Critic's Notebook: Harry Dean Stanton, a Zen Cowboy Who Said Everything by Saying Nothing

Lucky Still Harry Dean Stanton - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Provincetown Film Festival

The hugely respected cult actor was a master of minimalism whose soulful hangdog style graced a long list of prestige screen credits from Hitchcock to Coppola, Scorsese to Lynch.

Deep in his bones, Harry Dean Stanton understood the sheer expressive power of saying nothing and doing very little. The veteran cult actor and musician, who died Friday at 91, elevated a kind of Zen minimalist performance style into high art. His bittersweet reward for this unshowy approach was a spotty screen career that took decades to blossom, but the huge groundswell of respect and goodwill he accrued served him well in his glorious autumn years. He gambled on the long game, and it finally repaid him handsomely.

Like a kind of counterculture Clint Eastwood, the Kentucky-born Stanton had a face that seemed to be hewn from the vast rocky canvas of the American landscape itself, immutable and immortal. That magnificently craggy visage, grizzled and chiselled, haunted and vulnerable, seemed to say everything even when his mouth said nothing. And saying nothing was his default setting. A laconic World War II veteran, he racked up around 200 screen credits across 60 years without ever seeming to crave the spotlight. To Stanton, the burdensome duties of stardom had limited appeal.

With his permanent hangdog frown and blue-collar small-town air, Stanton was typecast as a character actor, a label he dismissed during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. "Every actor is a character actor," he shrugged. "I was offered a whole career. I could have been a leading man, much more famous, much richer, and with more pussy, onscreen and off." But he chose to shun a mainstream career because, he said with a dry laugh, it was "too much work."

Stanton's road-hardened screen persona had more in common with veteran music outlaws like Keith Richards or Johnny Cash than most of his Hollywood peers. A friend of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, he partied with the Laurel Canyon hippie-rock crowd in the 1960s and 1970s. He once aspired to be professional singer himself, but eventually "surrendered" to acting. A lifelong chain-smoker and late-night drinker, he was still performing in Los Angeles bars with his Tex-Mex band into his eighties. "Singing and acting are actually very similar things," he told the Observer in 2013. "Anyone can sing and anyone can be a film actor. All you have to do is learn."

Stanton began his career on TV in the mid-1950s, appearing in pulpy Westerns and thrillers for numerous directors, including Alfred Hitchcock. He graduated to the big screen with small but striking roles in films like Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke (1967), Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II (1974), Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981). But it was was not until the mid-'80s that a new generation of left-field indie directors, many of them European, began to recognize Stanton's underused potential as a kind of alternative Hollywood icon. For outsiders, his weathered face became a road map of the altered states of America, the messy human reality behind the shiny billboard.

A punky British writer-director in L.A. exile, Alex Cox gave Stanton one of his most memorable co-starring roles as Bud, the hard-nosed veteran car repossessor in his apocalyptic neo-noir sci-fi comedy Repo Man (1984). Cox wanted Dennis Hopper for the part, but his minimal budget would not stretch that far. Instead, Stanton brought a hard-won, lived-in, bone-weary truth to a spoofy comic-book movie, his natural understatement lending extra conviction to Bud's bracingly caustic worldview: "Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate 'em!"

Shot back-to-back with Repo Man, Stanton's most celebrated starring role could hardly be more different. Drinking with Sam Shepard in a New Mexico bar, the frustrated actor casually voiced his yearning for a character with "some beauty or sensitivity." This led Shepard to craft a bespoke lead part for Stanton, as traumatized high plains drifter Travis Henderson in German director Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984). Like a mythic character from an old Western ballad, Travis is a mute man in black, wandering the wide open spaces of south Texas, fleeing from a shattering emotional catastrophe that slowly comes into focus as the film unfolds.

It is testament to the expressive power of Stanton's granite-carved face and soulful, doleful eyes that Travis barely speaks a word for the first half of Paris, Texas. His grizzled features feel inseparable from the elemental landscape around him, hollow and lonely and timeless, his deep-rooted anguish echoed in the plaintive twangs of Ry Cooder's poetically bare score. "I related to the fact that he didn't talk for a half an hour," Stanton told The Vulture in 2013. "The syndrome of being silent. Silence is a powerful statement."

Paris, Texas won multiple awards and broad critical acclaim, earning the 57-year-old Stanton belated art-house superstar status. It led to supporting roles in more mainstream projects, like John Hughes' Pretty In Pink (1986) and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). But Stanton's most consistent screen champion in his latter-day career was David Lynch, who cast the veteran star in multiple projects, starting with Wild at Heart (1990). In an ironic reversal of his Repo Man experience, Stanton was Lynch's first choice to play Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1985), but he declined and the role went to Hopper.

In the sinister carnival funhouse of Lynchworld, Stanton typically represents an anchor of wholesome all-American normality. Lynch has repeatedly praised the actor for his easy humor, laid-back manner and apparent "innocence" onscreen. "Everyone loves this guy," the director said during a university speech in 2006. "He has no pretenses, he is so natural it's unbelievable."

Arguably Stanton's finest detour into Lynch's mind-bending twilight zone has been his deadpan performance as Carl Rodd in in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1997), which he reprised this year in the triumphantly bizarre reboot of Twin Peaks on Showtime. Carl is a straight-talking everyman who has seen enough weirdness not to feel tempted anymore by darkness on the edge of town: "I've already gone places, I just want to stay where I am."

Still working deep into his eighties, Stanton enjoyed some of the fringe benefits of elder statesman kudos in his final decade. Swiss director Sophie Huber's enchanting but elusive documentary portrait Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013) stands as a fittingly gnomic epitaph, immortalizing the aging star's geologically rugged face in luminous monochrome, like a living Ansel Adams landscape photo. Huber also captures Stanton singing to camera in several intimate, beautifully tender performances that recall Johnny Cash's final, pockmarked, pared-down recordings.

Stanton's last leading role came in the quirky independent feature Lucky from actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David), which premiered at the SXSW Festival in March. Wizened as a dry twig and clearly in fragile health, the 90-year-old veteran fully inhabits the title character, a chain-smoking old curmudgeon facing up to his own mortality with beatific calm in a backwater desert town. David Lynch plays a supporting role, lending a hefty shot of absurd comedy and meta-textual resonance. Elegiac in tone but full of warmth and humor, Lucky feels almost like a planned memorial, a bittersweet lap of honor. Stanton knew what was coming.

Stanton left a huge dent in the American landscape with just a handful of starring roles, dozens of memorable cameos and an alluring Zen Cowboy attitude that struck a universal chord far beyond his own screen fame. In later life, when strangers recognized him but could not quite place his face, he would tell them he was a retired astronaut. Which, on some level, he was.

If major screen stardom eluded Stanton, that was largely his personal choice. In any case, he embraced his left-of-mainstream reputation with typically unruffled understatement. "You end up accepting everything in your life," he told the Observer in 2013. "Suffering, horror, love, loss, hate, all of it. It's all a movie anyway."