Harry Dean Stanton - Partly Fiction: Venice Review

Engaging documentary tribute to the craggy character-actor and his five-decade career is elevated by classy visuals and a nicely relaxed, casual tone.

The iconic veteran character-actor with a 200-film career is profiled in this Swiss documentary by Sophie Huber, world-premiering at the Lido in the Venice Classics section.

The astonishing career of the man who's perhaps Hollywood's pre-eminent post-war character actor is adoringly chronicled in Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a Swiss documentary from newcomer Sophie Huber. Now 86, Stanton has popped up in literally dozens of high-profile productions over the past five decades and has earned a rock-solid cult status that will translate to plentiful festival and small-screen bookings for this entertaining and quietly illuminating profile.

Stanton makes it clear from the outset that we're not in for any kind of confessional tell-all: "I don't give anything away," he remarks, and Huber evidently faced a tough task in penetrating the Kentuckian star's layers of cagey reserve. Music emerges as one of the most potent keys to the Stanton enigma, and Huber includes several lo-fi standards delivered by Stanton in his Los Angeles apartment, with spare guitar accompaniment by Jamie James. Indeed, after a while it's debatable whether these likeably unassuming musical 'numbers' are punctuating the movie or vice versa.

In what's become established practice for this kind of documentary, Huber includes adulatory comment from several of Stanton's celebrity friends and collaborators, with his seven-time director David Lynch on droll form as he pops in for a chat and an outsize mug of coffee. Debbie Harry's contribution is more eyebrow-raising, as it emerges that the Blondie bombshell and Stanton became more than pals for a spell, part of Stanton's touched-upon adventures as an unlikely Tinseltown lothario. "She left with Tom Cruise," he remarks of one mid-80s flame, and it's no joke: said paramour was none other than Rebecca De Mornay, Cruise's Risky Business co-star.

But as Stanton notes, "I've been a loner all my life," displaying a Zen-calm, near-nihilistic commitment to following his father's motto "Go straight ahead until you hit something." The picture that emerges is that of an "actor's actor", in Sam Shepard's phrase, one whose character and professional methods are rather more complex than he would probably care to admit. This slightly closed-off, mysterious aspect to such a visible and recognizable figure adds a compelling edge to Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction that invaluably offsets what can occasionally become a slightly hagiographic tone.

Taking her cue from her subject -- and her title from Kris Kristofferson song "He's A Pilgrim," reportedly part-inspired by Stanton -- Huber takes a stripped-down and seemingly casual approach that pays steady dividends. Top-drawer cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who worked briefly with Stanton on this year's megahit The Avengers, achieves unfussily poetic effects with digital video: monochrome for the interviews in Stanton's residence, color for ventures out to his preferred Los Angeles bar Dan Tana's, and various ruminative nocturnal drives around the city.

Archive movie-clips are sparingly deployed but effective, with excerpts from the likes of Alien, The Missouri Breaks, The Straight Story, Cool Hand Luke and Paris, Texas providing glimpses into a career that has involved over 200 movies but, remarkably, not one major solo acting-award nomination for a film role. Stanton obviously enjoys colossal respect from his peers and co-workers, and has over the years maintained close friendships with the tricky likes of Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. But his type of ultra-reliable craftsmanship is all too easy to take for granted, which is one reason why Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction feels not just fully warranted but also long overdue.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics)
Production companies: Hugofilm, Swiss TV & Radio
Director: Sophie Huber
Producers: Christian Davi, Chiemi Karasawa, Christof Neracher, Thomas Thümena
Executive producers: Sophie Huber, Seamus McGarvey
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Harry Dean Stanton, Jamie James

Editors: Angelo Corrao, Russell GreeneSales agent: First Hand Films, Zurich
No MPAA rating, 76 minutes