Celebrating Harry Dean Stanton
A year ago today, Harry Dean Stanton passed away. We at Frameland love Harry Dean Stanton and his specific and unique talent as an actor. So today we celebrate Stanton by taking a look at various parts he played, and the films he played then in, throughout his long career. Ranging from the quite obscure to the roles that made him famous and ranging from early bit parts to his last leading role.
Harry Dean Stanton’s performance as Homer Van Meter in John Milius’ gangster flick Dillinger (1973) stayed with me (among many, many others). Not because it’s particularly striking or exceptional in any way, but mainly because the part exemplifies the type of character that Stanton seemed to enjoy playing: rough around the edges, laconic and prone to failure.
Homer Van Meter was a member of the infamous Dillinger gang, led by notorious Depression-era bank robber John D. Dillinger (Warren Oates). From the moment he comes on screen, bickering with a cantankerous old gas attendant, it’s obvious that Van Meter is destined for the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The oldtimer begins to ridicule him, causing the gangster to shoot a nearby gumball machine in frustration.
Later on, Van Meter gets separated from the gang. He takes student Leroy hostage, who promptly ditches him. Van Meter is then stranded in some hick town, causing him to mumble despairingly ‘Sonnuva bitch! God, things ain’t working out for me…’
Looking hilarious in the fur coat he stole from Leroy, he comments wryly ‘Just a bunch of goddam’ farmers’ as law-abiding citizens close in for some good ol’ country justice. When he’s shot, his pleas for a doctor are met by a barrage of gunfire from the gathered farmers, obscuring Van Meter’s body entirely by gunsmoke.
Nasty, brutish and short – that may have been Homer Van Meters life, but it’s inversely proportional to Harry Dean Stantons, one of the finest character actors of his generation.
I miss him.
✏️ Rob Comans
Repo Man (1984)
What if you lose your job as merchandiser, your girlfriend sleeps with your friend and your parents spent all their money on the church? Well, then your life is hard. But what if someone invites you to steal cars and become a repo man? Then live becomes intense. Very intense.
This is the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a young punk whose scepsis about repo men disappear when Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) shows him what the life of a repo man really looks like. It’s a life full of excitement, drinking beer, using drugs, swearing at your rivals and chasing cars. And the best thing is: you get paid for it quite well. But then, one day, things get serious. A CIA-agent, as well as Bud, Otto and their rivals, are hunting for a Chevrolet Malibu with a very mysterious boot.
Repo Man was Alex Cox’ feature film debut and it almost immediately got a cult-status. The film is accompanied by the punk music of Black, Flag, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and Iggy Pop, among others.
Stanton plays a self-conscious, professional repo man. He swears, he yells, he smokes, just like what is expected from a real repo man. While he acts cool, he considers himself Otto’s teacher. Therefore, he gets really disappointed when Otto wants to quit his job, and even worse when Otto leaves him in the night shop when Bud is shot. Life of a repo man is intense, indeed, but it can also be very lonely.
Paris, Texas (1984)
An obvious choice perhaps, but one of the first things I think about when I think about Harry Dean Stanton, is the way he clears his throat at the beginning of the famous ten-minute monologue at the end of Paris, Texas – which I know very well not because I’ve seen it so much, but because it was included on the soundtrack record in its full ten-minute glory. It’s a loud, full-throttle clearing of the throat, following the famous opening line ‘I knew these people, these two people…’ It’s necessary for a character that for most of the movie has been defined by his silence, who can’t bring himself to talk to even his own brother.
For most of the film, Stanton uses just the stoic expressions of his grizzled face to exude deep pain, regret and confusion, ingrained in a mythical western landscape defined by both endless deserts and gaudy neon lights. All the emotions that will eventually be fully expressed in that closing monologue that explains his tragic history, are all already visible in his performance. Nevertheless, the monologue is devastating, all the more so because of the dispassionate delivery of Stanton (the emotional heavy lifting in the scene is done by Natassja Kinski reacting to his monologue). The only time Stanton really opens up emotionally is in that raspy throat clearing, with which he conveys so much. I fully believe that the scene and the film wouldn’t be the same without it.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Pretty in Pink is, in a lot of ways, a fairly typical 80s high school movie. However, the relationship between Andie (Molly Ringwald) and her father Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), for me at least, elevated the film. The first time we see Jack, he’s lying in bed and is being talked to by Andie as though he is the teenager. Andie’s mother left when she was very young, and Jack has never moved on. He doesn’t know how to move on. It frustrates Andie, who is forced to run the household, but it’s clear that she also deeply cares for him and understands his suffering. Probably my favourite scene, however, is a dialogue between Jack and Duckie, a slightly eccentric boy who’s in love with Andie. Everything Stanton does in this scene is perfection. The way he smiles at Duckie with a tender fondness when Duckie assures him of his good intentions with Andie, the hint of reluctance when he acknowledges he understands what Duckie is feeling, because he once felt it himself, the casualness with which he memorizes Andie’s mother (‘I loved her, I married her, and then one day she just split’), and the deep longing we sense underneath that. It’s a very touching scene, thanks to Stanton’s beautiful performance.
Elise van Dam
Against the Wall (1994)
There was value in Harry Dean’s inscrutable drunken features. In his whiskey wrinkles and cigarette stare lay a familiar unknown. In John Frankenheimer’s Against The Wall, one of the superlative TV movies the director made in the last decade of his career, Stanton’s familiar, grizzled countenance is shorthand. He’s a couple of familiar ideas in one jittery old frame. He’s the father of the protagonist, Kyle McLachlan, another David Lynch mainstay. He’s a retired prison guard and veteran, carrying with him the uncertainty of expectation. His life was lived in thrall to violence, and you can see he still expects it to rob him of something important.
He’s a bartender, so he sits watching the angry and anxious boomerang around his barroom trying to seem big because they’re so small out in the real world. As the prison strike that’s made captives of his son and brother rages on, his assumptions crumble and his frown lines and veins start to shape a look of weary disappointment. He knows in his heart how bad things might get, up to and including that the law he once gave everything to might be wrong, he just wasn’t certain today was gonna be the day he thought it. The sadness is in his eyes signifies the end of a people’s trust in the rule of law and the bloodthirsty men sent to uphold it.
✏️ Scout Tafoya
As far as swan songs go, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting one than Lucky (2017). Directed by John Carroll Lynch, Lucky follows its eponymous protagonist as he comes to terms with his life, death, and everything in between.
It does not take a whole lot of imagination to draw parallels between Harry Dean Stanton and his character, Lucky. Lucky is a 90-something atheist who has out smoked and outlived most of his contemporaries and goes about his daily business with a good, albeit sceptical humour and cigarette in hand. After a nasty fall, that was not caused by anything specific, Lucky is confronted with his own mortality.
It’s a deeply contemplative film that can feel oddly over-stylised at times. Yet despite these immense subjects of death and the unknown hereafter, the film stays true to Stanton’s very own no-bullshit approach to life that we’ve come to love so much about him.
Although, don’t expect to find any answers here, because this film does not pretend to have them. It offers no grandiose conclusions or any sweeping statements about the meaning of life or what happens after we die. But don’t worry, Stanton did have a tiny bit of insight to offer:
Even if you’ve never heard of Harry Dean Stanton before, Lucky is well worth watching. It is equal parts gorgeous and unassuming, heart-wrenching and funny, but more importantly is an incredible tribute and testament to one of the most prolific actors in (very) recent history.
✏️ Claudi Moll