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Harry Dean Stanton: A Legend Layered with Contradiction

Harry Dean Stanton: A Legend Layered with Contradiction

“Haven’t a clue,” Harry Dean Stanton tells me when I ask him how his life might have unfolded had he not gone into acting. “I’d probably have been a singer.” That night, the legendary character actor would attend the New York premiere of “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” a new documentary by Sophie Huber examining Stanton’s life in the industry and his unique place in the catalog of great American actors. (The film is currently playing in select cities.)

Throughout our interview, the reticent Stanton–known to his friends as Harry Dean–espoused a philosophy of Zen-like acceptance, a sustained focus on the here and now and a rejection of any thoughts about the future. But as we spoke, I found that while he initially responded to almost all my questions with a sort of casual self-negation, a portrait emerged of a man who seems to know exactly who he is yet disdains putting his interior self into words. As Huber no doubt discovered as well, there are levels of contradiction in Harry Dean Stanton that are difficult–and maybe impossible–for an outsider to ever explore.

If Stanton had become a singer, it’s not a stretch to say that the face of American film in the second half of the 20th century would look very different. This is a man whose career stretches back to the 1950s, whose filmography encompasses hundreds of roles and collaborations with too many iconic directors to count: Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, Wim Wenders, Ridley Scott, John Milius, David Lynch. This is a man who will receive a minutes-long standing ovation when the Academy awards him an Oscar for lifetime achievement–although, incredibly, none of his roles has ever garnered a nod. And yet, there’s no escaping the feeling that this is a man that just doesn’t care about either of those things.

Whether Stanton’s air of quiet acceptance and lack of self-absorption is studied or inherent, it’s undeniably palpable. During our conversation, he often speaks in adages that might verge on insincerity if spoken by somebody with more self-consciousness: “I have nothing to do with anything that happens to me.” “It’s all written.” “It doesn’t matter.” “It’s the way things unfold.”

At times, they turn into koans. I ask Stanton how he thinks the industry has changed over his half-century of work–the slow diminution of the studio system, the kinds of movies that get made–and whether he thinks an actor starting out today could have a career like his. “Everything changes every day,” he tells me. And then: “It’s no different than it was before, as far as I’m concerned.”

That’s a flat-out contradiction, but Stanton expresses it in one breath, without a shred of irony. To him, there’s probably nothing contradictory about it–things can be ever-changing and yet no different then they were. To use his own words: It’s all written; it doesn’t matter.

As I dig–or at least attempt to do so–another side of Stanton seems to evince itself briefly. In Huber’s film, Stanton says that he “avoided success artfully,” but when I ask about his motivation for becoming an actor, he tells me, “As with everyone, you want to make money and you want to be well known. You know, you want to be successful.”

“I had opportunities to be a lot more successful”–in a rare moment, Stanton opts to say more without my asking–“but for some reason or other–the way I was particularly genetically wired–I turned down a lot of opportunities. I could have been a lot more famous and played leading men and everything. For whatever reason, I didn’t go for it.”

I press him for an example, and he tells me that John Carpenter–with whom Stanton worked on the 1983 horror film “Christine”–approached him to pitch an idea for a series about a private investigator. Carpenter said that he would write the first three episodes, and that Stanton would star, have a say during casting and writing and even have the opportunity to direct at some point. “The words they used,” Stanton tells me, “were, ‘You’d be more famous, make more money and have more pussy on camera and off than you’d ever had in your life.’ That was the phrase they used. And I didn’t take it.”

I ask if he even considered taking the role, and he said he did, but that “it sounded like too much work.” And then we’re back to koans: “That was just what happened in the moment.  Again, I had nothing to do with it.”

Writing and directing probably struck Stanton as too much work because he doesn’t seem to look at acting as work at all. Many years ago, Stanton’s close friend Jack Nicholson called him with part and one condition: don’t do anything. “Just let the wardrobe be the character,” Nicholson told him–advice that became the foundation for Stanton’s entire approach. “You play yourself,” he told me simply when we spoke. “That’s the way you approach it.”

But there’s a revealing moment in Huber’s documentary where Stanton’s young assistant challenges the supposed wardrobe-as-character philosophy. “He says do nothing all the time, right?” he asks Huber, rhetorically. “Which is bullshit. Because if he did nothing, he’d still be on a fucking rocking chair in Kentucky. That’s what doing nothing gets you–exactly that: nothing.”

There’s something dangerous about trying to psychoanalyze a man based on a 90-minute movie and a 15-minute conversation, but at the risk of doing so, I’d say Stanton’s assistant is right. It’s Stanton’s craft, more than anything, that’s the giveaway–above all his work in Wenders’s film “Paris, Texas,” Stanton’s first leading role and a focus of Huber’s documentary.

In the Sam Shepard-penned film, Stanton plays Travis Henderson, a man who walks into a town from the emptiness of the South Texas desert. Travis’s answer to everyone’s questions–the doctor who treats him after he wanders in, the brother who took care of the son Travis abandoned–is silence.  

Travis doesn’t say a word until well into the film, and Stanton tells Huber his preparation for the role was simple: “He didn’t talk for a half an hour in the movie, so I did nothing.  I didn’t prepare. I just didn’t talk.” This is what Shepard refers to when he tells Huber that Stanton is “one of those actors who knows that his face is the story,” and the result–as the documentary shows through a short excerpt from the film–is remarkable: as Travis, Stanton does wonders without words.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Huber’s film didn’t begin as an interview-style doc at all. She originally planned to film him singing, and later expanded the film into its present form. In a way, it’s during the long black-and-white scenes where Stanton simply sings, and sometimes plays the harmonica, that it feels like his inner self is most on display–not when he’s speaking in response to Huber’s questions. Words, to put it simply, are not his medium.

This is true of Stanton both on screen and off, it seems. And this is why the contradictions he puts into words aren’t really contradictions after all: they’re multi-layered ideas expressed through a system unequipped to communicate their complexity. Like Travis Henderson, Harry Dean Stanton is a man roiling with the accumulated undercurrents of a lifetime of memories and, yes, mistakes. And like Travis, he’s just not going to talk all that much about it.

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