Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton Revisit 1972's 'Cisco Pike'

 Chris Willman

Los Angeles' Cinefamily theater kicked off a monthlong screening series of Kris Kristofferson films on Friday, Nov. 1 with 1972's Cisco Pike, a movie that marked the swaggering country singer's first leading role. Kristofferson himself was on hand for a rare viewing of this lost cinematic classic, as were the film's writer-director Bill L. Norton and co-star Harry Dean Stanton.

The evening started off with a comedic Q&A during which Kristofferson and Stanton perfectly mirrored their onscreen personas -- the former: stoic, wise and gruffly eloquent; the latter: chain-smoking, sipping red wine and occasionally offering up cryptic, hilariously deadpan interjections.

It was Stanton who initially recommended his friend Kristofferson for the title role -- that of a former 1960s rock star who had fallen from grace and was now dealing drugs to his former friends in the music biz. The film, which director Norton describes as "my version of La Dolce Vita, set in L.A.," is a vivid snapshot of the city in a long-gone era, situated among smoggy skies and freeways, a crumbling, litter-strewn Venice Beach and the debauched rock 'n' roll clubs along the Sunset Strip.

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A young Gene Hackman is absolutely brilliant in the film as the bad cop who blackmails Cisco into selling off a confiscated stash of weed, his intensely manic performance fueling the movie's "ticking clock" plotline. The late Karen Black is also fantastic, as Cisco's much put-upon girlfriend, her infuriation matched by her adoration for a man who can never quite do the right thing. And Stanton, of course, is wonderful as always, as Cisco's former musical partner, whose own self-destruction had caused the implosion of the duo's once thriving career.

The film's initial theatrical run was short-lived, but over the years, Cisco Pike has gained an enthusiastic cult following, and for good reason. Norton's script keeps the plot clean and defined while still allowing for nuanced improvisation from his actors. Kristofferson is a natural onscreen, holding his own against a trio of soon-to-be icons, his newness to the camera bringing a raw emotional tone to the role.

"I tried to react, the way I would have myself," Kristofferson explained of his approach. "But to be honest, I don't know what gave me the audacity to think I could act."

Kristofferson would go on to become one of the biggest screen stars of the 1970s, working with directors such as Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) and Paul Mazursky (Blume in Love). He would win a Golden Globe playing opposite Barbra Streisand in 1976's A Star Is Born, the role that would catapult him into true "Hollywood heartthrob" status. (Kristofferson's allure, described by Cinefamily programmer Hadrian Belove, was "a gentle machismo.")

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Despite Cisco Pike's bust at the box office, the film successfully showcased not only Kristofferson's acting chops, but his musical talent, the soundtrack consisting of most of the singer-songwriter's career-making 1971 album The Silver-Tongued Devil and I.

Just before the lights came down for the sold-out screening on Friday, Kristofferson and Stanton played a few of these tracks for the audience. Kristofferson's voice was poetically cracked and bristling, Stanton's high and liquidly angelic.

On stage together, the two old friends again fell easily into their onscreen personas -- Kristofferson still the rugged cowboy lost in Hollywood, Stanton the seasoned old pro … but not soured.

It was a beautiful thing to watch.

More information on Cinefamily's celebration of Kristofferson's work in film can be viewed here.

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