“Lucky” was never the first word that came to mind when you saw Harry Dean Stanton. On the contrary, it always seemed like he had survived something terrible. Even in the movies he shot during the ’60s and ’70s, it already looked like 90 years of life had swept through him like a windstorm, leaving just enough skin on his bones to keep the cigarette smoke from blowing out through his teeth. Stanton wasn’t cast as lucky men, but as men who appeared to have been sucked dry at some point along the way. He was typecast that way from birth, a living synonym for emptiness, and his hollowed out performance in “Paris, Texas” would eventually seal the deal.
Stanton didn’t have a problem with that. Although he died with more than 200 credits to his name, it often felt like he wasn’t playing his characters so much as his characters were playing him, the same way that different people are essentially indistinguishable when you see their skeletons on an X-ray. There wasn’t a fake bone in his body. That fact made Stanton invaluable to films like “Alien” and “Repo Man,” which depended on him to suspend your disbelief, and also to films like “Wise Blood” and “The Straight Story,” which depended on him to remind you that you weren’t just watching real life. He made it look so natural that he was never even nominated for an Oscar.
“I play myself all the time, on camera and off,” he once said with a sigh. “What else can I do?”
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So when the opening credits of his final film boast that “Harry Dean Stanton is ‘Lucky,’” it’s hard to tell if the actor was in on the joke, or if he was meant to be its punchline. On one hand, the wording is a fine testament to Stanton’s approach, and to the indivisibility of his self on screen. On the other hand, calling a Harry Dean Stanton character “Lucky” — let alone conflating the actual person with his part — is so obviously ironic that the dissonance soon grows deafening. By the time Lucky drags himself out of bed, lights a cigarette, and shuffles his way to the local diner, it’s already hard to tell if you’re watching the most honest performance Stanton ever gave, or if he was just playing up his persona until it broaches on parody.
Eulogizing Stanton for IndieWire earlier this month, “Lucky” director John Carroll Lynch wrote that he was “a legendary actor who insisted he didn’t act.” He wrote that the philosophy was Stanton’s “touchstone.” He also wrote that it was “horse shit.”
Lynch’s film occupies that strange middle ground between fact and fiction, just as his leading man always embodied the strange middle ground between being and pretending. Lucky is not Harry Dean Stanton, but he would never have existed without him; moreover, the similarities between them are a lot more noticeable than the differences. Both men served as cooks in the Navy during World War II. Both men are known for the way they used words, or rather the way they didn’t. Both men loved game shows and cigarettes and music and big hats. Neither man ever married.
“It was tailor-made for Harry Dean,” Lynch has said. “The construct, the narrative of the movie was about trying to get to the philosophical, spiritual, and emotional essence of the journey I think Harry had been on for a long time. That’s what we wanted to capture.”
Lucky isn’t the most loquacious guy in the world, but it’s always worth paying attention when he speaks. 90 years old and going on 150, he still talks like he’s just starting to figure things out (that is, when he’s not threatening to fistfight a stranger or telling his friends that their souls don’t exist). At one point, he looks up at someone and declares: “I always thought that the one thing we could agree on is what we were looking at, but that’s bullshit, because what I see isn’t what you see.” The sly genius of Stanton’s performance — in so many of his performances — is in how he reconciles those two perspectives for us.
In some respects, that’s the task of all film actors, to bridge the gap between the static nature of their screen presence and the impermanence of their real lives (and our own, by extension). It’s a dilemma that Stanton addressed in silence for much of his career, and one that rests at the root of his last role. Much of Lucky’s backstory is left to our imagination, but it’s clear that he’s always struggled with the fact that nothing is left, just as it’s clear that he’s always dealt with that fact by not getting too attached to anything.
“You’re nothing” is how he chooses to greet people in town, and that’s when he’s being polite. When a local barfly (played by David Lynch) loses his pet tortoise, Lucky couldn’t possibly be less sympathetic. At one point, he straight up announces: “It’s all going to go away into blackness… the void. Nobody’s in charge and you’re left with ungatz, nothing. That’s all there is.”
Lines like that make it impossible to ignore the echoes of “Paris, Texas,” as hanging out with Lucky often feels like catching up with Travis Henderson a few decades down the road. “I’m not afraid of heights,” Stanton muttered in Wim Wenders’ classic, “I’m afraid of fallin’.” Lucky has a hard time admitting it, but he’s afraid, too. Afraid that being alone might be a lot easier than dying alone — afraid that knowing nothing lasts might not be a good reason to act like nothing matters.
You get the sense that, by this point, Stanton was scared as well — that he took the part in the hope that it might help ease his fears, or at least distract him from thinking about death for a while. Sure, this is a movie about death, but only in the beginning. Over time, as Lucky starts to comes out of his shell, his story shifts its focus away from the grave. It’s a small adjustment, as subtle as someone just standing up a little straighter, but no actor has ever done a better job of negotiating the difference between resignation and acceptance. You can see it in how Stanton’s jowls start to puff out as the film progresses, his face like a rhetorical question that suddenly demands an answer long after it’s been asked: How do you spend 90 years looking at life as it is really is, and still find something to love about it? The same way you watch Harry Dean Stanton on screen, and still let yourself get swept away by the story. The same way that time freezes when Lucky hijacks a kids’s birthday party with an impromptu a cappella rendition of Vicente Fernández’s “Volver Volver.” Nothing is permanent, but some moments last forever.
Stanton was a slender man, but he cast a large shadow. By the time he made “Lucky,” his haggardly defiant spirit was so complete that everything around him came to feel like an expression of his well-earned weariness. From the tortoise that inches across the screen in the opening shot, to the urgent strain of Johnny Cash singing “I See a Darkness,” to the cactuses that Lynch shoots like their stand-ins for his leading man (prickly as hell but full of life), everything here is subsumed into Stanton’s being. His performance is larger than life — it’s infinite.
By the time the film is over, it’s hard to remember why the title ever seemed like a joke in the first place. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if Stanton was lucky, or if Lucky was Stanton; either way, it was the role of a lifetime.
“Lucky” opens in theaters on Friday, September 29. A repertory series called “Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton” is playing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema thru October 5th.