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A few weeks ago, I met up at historic Dan Tana’s restaurant in West Hollywood with one of the most respected and prolific film actors of all-time: Harry Dean Stanton. The 87-year-old’s name may not ring a bell to Joe Public, but his face probably will, since it is unforgettably unique and has appeared in nearly 200 films over the last 57 years, from his uncredited debut in Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Wrong Man right through last year’s biggest blockbuster, The Avengers. I met with Stanton to chat about his remarkable life and career, which is examined in-depth in Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, an unconventional new documentary by Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber, a friend of Stanton’s for 20 years.
(The film, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, opened in select theaters in New York on Wednesday and Los Angeles today. Huber and Stanton will participate in a Q&A following tonight’s 7:30 p.m. PST screening at The Nuart in West L.A.)
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Huber’s documentary, which derives its title from a song that Stanton’s friend Kris Kristofferson wrote about him and some of their other cohorts, features interviews with people who have known, worked with and generally loved Stanton — including Kristofferson, Debbie Harry, David Lynch, Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders — as well as short, often cryptic interviews with the man himself and clips of him performing some of his favorite songs. (Many may not know that singing is as old and great a passion of Stanton’s as acting. I certainly didn’t before watching the film and then speaking with him.) Unlike many documentaries, it is also visually striking as a result of being lensed — partly in color and partly in black-and-white — by the twice Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement and Anna Karenina), who was the DP on The Avengers and is an executive producer on this film, as well as Ellen Kuras, the Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker (The Betrayal).
Stanton has specialized in small but memorable supporting parts in films as a prolific character actor in Stuart Rosenberg‘s Cool Hand Luke (1967), Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather, Part II (1974), Ridley Scott‘s Alien (1979), Mark Rydell‘s The Rose (1979), John Carpenter‘s Escape From New York (1981), Alex Cox‘s Repo Man (1984), Howard Deutch‘s Pretty in Pink (1986), Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Frank Darabont‘s The Green Mile (1999) — plus six projects with Lynch, including Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006). Only once did he ever play a film’s true lead, in Wenders‘ Paris, Texas (1984), a film in which he hardly says a word.
Even still, he resists the term that is so often ascribed to him: character actor. “That’s bullshit. Every actor is a character actor. I had a chance — 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, than I’ve ever had,” he tells me, echoing the pitch that was made to him years ago by Carpenter and his associates when they wanted to cast him as a private investigator in a TV series “that would have led to me being a leading man.” All those perks didn’t appeal to him? “Too much work,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
The late Roger Ebert was among Stanton’s greatest admirers and famously coined the “Stanton-Walsh Rule” in his book Roger Ebert’s Video Companion: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” (He later acknowledged that the 1989 film Dream a Little Dream is a “clear violation” of this rule.) This is actually a compliment to Stanton the man, as much as Stanton the actor, because, he insists, the two are really one and the same. It was his old friend Jack Nicholson, Stanton recalls, who advised him 43 years ago, as they prepared to work together on the film Ride the Whirlwind (1966), to just be himself and let the wardrobe play the character in his films. That is what he has done ever since, he says. And, needless to say, it has stood him in good stead.
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