But seriously...forgive me if you've heard this one before, especially as of late, but it's worth repeating for anyone who never has: The late Roger Ebert once observed, “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” This was back when character actors were a little more ubiquitous and a lot more anonymous than they are now. There was very little chance that, outside an ensemble piece like Blood Simple (hey, now there's a film full of only wonderful character actors!), someone like M. Emmet Walsh was going to break out into a leading man or a recognizable name - like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Steve Buscemi today - amid all the muscle that dominated the American cinemas during a typical blockbuster summer.
Yet, Stanton did, for one glorious moment, for one glorious film, go from being damn near anonymous to the star of a critically acclaimed masterpiece. That movie was 1984's Palme d'Or winner Paris, Texas. Understandably, director Sophie Huber spends quite a bit of time on that movie in her woefully short, 77 minute documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. She also shows some clips of Alien, Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, Cool Hand Luke, a couple more of Stanton's better-known films as well as clips from a couple of lesser known films like The Missouri Breaks and Cisco Pike. It all pretty much amounts to a disappointing missed opportunity.
With over 250 films to his credit, you can practically chart a forked path of American cinema since the late '60s (when Stanton's film career really takes off) consisting of both mainstream and, for the lack of a better term, more "maverick" films, films just under the radar of mainstream Hollywood that were nevertheless influential and important. Take, for example, that period of the late '60s/early '70s with what can be considered his first important film, Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, co-starring former housemate and best friend, Jack Nicholson, who is conspicuously absent from this documentary, as are many other important names who've worked with Stanton over the years. That movie is followed by the unequivocal Hellman masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971 and then John Milius' Dillinger in 1973, both movies starring another wonderful character actor, sometimes leading man, Warren Oates. A year later, Stanton's got Cockfighter (Hellman and Oates again) then it gets really interesting with bit parts in The Godfather Part II that same year, Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe in 1975, and so on, alternating from big Hollywood fare to sleeper to just outside the studio system.
As an interesting side note, in '77 there was a prologue directed by Hellman for American television for Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It has The Man With No Name (not played by Eastwood in this instance, but by a double) being given a pardon from prison by the town's sheriff with the condition that he cleans up the town. Guess who plays the sheriff? And as contradictory to the overall amoral tone of the movie as that prologue turns out to be, it does give another young director an idea a few years later for a little movie called Escape From New York. Featuring Stanton.
Skip to '79 and '80, which generate some major roles, including Brett the engineer in Ridley Scott's Alien, the blind preacher in John Huston's adaptation of Flannery O' Connor's Wise Blood (There Will Be Blood pays its respects), and then off to playing a TV producer in the prescient Death Watch with its reality TV plot almost 20 years before The Truman Show, and, sadly, reality; and finally the charming little gem, The Black Marble, an easygoing buddy cop rom-com where the very adult and complex police partners (male, female) fall in love with each other while pursuing a dognapper played by Stanton. Hollywood hasn't crawled its way back to that one yet. And don't even get me started on the early '80s with Stanton somehow managing to keep his finger on the pulse of that decade's punk/post-punk, new wave vibe in such films as Alex Cox's Repo Man, John Carpenter's Escape From New York, and John Hughes' Pretty in Pink(!). I can go on and on, all the way up to last year if I wanted to, where the guy has a cameo in The Avengers, for chrissake. Because you better believe Joss Whedon knew who he was hiring.
In case you still need my full disclosure: I'm a huge Harry Dean Stanton fan.
But are you beginning to see the general relevance of this man? 'Cause I think director Huber misses it. She presents us with - as the PR blurb that's going around instructs - an "impressionistic," "poignant collage" (that's right, collage) of Stanton as though everything about his film career has been exhausted in some imaginary 12-hour episode of Biography and now it's time to just indulge in a few of his ruminations on life and the universe in general, a couple of points on acting, his singing, and some pretty, black and white shots of still life around his home. There's no attempt to make a greater connection concerning his career. Instead, there's an interview with Stanton's bartender at his favorite watering hole talking the way, well, a bartender who's got a camera in front of him would be talking about one of his longtime customers.
In what seems to be a "you've got me for one day and night" scenario, Huber manages to squeeze out of Stanton a few words about his personal life by having him answer some needless questions regarding his parents (SPOILER: he has issues) and whether he's been married (SPOILER: no). The latter is a question on a piece of paper given to David Lynch, no less, who reads it and its follow-ups to Stanton with neither one of them being able to maintain a straight face throughout this silly exchange. It should be a no-brainer to point a camera at Lynch and Stanton, get out of the way and just let it run (in gorgeous black and white, to boot!), so are the forced, personal questions really necessary? To be fair, Lynch does go into what anyone making a documentary on Harry Dean Stanton (with David Lynch in it!) should really be asking: As David Lynch, what are your thoughts on Stanton's acting? Was that question on the paper? Who knows. What is certain is that nuggets like that are few and far between in this film.
So I'm not even sure who the audience for Partly Fiction is. Fans like me don't get to know much about the man that isn't already well-known: he's worked with Lynch in several movies and has a great singing voice, for example. And any casual viewer, either those that know him simply as Oh, THAT Guy or those who don't know him at all, wouldn't get to know much more about his career than the limited, disjointed filmography that is presented. What's the point, then, of making a doc about Stanton rather than one on, say, Laura Dern? who's also worked with Lynch on a few movies and who's also had a pretty interesting career and who's name also isn't on everyone's lips. In other words, what's so special about Harry Dean that he should get his own doc?
Well, besides the amazing filmography, as contradictory to popular conception as this might sound, Stanton is not a "character actor" in the strictest sense of the term like, say, Gary Oldman or Michael Sheen are. Oldman and Sheen, as beloved as they are, if you put them together it wouldn't necessarily spell box office draw on their talent alone. Yet, the reason why they're so admired is because they have the ability to completely dissolve their own personalities in the interpretation of a character. Stanton, on the other hand, is, actually, always "himself" (he admits as much in the aptly titled Partly Fiction) and thus has an even rarer ability. He lets the character dissolve into him. As fleshed out as that character might be on the page, in the end, the character has become Harry Dean Stanton. Not sure about this? I urge you, see him working with the likes of Brando, Scorsese, Coppola, Newman, Keitel, Paula Prentiss (Paula friggin' Prentiss, people!), Dylan, Peckinpah, Hoffman, Bronson, etc, etc, and then come back to me. But in all those roles, it's not Harry Dean Stanton simply being Harry Dean Stanton. That approach is the preferred M.O. of many a box office draw who basically coast on their personality from one role to the next, with varying degrees of success. "You watch him in between his lines, he is there," Lynch says about Stanton in the doc, though I would argue not only in his ability to be natural as Lynch seems to mean. It's also in his ability to wear the character so that underneath all the physical and emotional dressing it's still a recognizable Harry Dean who is engaging us.
Even Stanton's assistant - who arguably has the most interesting things to say about Stanton's craft despite Kris Kristofferson, Debbie Harry, Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard all having been available - gets it, pointing out that working with Stanton is "kinda like a master class," and one simply has to look no further than his filmography to understand that claim. He also calls Stanton "the Forrest Gump of Hollywood...in the way he just stumbles through extraordinary circumstances," by which I take him to mean the roles, films and Copernican Revolutions in Hollywood cinema that Stanton has been a part of for almost six decades. Now if only Partly Fiction's director would have just run with that conceit.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction opens in LA on Friday, September 13 at Landmark's The Nuart Theatre in West L.A. Director Sophie Huber and Harry Dean Stanton will be doing a Q&A this Friday following the 7:30pm show.