“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
There’s no doubt in my being that the crowning achievement in Harry Dean Stanton’s career is Paris, Texas. It’s a catastrophic performance that worms its way into the audience’s soul through micro movements that tremor across one of cinema’s most distinct visages. Watching Stanton’s stunted drifter reconnect to the humanity around him is a discovery that should be gifted upon every film fan out there. When Roger Ebert revisited the film in 2002 for his Great Movie column, he wrote, “Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir, with his lean face and hungry eyes, and here he creates a sad poetry.” By 1984 we had seen him play cop, crook, scumbag, sycophant, weirdo, and wisecracker. Until Paris, Texas he had never really been given the room to breathe an entire life into existence, and he leaves us aching for a fringe universe where he routinely stole the Hollywood spotlight from the generic leading men pretty boys. The center stage would not return to him until this year’s Lucky (a film I’m still desperately awaiting), and we’re all the worse for it.
The very presence of Harry Dean Stanton in any film increased the quality of production by at least one letter grade. He was the condiment you craved on every meal, the Vegemite, the barbecue sauce, the Sriracha. He was that desire to order the hot dog just to eat the sauerkraut. While you chocked down Fire Down Below or Mr. North, Stanton was the shocking aftertaste you continued to discover through the resulting uncontrollable belch attacks.
While I had grown up watching Stanton in films like Pretty in Pink, Red Dawn, and Christine, I did not begin to crave his flavor until I joined the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Space truckin’ along with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and H.R. Giger’s xenomorph terror, it’s Stanton and Yaphet Koto who firmly establish the reality of space through their incessant blue-color bitching. While we wait to understand the survival heroism of Ripley, we’re immediately in love with Stanton and Koto. We get these guys. We wouldn’t want to be up their either, and we’d certainly demand bonus wages if the company delayed our Earthbound vacation just to poke around some spooky alien mansion. To this day, it’s Stanton’s death that hits me the hardest. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty…” Snikt! Another working-class hero bites the dust.
One of his most surprising and effective guest appearances occurs in Joss Whedon’s supergroup blockbuster, The Avengers. After The Incredible Hulk is set loose upon S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier and hurtles himself towards the planet’s surface, it’s Harry Dean Stanton’s unnamed security guard who life-coaches Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner to his cathartically smashing climax. “Son, you’ve got a condition.” It’s mere minutes of screentime, but it successfully injects some warmth into a film that just ripped Phil Coulson from the MCU. Stanton made his way on set after Whedon got jealous of hearing DP Seamus McGarvey’s stories from his own Zen wisdom dumping documentary, Partly Fiction. Can you blame him? If you knew a guy who was six degrees let alone one degree away from Harry Dean Stanton you would pull all the strings to get your ear around tales from Kelly’s Heroes, The Godfather Part II, and The Missouri Breaks.
Stanton currently has 198 credits listed on imdb with at least one more in the pipe (Frank and Ava), and who knows how many more roles he managed to cram into his last years. At 91 years of age, he came back to David Lynch for Twin Peaks: The Return, and the Festival Circuit has been promising striking substance for John Carol Lynch’s directorial debut of Lucky. The man never stopped working. He took jobs in TV, video games, and movies of every genre. He didn’t discriminate between projects, and he always brought his entire spirit to every role.