Sep 30, 2019
‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction," Reviewed
Harry Dean Stanton is never frivolous with words. He says exactly what he needs to, and nothing else, and he lets the words hang there until they blow away like smoke. He is never loud but always deliberate, which makes you pay attention to him. This is enough to make him a great actor.
He has never won a major award, which makes sense. Hollywood does not generally reward quiet and deliberate, and they are not fond of outsiders and loners. If he ever gets mentioned at the Oscars, it will be when he dies, where he’ll be slotted last on the “In Memoriam” segment. They’ll show a few seconds of clips from an unrepresentative list of his films, probably “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and the polite applause will be a bit longer than usual.
Which is good. The best actors are the ones who carve out a niche and survive in a disinterested bottom line business that will always lean toward easy sentimentality over honesty. And Harry Dean Stanton is one of the most honest performers in the business, which makes him one of the best actors alive. I say this not in a “one of those documentaries where Bono fetishizes primitivism” sense, but in an aesthetic sense. I have no idea if Harry Dean Stanton is an honest man. I just know he’s a singularly honest performer, which requires a great deal of craftsmanship and the sort of self-examination that turns people into alcoholics.
“Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” now available on Netflix, captures this well. It’s a short documentary, illuminating very little about his life but a fair amount about his skills. It does many things right: it lets him take his time, it doesn’t pathologize or romanticize his vices and imperfections, and most importantly, Bono doesn’t appear once. This is the first documentary with guitars in it to avoid Bono’s rambling made-up bullshit, and for that alone, director Sophie Huber should be considered for a Nobel Prize.
In the documentary, we learn that Stanton is surprisingly self-aware. He knows that he photographs well, and he knows that he’s essentially the archetypal wandering loner. He knows the power of silence, and that what an actor’s face says is more important than what the script says. This awareness is key to the success of “Paris, Texas,” which positions him as a mythological entity, a part of the American landscape, the kind of guy great country songs are about, a representation of rootlessness and isolation.
But Stanton has done too many assembly line westerns, been in the game too long to get egocentric and precious about the “art of acting.” So Huber has him sing a whole lot. Which works, actually. The song selections are good, and Stanton has chops. After an interview with Kris Kristofferson, you get a picture of Stanton that suggests not an actor but a displaced folk singer.
And that’s where the documentary starts to fail. The narrative of Harry Dean Stanton the displaced folk singer becomes the obvious one, but it is sidestepped in favor of an L.A.-centric viewpoint that’s a bit too inside. Sure, those shots of him smoking as his Town Car navigates Mulholland Drive are awesome, but Mulholland Drive itself is a bummer. After all, it overlooks the Valley. And the scenes of him sitting at Dan Tana’s are even more of a bummer. Santa Monica Blvd. is a boring concentration of insane wealth and tedious showbiz stories about who did coke with whom at the Troubadour. Harry Dean Stanton is too iconic an actor to be put in the diminutive box of “people who can afford to park in West Hollywood.”
It’s at Dan Tana’s that it becomes obvious Huber missed some opportunities. It’s here we see Stanton’s handler say, “He always says do nothing, which is bullshit, because if he did nothing, he’d still be on a fucking rocking chair in Kentucky.” This statement sticks out like a sore thumb and is never interrogated. Sitting on a rocking chair in Kentucky is a perfectly noble existence, and to look down on that with a sneer suggests a dismissal of where Stanton comes from, a problem that plagues the whole documentary.
Huber is content, for whatever reason, to only leave Stanton’s house to show Mulholland Dr. and an old showbiz bar. Roots are critical in shaping a performer, and she never explores his. Stanton mentions he was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, a town that no longer exists and was attached to a town that barely does. During the Great Depression, his family moved to a tobacco farm in North Carolina, near a town called White Rock. In a moving moment, Stanton says “It’s not there anymore.”
It would have done Huber well to take his roots more seriously, beyond asking him a couple uncomfortable questions about his relationship with his parents (which was difficult, as you’d expect for a child of the Depression). It would have been nice to learn about what Irvine looks like, where White Rock was, and how he got out. The early days. The assembly line westerns. Instead we get an interview with David Lynch, who has only ever known Stanton as an old man. Huber goes out of her way to make sure we know Stanton had sex with Debbie Harry, but Kentucky in the 1930s is basically dismissed, regarded as a “fucking rocking chair” and thrown away. That’s sad and condescending.
Regardless of these misdeeds, it remains a fairly a solid portrait of an iconic performer who is too-often swept into the character actor corner (a corner where we put people we don’t want to be too famous), even though he only ever plays himself. He’s the archetypal representation of someone trying to get back somewhere he can’t go: damage, loss and sorrow writ large. That’s a singular gift, and it’s worth sitting through some L.A. mysticism to get some insight into it. He’s a survivor, somebody who stared at the void too long and chose life anyway. And he can tell you that without saying anything.