Monday, September 18, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton / Gentleness, sensitivity, gallantry and painful masculinity

Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton: gentleness, sensitivity, gallantry and painful masculinity

After decades of supporting roles and character parts, the late Harry Dean Stanton’s legend suddenly came into focus in Paris, Texas

Peter Bradshaw
Saturday 16 September 2017 03.29 BST

It took a German director to notice one of cinema’s most iconic American faces: in 1984, when this actor was 58 years old. He had been there all along.
After decades of supporting roles and character parts, playing opposite the big stars and loyally showcasing their grandstanding with his own calm stillness and occasionally with his own beautiful singing voice, Harry Dean Stanton had become craggily gaunt in his ascetic handsomeness, like some Bergmanian pastor or the farmer in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic.

The legend had suddenly come into focus. It was the slowest overnight success story imaginable. That face became unforgettable in Wim Wenders’s film Paris, Texas and it first captivated the late Sam Shepard before the movie was conceived when the dramatist and screenwriter – whose own acting persona was perhaps not so far from Stanton’s – saw in him and that magnificent face a gentleness, sensitivity, gallantry and painful masculinity which expressed his own poetic voice.
Shepard got Stanton the part of his lifetime, playing the anguished Travis Henderson, who is blazoned on the screen as the lonely and agonised wanderer in the Texas desert, poignantly wearing a red baseball cap and a suit and tie in the blazing heat, slowly dying of thirst, walking, walking, walking, but why and where he hardly knows.
Shepard and Wenders captured that face and the music of Ry Cooder’s wailing steel guitar captured its American grandeur and loneliness, rather as for an earlier generation Ennio Morricone’s “coyote” theme from The Good The Bad And The Ugly somehow captured the presence of Clint Eastwood.

Harry Dean Stanton’s face was itself the landscape: really for the first time in his career, he was allowed to be still, simply to let his mute presence impose itself on the screen. His Travis is one of the great self-destructive personalities of the modern cinema: capable of monumental acts of both self-annihilation and yet self-assertion. (I always thought he would be great in a Thomas Hardy adaptation – perhaps playing Michael Henchard in The Mayor Of Casterbridge.)

He is lethally silent and stricken in Paris, Texas’s opening scenes, an ambulant Mount Rushmore of personal agony as he faces his troubled brother, played by Dean Stockwell. But later he has an equally famous scene, calmly speaking to his estranged wife, played by Natassja Kinski, speaking through peep show glass behind which she is required to perform for the customers, but invisibly and with his back to her, so they are strangely facing the same way as he calmly recounts the story which she does not immediately recognise as theirs.
His voice is eerily level, calm, detached – and yet there is something passive-aggressive in what he is doing. Stanton conveys all this tension and contradiction.
Before Paris, Texas, Stanton had been a tremendous actor whose gift for comedy had been at once used and yet under-used. He was the careworn repo man for Alex Cox in Repo Man (in that same year, 1984) and he was the phoney blind man for John Huston in Wise Blood (1979). He was Dustin Hoffman’s buddy in Straight Time (1978) for Ulu Grosbard, joining him for a bungled robbery, and played opposite Jack Nicholson’s cattle rustler in Arthur Penn’s Missouri Breaks (1976).

In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), he was the heating technician Brett who follows the cat into the engine room where the nightmarishly grown creature grabs him. In each and every one of these films he was a strong supporting player, the sort of natural on-camera presence who adds sinew and texture to a movie without it being obvious.
After Paris, Texas his roles and his perception by industry and public were shaped by the uniquely potent figure of Travis, and the movies had to try to accommodate his unique character-player starpower, and that wasn’t easy, or even entirely possible.
He wasn’t, however, always forced to be straightforwardly enigmatic and haunted. Stanton fans loved his performance as Molly Ringwald’s dad in Pretty In Pink (1986). He did TV interviews in which he jokingly talked about his drug use, and hinted at a kind of maverick Hunter S. Thompson uncageability.

But calling him a hellraiser was a caricature. There was one director he was born to work for and that was David Lynch. He was Carl Rodd in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), the ill-fated private detective Johnnie Farragut in Wild At Heart (1990), and in Inland Empire (2006) he is Freddie Howard, the unsettling “assistant” to Jeremy Irons’s oleaginous Brit movie director.

In The Straight Story (1999), Stanton’s performance as Lyle Straight, the elderly stroke victim whose plight inspires his brother to make a cross-country journey to see him on a rider-lawnmower, appears also to channel some of the mythic poignancy of Travis. But perhaps the more inspired use of Stanton was by Martin Scorsese, who cast him as Paul Of Tarsus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), portraying him not as the great proselytiser and moralist but something more like a huckster and ranter and ideologue, blandly unconcerned on being confronted by the un-crucified Jesus who is angry at his presumptuous myth-making, a character with something of the DNA of his fake blind preacher in Wise Blood: “I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed!” he says to Jesus, indignantly.
It would have been fascinating to see Stanton in the role of Jesus himself. He would have made of it something very sad and funny.






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