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Top 10 Harry Dean Stanton Movie Performances

19 September 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Chris van Dijk

On September 15, 2017, legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away. We’ve lost so many cinematic legends this year and we will lose more. We all want them to last, to entertain us till the end of our days. Perhaps we feel it’s only right. Legends are never supposed to die. But ladies and gentlemen, this particular legend managed to reach the bright age of 91. I know we are sad for his passing, but it’s a beautiful age. We should all be so lucky to get so far.

Speaking of “Lucky”, that was the title of one film that was supposed to be on this list. The trailer looked so promising, and it would feature another rare leading role by Stanton. We don’t get many leading parts for a 90-year-old man.

The story itself seemed like a perfect swan song not only for his career but for his own spiritual character: a 90-year-old atheist pondering his own mortality, living in a desert town full entertaining weirdos (one of them being David Lynch). I was really looking forward to this film and when I was commissioned this article, I was sure that it would have been featured on this list. It seemed destined to be a gem. But due to his sudden passing, it seemed right to finish this article sooner.

This article is filled with anecdotes and details about this great man, so there’s little need to stretch out this intro. There was just something special about him. He might never have won an award or received mainstream popularity, but he was someone who always managed to make an impact and convey so much no matter how small the role. When he suddenly appears on screen, you know it can’t be that bad (though according to Roger Ebert, “Dream a Little Dream” was an exception).

There was something striking about him, even if he didn’t have conventional good looks. I remember him stealing the show in “Alpha Dog”, as the Mafiosi grandfather of Emile Hirsch’s character. Naturally fans of John Carpenter will remember him as Brain from “Escape from New York” or as detective Rudy in “Christine”. We mustn’t also forget his deliriously funny turn as inmate Toot-Toot from “The Green Mile”: ”I got to have Mae West sit on my face because I’m one horny motherfucker!”

There’s so much to choose from; this is a man who’s got 199 credits to his name. He’s blessed us with countless movies, noteworthy TV appearances (such as his menacing turn in “Big Love”), not to mention his heavenly singing voice. I probably missed some that deserved to be on this list, but I could only pick 10. He’s left us with a wealth of material that will entertain us for a lifetime.

It’s sad knowing that such an authentic performer and human being is not around anymore. But all of our legends will perish one day as we will too. In the last days of his life, Stanton knew the end was nigh, he had accepted it long ago. He was a man who was aware of our finite time on this earth; not just aware of the transient presence of humanity, but also of this planet. We came from nothing and we would return to it.

Yet so long as humanity is around, Stanton’s face will be remembered. People will come across one of his many appearances in movies or TV shows and they’ll wonder about this strange and captivating performer. They will look him up and remember his name. They will smile when they see him in another movie.

 

10. Alien

If you’re an actor auditioning for a part, it’s probably not a good idea to bash the genre of this particular picture. Especially if you really want a job. This is exactly what Stanton said to a young Ridley Scott back in 1978 during the production of “Alien”. ”I don’t like sci-fi or monster movies,” he blurted out. Stanton himself said he doesn’t really know why he said this, as it’s not very tactful. This was in his nature; even though he wanted (and needed) a job, he had to be honest.

Scott was amused with Stanton’s forthrightness and told him that he himself didn’t like the genre much either. But he assured him that he could make something out of this, that this would not be some forgettable monster movie. It would be closer a thriller, a la “Ten Little Indians”.


As we all know, “Alien” become a classic of its genre. A sophisticated slasher, but probably the best one in its genre. Instead of being a series of dimwitted teens, it would be a group of middle-aged blue collar slobs in space. Nobody cares if teenagers get slaughtered in slashers, but when the victims resemble regular people, not babes or jocks, the slasher becomes more meaningful.

We all remember the first appearance of the infamous Star Beast when it bursts through the chest of John Hurt. Hurt would be the first crew member to die in the Nostromo and of the seven main cast members, he was the first one to die as well in 2017. Another great man lost in the void. The second victim would also be the second person who died in real life: Harry Dean Stanton.

Despite the unforgettable first appearance of the creature, we would catch a glimpse of its most iconic look – when it has grown into adulthood, when it murders Brett (Stanton) in the dampish engine-room. It’s certainly not a very dignified demise though we would hardly fare better in the situation. When Brett comes face to face with the creature, he can only stare, his mouth trying to make noise, but his mind is too busy making sense of this weird and terrifying creature. When he finally does manage to scream it is too late as the sharp inner mouth of the creature starts piercing his skull.

Stanton might not have had an abundance of leading roles, but he’s appeared in so many iconic films that every regular filmgoer has grown accustomed to his face. It might not have been a lengthy appearance in “Alien”, yet the fate of this poor sad sack would haunt us, as it did me when I watched this film for the first time in my childhood. Stanton is naturally perfectly cast as the engineering technician, his face matching the average blue-collar worker.

In his face you can see the long hours, little sleep and bad habits that accompany many of them. The personality of Stanton was always more down to earth, despite having been surrounded by stars. He liked being around normal people. He wanted people to see who he was, not as some movie star. He would talk hours to Marlon Brando about the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and how all of it was bullshit. He didn’t take kindly to bullshit, he was special that way. It’s good to have had someone like that among the stars.

 

9. Cool Hand Luke

The first time I heard Stanton’s sweet singing voice was in the classic prison drama “Cool Hand Luke”. The film is all about Luke and his rebellion against the conformity of the prison system. It’s a classic for good reason. The sadness of the prisoner and the damage that imprisonment inflicts on the human soul has rarely been explored better. Stanton’s role as the convict Tramp, however limited in screen time, still makes an impact thanks to the fact that we can hear him sing an infamous Southern gospel song “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”.

The song itself tells you everything you need to know about this character and the film’s themes. It’s not the religious context, but rather the despair it conveys. The song symbolizes the grief of these prisoners. They know that nobody out there cares about them. So they sing a song to the void, to a higher power (Christ), desperately hoping that faith would bring them sort of deliverance, some freedom from this terrible place. Knowing that this song might have been sung by slaves makes it even more prescient.

If there is no higher plain, if this is all they have, there is no point in living. We all need a reason to live. The nothingness is too much to bear. Even if we are forced to live in hell, we must make up a reason to stay alive.

And this theme is all delivered by Stanton’s beautiful voice. Stanton, who has toured throughout America in bands and as himself, considered singing and acting to be the same thing. He wasn’t pretentious about either two crafts, as he said that ”anyone can sing and anybody can be a film actor. All you have to do is learn.” Amen.

 

8. Pretty in Pink

As a hormonal teenager, you might have been enthralled by the love triangle of Ducky, Andie and Blane. But when you’re older, it’s the character of Andie’s father, Jack Walsh (Stanton), who becomes more interesting. Stanton’s hangdog features always made him an ideal choice to play a broken man. In “Pretty in Pink”, he knocks it out of the park again. In a film full of 80’s cheese, it’s his role that transcends the era. He gave the film a sense of dramatic authenticity that is otherwise mostly absent from this film.

His role is especially prescient if you’ve ever suffered from depression after a breakup. We are not talking about losing your teenage sweetheart, but losing the one you thought you would spend your entire life with, the one you went on your knees for.

The character of Jack Walsh personifies this. There is the kind of depression that makes you want to destroy yourself, there’s the kind of depression that marks your soul. It taints your being. The sadness is too real and nothing can fix it. You walk around with it every moment of your life. It’s especially hard when you’re an adult, as things are so much more complicated. But it’s nothing compared to dealing with this internal struggle while being a parent.

As a parent, you are expected to keep it together because you have a child to raise. This is the more interesting and profound storyline of “Pretty in Pink” – far more, anyway, than the whimsical teenage drama involving his daughter’s two love interests. You just wish the film would focus solely on his journey instead of his daughter.

The struggle is there in Stanton’s eyes, constantly trying to keep it together in order to function regularly. Depression drains your energy. There is not much left when you’re also supposed to hold a steady job and be there for your daughter at the same time. This depression stems from loving the wrong person, something that can destroy anyone’s self worth.

The standout scene of the film is when his daughter confronts him about his grief. At first he angrily grabs her shoulder, using rage to silence her, to shut himself off from his true feelings. But there’s not enough rage inside him and finally he gives in. He hugs her and tells her the very simple reason of why he just isn’t able to move on: ”I love her, that’s why.”

 

7. The Last Temptation of Christ

Stanton has worked with some of the greatest directors of our time. He worked with the likes of John Huston, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and many more. He was also very lucky to have been able to work with Martin Scorsese with the deeply controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ”. I’m sure Marty felt lucky to have been able to work Stanton as well.

Once again, Stanton’s role is limited but extremely poignant. In a film filled with great performances from leading man Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, Stanton almost manages to be the stand-out as Saint Paul.

From all of the film’s supposed heresy, it’s Paul’s role (instead of the portrayal of Jesus as an ordinary man with carnal urges) that might contextually be the most controversial one. In this scene, Jesus encounters Paul in the middle of his preaching as he spreads the legend of the sacrifice and resurrection of the son of God. As we can gather, this legend hasn’t transpired. Jesus is married and has even fathered a child with Mary and so confronts Paul on his lies.

In reply, Paul tells him that the truth doesn’t really matter. The story of Christ and his miracles is the only glimmer of hope for many of his listeners. It makes them less afraid of death. He even tells him that he doesn’t care if he is the real son of God. He ‘created’ the truth out of what people need to believe. Stanton’s view of religion is not that much different: ”I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation…. The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet.”

Perhaps it was an accident, but given Stanton’s own perspective, the role seems tailor-made for him. Though partially an antagonistic character, he’s also the one who reminds Jesus of his true duty. This whole scene is naturally a vision, part of an internal quest for Jesus to let go of his final temptations. Stanton plays him with manic convictions, beaming the scary eyes of religious fundamentalism, a man you know would do anything for his beliefs. The menace is subtle and not overplayed. You wish this character would have had a bigger part – a frequent problem in every film where Stanton has only a small part.

I’ll end this segment with some Stanton’s beautiful words about death: ”I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.”

 

6. Fool for Love

The title might make you think that this is a cute romantic comedy about people doing foolish things for love. There is foolishness and there is a lot of love, but there’s nothing cute about this love affair. This is, after all, a Sam Shepard story. It’s set in the South, where people deal with their demons wearing cowboy hats and leather boots.

Shepard’s hallmarks are here: there’s the failed macho cowboy, there is the place filled with broken people. People seem lost on an endless trail; something in the past has damaged them permanently and because of this, they can never find their way home again. As you can guess, there will probably be no happy ending. The world’s a tough place and Shepard is not gonna sugarcoat it for anybody.

This film, like the original play, was written by Sam Shepard himself. It takes place in a cheap, rundown motel where a woman, May (Kim Basinger), is being visited by a seemingly old flame Eddie (Sam Shepard) who wants her to return to the old life they had. They bicker and fight, there is the need for connection, but there’s lots of resentment underneath. Our late friend Stanton plays the Old Man, who lives nearby the motel in a dilapidated trailer surrounded by garbage. He wears a crumpled gray suit and a cheap straw fedora while wild gray hairs stick out from its sides.

At first you think he’s nothing more than a giddy spectator, just a local drunk who steals from Eddie’s truck and smiles at the entertainment of watching this volatile relationship in public display. But it soon becomes clear that he’s actually the father of May. Not only that, he’s the father of Eddie as well.

This incestuous relationship is not based on romantic love, despite Eddie’s fanciful proclamations. The two siblings have fallen for each other because they always desired a connected family, something their father took away from them as he switched from family to family. This is the destructive force of the unrequited love of a parent.

In the climax of the film, the father exclaims that he did it because he had so much love to give – how was he supposed to say no to either mother? The infidelity and abandonment would eventually lead Eddie to losing his mother to suicide. So begins the never-ending cycle of destructive relationships, the irreparable damage caused by the parent that would ruin his children’s abilities to ever be able to function in a healthy relationship. The ending reveals that he’s not merely a spectator, but the cause of this couple’s (and his children’s) madness.

Stanton blends right into the world of these people, playing this disgusting character effortlessly. There’s unremitting sleaziness about him; we know people like him exist. We want to hate them but we know they can’t help themselves. We just wish the women would see them for what they are.

There are moments, thanks to Stanton’s intimate acting, when you can an awareness of the pain he’s inflicted on his children. For a moment, you see regrets seeping in. But he quickly runs away from this reality, just as always did and always will. We know that this is the kind of person who will never be able to confront himself. In the end, as his trailer is surrounded by fire, he finally does one noble thing: he gets inside his trailer, playing his harmonica, waiting to be engulfed by the flames.

 

 

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  • Jed Leland

    Rancho Deluxe, 92 in the Shade, Missouri Breaks (all by Tom McGuane)

  • Zwei
  • Warren Dusting

    just watched Straight Time with Harry Dean and Dustin Hoffman. Great movie. HDS was fantastic in it – and even got to sing.

    • giorgio palmas

      Gary Busey and M Emmett Walsh were great too.

      • Warren Dusting

        As were a young Kathy Bates and Theresa Russell.

        • Checked this movie out a couple years ago after Patton Oswalt released his film book, and yes, everyone mentioned above is fantastic in this.

  • His cameo in The Avengers. He adds a nice touch of greatness to that film and guides Bruce Banner to realize what he has to do.

  • giorgio palmas

    “What are you, a fucking commie? I don’t want any commies in my car…and no christians either!”~ HDS, Repo Man

    • Ted Wolf

      The life of a repo man is always intense

      • This is the film I put on when I heard HDS passed. Effortlessly talented actor.

        • giorgio palmas

          Look for Dillinger with Warren Oates. HDS plays Homer Van Meter and Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson.

          • Hadn’t heard of it. I’ll definitely check it out – thanks