Critic’s Notebook: Harry Dean Stanton, a Zen Cowboy Who Said Everything by Saying Nothing – Hollywood Reporter
The hugely respected cult actor was a master of minimalism whose soulful hangdog style graced a long list of prestige screen credits from Hitchcock to Coppola, Scorsese to Lynch.
Deep in his bones, Harry Dean Stanton understood the sheer expressive power of saying nothing and doing very little. The veteran cult actor and musician, who died yesterday at 91, elevated a kind of Zen minimalist performance style into high art. His bittersweet reward for this unshowy approach was a spotty screen career that took decades to blossom, but the huge groundswell of respect and goodwill he accrued served him well in his glorious autumn years. He gambled on the long game, and it finally repaid him handsomely.
Like a kind of counterculture Clint Eastwood, the Kentucky-born Stanton had a face that seemed to be hewn from the vast rocky canvas of the American landscape itself, immutable and immortal. That magnificent face, gaunt and haunted, baleful and vulnerable, seemed to say everything even when his mouth said nothing. And saying nothing was his default setting. A laconic World War II veteran, he racked up around 200 screen credits across 60 years without ever seeming to crave the spotlight. To Stanton, the burdensome duties of stardom had limited appeal.
With his permanent hangdog frown and blue-collar small-town air, Stanton was typecast as a character actor, a label he dismissed during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “Every actor is a character actor,” he shrugged. “I was offered a whole career. I could have been a leading man, much more famous, much richer, and with more pussy, onscreen and off.” But he chose to shun a mainstream career because, he said with a dry laugh, it was “too much work.”
Stanton’s road-hardened screen persona had more in common with veteran rock outlaws like Keith Richards or Johnny Cash than most of his Hollywood peers. A friend of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, he partied with the Laurel Canyon hippie-rock crowd in the 1960s and 1970s. He once aspired to be professional singer himself, but eventually “surrendered” to acting. A lifelong chain-smoker and late-night drinker, he was still performing in LA bars with his Tex-Mex band into his eighties. “Singing and acting are actually very similar things,” he told the Observer in 2013. “Anyone can sing and anyone can be a film actor. All you have to do is learn.”
Stanton began his career on TV in the mid 1950s, appearing in pulpy westerns and thrillers for numerous directors, including Alfred Hitchcock. He graduated to the big screen with small but striking roles in films like Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981). But it was was not until the mid 1980s that a new generation of left-field indie directors, many of them European, began to recognize Stanton’s potential a kind of alternative Hollywood icon. For outsiders, his weathered face became a road map of the altered states of America, the messy human reality behind the shiny billboard.
A punky British writer-director in LA exile, Alex Cox gave Stanton one so his most memorable co-starring roles as Bud, the hard-nosed veteran car repossessor in his apocalyptic neo-noir sci-fi comedy Repo Man (1984). Cox wanted Dennis Hopper for the part, but his minimal budget would not stretch that far. Instead, Stanton brought a hard-won, lived-in, bone-weary truth to a spoofy comic-book movie, his natural understatement lending extra conviction to Bud’s bracingly caustic worldview: “look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em!”
Shot back to back with Repo Man, Stanton’s most celebrated starring role could hardly be more different. Drinking with Sam Shepard in a New Mexico bar, the frustrated actor casually voiced his yearning for a character with “some beauty or sensitivity”. This led Shepard to craft a lead party with Stanton in mind, as traumatized high plains drifter Travis Henderson in German director Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Like a mythic character from an old western ballad, Travis is a mute man in black, wandering the wide open spaces of south Texas, fleeing from a shattering emotional catastrophe that slowly comes into focus as the film unfolds.
It is testament to the expressive power of Stanton’s granite-carved face and soulful, doleful eyes that Travis barely speaks a word for the first half of Paris, Texas. His grizzled features feels inseparable from the elemental landscape around him, hollow and lonely and timeless, his deep-rooted anguish echoed in the plaintive twangs of Ry Cooder’s poetically bare score. “I related to the fact that he didn’t talk for a half an hour,” Stanton told The Vulture in 2013. “The syndrome of being silent. Silence is a powerful statement.”