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GOCRITIC!

GoCritic! Feature: Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

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- Our David Katz takes an in-depth look at the career of the recently departed and universally beloved American actor, through the lens of John Carroll Lynch's film which featured him in his last role

GoCritic! Feature: Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky
Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

Harry Dean Stanton was an actor who movie aficionados truly cherished. In sharpening our gaze to spend some better time with him — as we’re afforded to in Sophie Huber’s 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
— we’re confronted with an individual who was unusually self-effacing. He bore the admiration of his peers and fans lightly, with little of the swagger of the New Hollywood royalty he forged unlikely lifetime friendships with, including Jack Nicholson and Kris Kristofferson.

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The actor John Carroll Lynch, who directed Stanton in his final lead performance for Lucky — in UK cinemas now — began a recent eulogy with the remembrance: “Harry Dean Stanton was an acting legend who insisted he didn’t act. It was his touchstone.” Never has the idea of “non-acting” — to quote Lynch later in the same piece — merged so beguilingly with the poetic needs of film art.

In its opening sequence, Lucky reprises our most common visual association with Stanton: that of the lone wanderer traipsing through the surreally arid plains of the American Southwest. Absolutely lonely, or just alone by the sum of his life’s fortunes, this man appears simple and unadorned but is in fact rich with mystery. The most beloved Stanton performances (such as his roles in Paris, Texas (1984), Repo Man (1984), and the films of David Lynch) balance the mystery of his solitude with his co-stars’ natural curiosity for and loyalty to him. When Dean Stockwell as his estranged brother in Paris, Texas re-enters his life, he embodies the film audience’s own awed gaze. 

Lucky itself belongs to a small, but very respectable film sub-genre, that of the overt, latter-day ‘star text’. These films, such as The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne, Gran Torino (2008) with (and by) Clint Eastwood and the upcoming The Old Man & The Gun — billed as Robert Redford’s final bow before retirement — double as crypto-biographies of their leading men, their fictional portrayals self-consciously reflecting real-life circumstances. So Stanton’s character in Lucky (alsonamed Lucky, a tad too-cutely) shares key details with his real-life counterpart. For such a dedicated character actor, he finds an apotheosis playing someone resembling nobody but himself: perhaps a Harry Dean Stanton who returned after his military service to rural life in his home-state of Kentucky, and who wasn’t blessed with creative genes. Lucky is a World War II Navy veteran, living a spartan, quasi-bohemian lifestyle with no family responsibilities, not far from the one depicted in Partly Fiction. He does his morning yoga, loves to sing along to old Mexican ranchera music on the radio, and has a sweet, eccentric ardour for the crossword page in the morning paper.

Also serving as something of a response to Paris, Texas, Lucky expands Wim Wenders’ film’s portrayal of loneliness with a focus on mortality. Lucky, as did Stanton in real-life, looks frail and weak. After suddenly collapsing early in the film, his doctor (played by Ed Begley Jr.) warns of his declining health, and darkly jokes of his smoking habit: “It’s a scientific anomaly. Quitting would do you more harm than good!” And then, foreshadowing his existential acceptance of his coming death, he is provoked by that morning’s crossword clue: “Is realism a thing? Seven letters.” He haggardly limps to a large hardback dictionary positioned on a wooden stand, like a classical orator might have used. He recognises, seemingly for the first time, that the term can refer to an attitude about life: “the practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.”

The majority of Stanton’s film roles were less reliant on him taking centre stage. He was often used in the 60s and 70s in bit-parts, likely owing to connections forged in his Hollywood social life with Nicholson et al. He is in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and The Godfather Part II (1974) but doesn’t especially register. Then after his performance in in Alien (1979), he began to be used in the 1980s an avatar of Western American cool, granting auteurs such as John Carpenter, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese a tang of authenticity few others than he could provide.

While Stanton’s work over the past few decades was less widely seen, merely having him pop up in a small role, in disparate work like This Must Be the Place [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Paolo Sorrentino
film profile
]
(2011) and even The Avengers (2012) provided a cosy feeling of recognition. Divorced from having to carry a film’s whole weight on his back, he was an adored presence lending the corporate sheen of late 20th century American film a welcome bit of bohemian soul. 

Lucky pleasantly ambles along, intimately following Lucky as he makes peace with himself at the very end of his life. Drop-in cameo appearances by David Lynch and his Alien co-star Tom Skerritt,give the sense of a man and actor offering us a graceful, long goodbye, reminding us once more of his legacy and associations. And in the final sequence, he breaks the fourth wall, looking directly into the lens, in acknowledgement of his charmed and captivated audience.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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