it Through the Night and a solo He'll have to go plus the theme from Paris, Texas

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