His face, loveably weathered, can be found in so many examples of a very particular kind of American film from the 1970s onward. I’m talking about Harry Dean Stanton, the great character actor who, like a few other great character actors, is a revelation whenever he’s given the opportunity to take a lead. One of those rare opportunities—a film called Paris, Texas, released in 1984—yielded what in my estimation is one of the most luminous performances in cinema history. David Lynch, who has directed him in six films, adores his innocence and praises his craft, but also concedes that Stanton’s face itself is a story. It should be carved into the side of a mountain, alongside those of Warren Oates, Seymour Cassell and Steve Buscemi: a Rushmore of adorably wounded late 20th century American movie maleness. In the meantime we have Stanton’s films—over 200 of them—to watch and re-watch, as well as this lovely little documentary from German filmmaker Sophie Huber.
The title of Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is derived from a beloved Kris Kristofferson song—the one Cybil Shepherd quotes to Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, a film Stanton could easily have been in, playing one of the older, wiser graveyard hacks. Over the course of Huber’s portrait we begin to surmise that the fictive part is Stanton’s claim of just being himself on-screen, of not doing homework or thinking too much, an attitude that fuses bravado with modesty. It is a fiction to think that the emotional textures and behavioural detail Stanton conveys comes without hard work. Indeed, a quick survey of Stanton’s body of work reveals not only hard work but also considerable diversity, i.e.: the taciturnity of his drifting stranger in Paris, Texas and the volubility of his addled agent of repossession in Repo Man. Late in the film Stanton’s assistant testifies to the absurdity of Stanton doing nothing. “If he did nothing he’d still be in a rocking chair in Kentucky,” he says. So Huber’s film, besides being a gift to anyone who loves Stanton—or Lynch, or Kristofferson, or Sam Shepard, or Debbie Harry, or Wim Wenders, all of whom show up to pay homage—is also a proposition: the magic of this thing we call screen presence may be inherently mysterious, but it isn’t merely stumbled upon; it’s a labour of love which requires to put all of one’s life experience into one’s roles. Without getting too precious about it, the film might teach you a few things about acting.
But if you follow Stanton’s work and know anything of his famously inebriated life—he lived with Jack Nicholson for a while in the late 1960s—you’ll also want stories, and Huber supplies a few good ones. Among the most hilarious: Stanton and Bob Dylan spoiling a perfect shot during production on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid by, I kid you not, jogging into frame! Huber also allows Stanton, now 87, to sing for the camera: ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me,’ ‘Blue Bayou.’ He’s surprisingly good, if wobbly. Charming is the word, not just for the singing but for everything he does, including speak of a life in which lasting love has always been elusive. There is something about Stanton that seems to resist conventional companionship. “I’ve just been a loner all my life,” he says. Partly Fiction falls short of explaining how he wound up this way, but such analysis is far from the point of the film. Like the songs Stanton loves to sing, the film is really a ballad. It’s old man blues: sweet, pretty, sad, personal, and finally enigmatic.