As important as are filmmakers, so are the great film popularizers. All movie fans owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Osborne, the longtime host of Turner Classic Movies. Osborne got his start in Hollywood as an actor, developed many personal friendships with icons of classic cinema and became one of the first popular movie historians. Here’s his NYT obit. Virtually all of his obits describe him as “a gentleman”, a throw-back to a less course culture. He didn’t shy way from referring to Hollywood scandals (Gloria Grahame, Mary Astor and the like) but did not take glee in them.
At the beginning of her career, Jeanne Moreau capped the best of French film noir as the gangster’s unreliable squeeze in Touchez pas au grisbi and sparked neo-noir with Elevator to the Gallows. Then we Americans saw her as the face of the European art film with Malle’s Elevator and The Lovers, Antonioni’s La Notte, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid – all between 1958 and 1964. Her wide-ranging body of work included Orson Welles’ best Shakespeare movie Chimes at Midnight. And, for a Guilty Pleasure, there’s the silly 1965 Mexican Revolution action comedy Viva Maria!
With exactly 200 screen credits on IMDb, Harry Dean Stanton was a prolific character actor who improbably became a leading man at age 58 with his masterpiece Paris, Texas. Harry Dean often seemed like that uncle/neighbor/mentor who had Lived A Life but would let you inside and let you learn from his journey. He was ever accessible and always piqued the audience’s curiosity about his characters. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once posited that a movie could not be entirely bad if Harry Dean Stanton were in it.
Let’s not bury the lede: Lucky is Harry Dean Stanton’s last film. Lucky was written for Harry Dean, and the main character is reportedly not dissimilar to Stanton. Here’s my Harry Dean Stanton remembrance.
Lucky is a vivid portrait of a singular character. It’s also a meditation on life and the end of life and how you can control how you live.
Stanton plays Lucky, a nonagenarian who lives in his isolated house on the edge of a Mojave desert town. The town is so small that everyone knows everyone else. There’s not a lot of action in Lucky. We watch Lucky as he purposefully plods through his modest daily routine: to his refrigerator, to the diner, to the local bar, plopped in front of his TV to watch “my shows”. Lucky is sometimes confused by age, but retains great strength of conviction and a formidable will.
Lucky is not really anti-social but he is minimally social. He values his privacy and doesn’t seek human interaction, but he accepts it as it occurs organically. He is not a stereotypical movie curmudgeon with a heart of gold. He’s prickly, but capable of authentic tenderness, as when he shares a joint with a waitress friend and when he belts out the Mexican tearjerker Volver, Volver.
He’s also an atheist. Being areligious doesn’t mean that someone is amoral. Not at all. Lucky lives by a firm code – he is so offended when thinks someone is exploiting a grieving friend, he fiercely tries to fight a man fifty years his younger.
But as we observe Lucky not doing much, we are pulled into an increasingly profound contemplation. How do we choose to live our lives if there’s no afterlife? How afraid are we of the finality of death? What is meaningful? What’s in our control?
This is also a pretty funny film. Lucky reminds us that Harry Dean was a master of both the deadpan and the sarcastic jibe. And Lucky has lived decades without female or other supervision, and his habits, like watering cactus in his underwear and cowboy boots, are pretty entertaining.
Lucky is the first film directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch, so creepy in Zodiac and so heartbreaking in The Founder. Lynch is a confident enough director to take his time. And, if you have any doubt about where Lynch sees Lucky on the continuum of life, check out this shot.
Lynch gets excellent performances out of the rest of the cast: Ed Begley, Jr., James Darren (yes, the 60s heartthrob), Ron Livingston, Barry Shabaka Henley (recently so good in Paterson), Yvonne Huff and, surprisingly, the director David Lynch. Tom Skeritt delivers a moving monologue.
But, in the end, this is Harry Dean Stanton’s film. And, to Lynch’s credit, it’s a fine way to remember Harry Dean.
I’ve been traveling and haven’t had a chance until now to recognize the life and career of the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died this month at the age of 91. Coincidentally, Harry Dean was on my mind because I had just watched his masterpiece Paris, Texas on the flight to my vacation destination, and I was preparing to watch the screener for his last film, Lucky, to be released in the Bay Area next weekend.
Once of the most noticeable of the prolific character actors, he improbably became a leading man at age 58 and, in his 80s, starred as the menacing leader of a polygamist cult in Big Love. I’ll be writing about Lucky tomorrow.
Harry Dean was a great favorite of mine – and of many other cinephiles. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once posited that a movie could not be entirely bad if Harry Dean Stanton were in it. Harry Dean often seemed like that uncle/neighbor/mentor who had Lived A Life but would let you inside and let you learn from his journey. He was ever accessible and always piqued the audience’s curiosity about his characters.
Harry Dean Stanton garnered 200 screen credits, including scores of 1960s TV shows. He appeared on seemingly every TV Western: Rawhide, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Laramie, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson and Stoney Burke. Think how many times we Baby Boomers must have seen him in The Fugitive, Adam 12, Mannix, Combat!, The Untouchables, and even The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
In the early 1970s, I first really noticed Harry Dean for his quirkiness, singularity and forlorn humor in his sidekick roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Missouri Breaks. That’s when you had to sit through the end credits to find out who that actor was.
Along the way, he made three Monte Hellman cult films (Ride the Whirlwind, Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop) and was friends with fellow Hollywood outlaws Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson. He shared a house with Nicholson for a while (can you imagine?).
Also a fine musician, Harry Dean left us with touching vocal renditions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee in Cool Hand Luke and Volver, Volver in Lucky.
In 1984, at the age of 58, Harry Dean Stanton broke through in two wonderful lead performances. He played the old school mentor of the punk Emilio Estevez in the cult film Repo Man. And he made his masterpiece, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
In Paris Texas, Harry Dean plays Travis, a man so traumatized that he has disappeared and is found wandering across the desert and mistaken for a mute. As he is cared for by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he evolves from feral to erratic to troubled, but with a sense of tenderness and a determination to put things right. We see Travis as a madman who gains extraordinary lucidity about what wrong in his life and his own responsibility for it.
At the film’s climax, Travis speaks to Jane (Natassja Kinski) through a one-way mirror (she can’t see him). Spinning what at first seems like parable, Travis explains what happened to him – and to her – and why it happened. It’s a 20-minute monologue so captivating and touching that it rises to be recognized as one of the very greatest screen performances.
Kinski, Stockwell and the child actor Hunter Carlson are also exceptional. Paris, Texas is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and FilmStruck.