Sunday, September 17, 2017

R.I.P., Harry Dean Stanton

It is with a heavy heart that I reflect on the death of Harry Dean Stanton. He may have been 91, but I was sure he'd never die. He seemed to remain the same age––about fifty?––from circa 1960 to 2010.  He wasn't simply one of the finest character actors to ever live, he was one of the finest actors, period. And he could do more with the briefest of appearances than some actors can achieve in an entire career. He brought a vulnerability to every role. A mystery. Not necessarily a joie de vivre, but something approaching the pure animism of existence.  Consider his "avenge me" scene in RED DAWN. Or his beaten-down hangdog delivery of "That godammed trailer's more popular that Uncle's day in a whorehouse, you see what I mean? It just means I've....more shit I gotta do now," in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (a character he reprised to great effect in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN).

Hell, for the few minutes he's on screen, he even makes DOWN PERISCOPE and MR. NORTH watchable.

His rare appearances as a leading man (PARIS, TEXAS, REPO MAN, and presumably the forthcoming LUCKY) show us the vastness of the human soul. Hell, most of his performances show us the vastness of the human soul.

His collaborations with John Carpenter (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and CHRISTINE) are full of scuzzy Americana underbelly charm.

His work with Lynch (the aforementioned TWIN PEAKS, THE STRAIGHT STORY, INLAND EMPIRE, THE COWBOY AND THE FRENCHMAN, WILD AT HEART) is strange and sad and somehow capable of plucking at our heartstrings even when he's just muttering "gaaaad damn" or "what the heehhhl?' or yipping and yapping at hyenas on a television.

A string of charlatan, thief, outlaw and sleazy cop roles in the 60s and 70s (DILLINGER, STRAIGHT TIME, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, WISE BLOOD, PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, THE MISSOURI BREAKS, FLATBED ANNIE AND SWEETIE PIE: LADY TRUCKERS, THE FORTUNE, COCKFIGHTER) were all infused with a similar, downbeat existential energy. I swear nobody else can say "Things ain't workin' out for me today..." with such pained authenticity and hillbilly mysticism.
We were always lucky to see his musical performances too, and he worked them in whenever he could––in from "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" in STRAIGHT TIME to the eerie hymns in BIG LOVE to the sloppy drinking songs in AGAINST THE WALL to the trailer park ballad in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN.

Then there's the appearances you'd never expect––like PRETTY IN PINK, THE AVENGERS, THE ANIMAL. Shit, the man's got the saddest death scene in ALIEN. Not even the cat cares.

He was one-of-a-kind, that's all I know. And I wouldn't know how to end this any better than to leave you with a few thoughtful words from the man himself:

"I'm 87 years old...I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive. The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there's nothing. Like there was before I was born. 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. And I get anxiety attacks myself. 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. Anybody else you've interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call... Hey, brother. That's great, man. Yeah, I'm being interviewed... We're talking about nothing. I've got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He's stopped asking questions."


gweeps said...

I remember Harry Dean Stanton mainly from watching perhaps the most downbeat Christmas movie ever as a child, called One Magic Christmas. It's so miserable at times they had to tack on a clumsy happy ending that feels forced as hell. But of course he's superb, though they'd never have a character quite like his in a holiday movie these days. Too creepy would be the accusation, even though he wasn't in the slightest. Odd, yes, but not dangerous.

I loved him in Repo Man, of course. "The life of a repo man is always intense!"

I felt terribly sad for his character in a curio from the early 70s with Kris Kristofferson and Gene Hackman called Cisco Pike.

And he has a fine role as a sympathetic father figure in one of the better Nicolas Cage films to see, called Sonny. Cage also directed it.

What a guy!

AnonyMike said...

Sad to see him go, Harry you were one of the greats! Glad you had such a healthy long life doing what you loved until the very end, if only we could all enjoy such long and fruitful lives.

But if it's not too tasteless to say so soon... first Kane, now Brett; the cast of Alien have so far sadly died in the order their characters did. And given that Skerritt and Holm are both in their mid 80s, it's a distinct possibility that we could sadly lose Dallas next.

And I feel absolutely horrible for having typed that last sentence *cringes*

Not making light of his death at all, it's just an eerie observation.

Sean Gill said...


Indeed, what a guy. Man, I've got to see ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS and SONNY now. Thanks for the recs!


I'm very pleased he had such a long and meaningful run, but it's rough knowing there won't be any more new HDS performances after these last few movies come out. Lucky for us, I guess, there's such an abundance of his work, it could take a lifetime to exhaust it. That is extremely curious about ALIEN, and I don't take it tastelessly... it's just a weird and kind of creepy coincidence. Here's hoping Tom Skerritt and Ian Holm are doing well.

John Weddell said...

Please say you'll give TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN a looking over.

Sean Gill said...


I hope to write something about it––I was amazed by it and completely blown away. I'm not sure I could do it full justice, but I think I may write a piece about how it's essentially a Rosetta Stone of Lynch's obsessions (and perhaps even his entire body of work).