On 23 October 2016, in Los Angeles, the inaugural Harry Dean Stanton Award went to… Harry Dean Stanton.
The event was staged by the Vidiots Foundation, a tiny non-profit organisation that grew out of a boutique video rental store in Santa Monica. At this good-natured “evening of conversation and music”, director David Lynch presented his friend of many years with the award struck in his name.
Stanton ambled on in his trademark crumpled jacket and work trousers and commented off-mic that he was so old he didn’t recognise the statuette was based on the torso of a naked woman. In place of an acceptance speech, he quoted The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”
Stanton died a year ago at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on 15 September, aged 91, hailed in all quarters and described in a warm obituary in the New York Times as “the character actor who became a star”.
It’s fitting that Stanton’s penultimate role, the first to be released posthumously, is a starring one. He plays the title character in Lucky (in cinemas and on demand from Friday 14th September), which marks the directorial debut of another reliable character actor, John Carroll Lynch. It’s a modest study of advancing age that combines comfortable routine in a one-horse Arizona town with existential doubt.
The character of Lucky has much in common with Stanton himself: unmarried with no kids, both served as cooks in the US Navy during the Second World War (a faded photograph of Lucky in uniform is prominent in his shotgun shack). The two men also share an easy musicality that emerges when Lucky breaks into a captivating rendition of the tango Volver at a child’s birthday party. This took me back to my first glimpse of the actor, then aged 41, in the cast of 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, his prison inmate Tramp strumming gospel tunes like Just a Closer Walk with Thee and Ain’t No Grave (“gonna hold my body down”), while Paul Newman’s Luke digs a hole as punishment.
As the trailer-park manager in the recent revival of Twin Peaks, he sang again – the campfire reel Red River Valley. Blowing the same tune on harmonica in Lucky, he gave a sense that he exists beyond the margins of the film he’s in.
He once answered the question, “When do you do your best work?” with the answer, “After we wrap, on the way home.”
Born in West Irvine, Kentucky, he was trained at the community founded Pasadena Playhouse in California, and acted as best man at roommate Jack Nicholson’s wedding to Sandra Knight in 1962. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, he kept popping up, absorbing the craft under directors like Norman Jewison, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Francis Coppola, John Huston and John Carpenter. Known by some as Harry “Zen” Stanton for his fatalistic philosophical outlook and belief in predestiny, our man always carried a world weariness that became grainier with the years. Even as the dad in the teen confection Pretty in Pink, the sage advice he gives Jon Cryer feels Stantonian: “You can’t make it happen. Either it will, or it won’t.”
He existed under the radar for years, unnoticed except by a few critics. In 1978, New York Times writer Vincent Canby noted his “mysterious gift… to be able to make everything he does seems immediately authentic”.
He was in his 50s when he landed his first starring roles, as a mentor in cult satire Repo Man and an amnesiac father in international arthouse winner Paris, Texas, both released in 1984. But he always seemed more comfortable out of the spotlight, providing back-up. In demand by chat-show bookers, he was often rendered mute by the camera. No wonder the wordless Travis, walking the desert in Paris, Texas, became his brand image.
If you want to understand the allure of his voice, seek out that film’s 11-and-a-half minute telephone monologue to his wife, played by Nastassja Kinski. “It’s kinda long,” he warns. “I knew these people, these two people, they were in love with each other…” You won’t be able to tear yourself away.
Lucky is a beautifully fitting swan song for a man who seemed to embrace the lines and spare skin of old age. Lucky’s solitary morning ritual is mesmerising: to mariachi music on the radio, he lights the day’s first cigarette, flannel washes at the sink and gracefully combs his luxuriant hair over his ears. Then he enjoys a round of yoga in his baggy underwear and coffee from a pot whose LCD clock flashes permanently at 12:00.
Dressed in jeans, plaid shirt, cowboy boots and battered cowboy hat, Lucky heads into town to fill in the day’s crossword at his usual counter seat in the diner and to wonder aloud what a seven-letter word for “augur” might be. The proprietor responds, “Portend”.
And with that exchange, we shall tip our hat one last time to the character actor who was always a star and salute him with a line from The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
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