There’s a lot of documentaries out about famous people, but not so many new ones about actors – perhaps that’s why “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” caught my eye.
I’ve always been intrigued as to why some actors stand out and some don’t. With a long-time professional actor like Stanton, you get a tiny glimpse into what makes him so good.
The doc is unusual – it is mostly set in Stanton’s home with several photos of family and (famous) friends. It also shows Stanton hanging out at the hip Hollywood spot Dan Tana’s, or riding in a car – there’s lots of riding in a car. There are questions from the director and friends he’s worked with – with what seems to be many times, songs for the answers. Like when director Sophie Huber asks Stanton, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” and Stanton starts singing “Blue Bayou.”
Then he lights up a cigarette and says, “Do I have any lines? How about doing nothing?”
But Stanton, as much as he insists he doesn’t do anything special, is shown doing just the opposite in such film clips from “Paris, Texas,” “Cisco Pike,” and “The Straight Story.”
Notable people like director Wim Wenders sit in his living room and speak of him in awe, how Stanton needs to protect the “personal things” in himself while he’s acting.
Then you see Stanton in a clip of “Alien,” and it’s an awesome scene – he is looking for the ship’s cat, while constantly glancing upward – it makes you almost jump out of your skin to watch him, knowing that the alien is somewhere nearby.
David Lynch and Stanton chummily smoke cigarettes together and talk about how many films they’ve done (six), while Lynch wonders at how many films Stanton has been in (over 200), relating that in all the films, “You see many different characters – he’s got this innocence and naturalness that’s really rare.”
And it’s what Stanton does between the lines too, like in the film “The Straight Story,” when he reacts without words to another character’s reply – first, almost a laugh of disbelief, then realization, then he becomes teary-eyed, all within a few moments. It’s a stunning performance and utterly believable.
Huber goes through Stanton’s life from the beginning to the present – how Stanton was born in Kentucky, brought up during the Depression and how he entered the Navy in WWII, where he was involved in the battle in Okinawa.
Did Stanton ever want to get married? No, he proposed a few times — “thank God they said no,” and “may” have a few kids by a few different women.
There are more clips – the cult favorite “Repo Man,” with Emilio Estevez; “Cool Hand Luke,” with Paul Newman; and “Missouri Breaks,” with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. More glimpses of what good acting is (“just not saying anything is already a powerful thing” he relates).
And there are some surprises – he lived with Rebecca DeMornay for a year and-a-half, until she left him for Tom Cruise (“I was heartbroken. I didn’t commit, I was a womanizer”), Deborah Harry wrote a song about him (”I Want that Man”), he lived with Jack Nicholson (“That was a trip. That was right before he did ‘Easy Rider.’ It was never boring!”) plus Kris Kristofferson reminisces how Stanton helped him ace his first screen test.
Although Stanton downplays his acting talents, his assistant Logan Sparks asserts, “The truth is, he tried his whole life – he’s still trying.”
His main regret seems to be, as he goes through various folk songs and plays the harmonica, is that he didn’t do more with his music interests. Yet it’s hard to think of anyone having a more full life than Stanton.
There are still questions left about what makes Stanton a long-time favorite, after so many others in his generation of actors have crashed, burned, or simply gave up. Perhaps it’s best answered in the film “Cisco Pike” when Kristofferson’s character says to Stanton’s, “It ain’t your G-dam body they’re after, man. It’s your soul.”