Harry Dean Stanton as Carl Rodd in Twin Peaks
He was the son of a cook and a tobacco farmer, a Kentucky boy who took a big risk by dropping out of university to pursue an acting career, but by the time he died on Friday at the age of 91, Harry Dean Stanton had appeared in more than 100 films. They include a host of hits: The Last Temptation Of Christ, Cool Hand Luke, Pretty In Pink, The Green Mile, Inland Empire and more. He had bit parts in the likes of The Godfather 2, In The Heat Of The Night and How The West Was Won, though sadly his scenes in Cheech and Chong's stoner classic Up In Smoke went up in smoke themselves. But some of his work was truly unforgettable. If you see nothing else, you have to check out these.
"The life of a repo man is always intense," advises Stanton at the start of this cult favourite from Alex Cox. He's Bud, the shady guy who persuades Emilio Estevez's naive young punk Otto to "help me get my wife's car out of this bad area," thereby introducing him to the repo trade. As both subsequently get drawn into the hunt for a missing car with an unheard-of bounty attached, they find themselves with secret agents and something otherworldly to deal with as well as the usual angry car hire customers, but Bud never loses his cool. He's utterly mercenary, hooked on the thrill of getting away with it and loyal to the concept of better living through chemicals. Stanton makes him likeable despite it all, embracing the character's scumminess and adding an unexpected warmth to his sardonic wit.
When the Nostromo is unexpectedly stopped during a routine mission so its crew can investigate a possible unfamiliar life form, everybody on board is annoyed by the disruption - Stanton's character Brett doubly so, because his lower rank means he only gets half the bonus for it that most of the others do. And that's before the life form turns out to be deadly. When everything goes to hell courtesy of one of the screen's nastiest monsters, Brett knows all along that the company considers him expendable. He's not the stuff that heroes are made of, but he does his bit anyway. It's through Stanton that we first experience the fear of being trapped in a tunnel with the creature, and nobody has done it as well since. He creates a character whom anybody can relate to and lets us share his despair.
Wild At Heart
Of all his collaborations with David Lynch, this is the one in which Stanton gets the most screentime and the most complex character to play. He's Johnnie Farragut, sometime beau of Diane Ladd's unhinged gangster widow and Wicked Witch of the West analogue Marietta, who drags him into her scheme to try and separate her daughter (Laura Dern) from lover with a secret Sailor (Nicolas Cage). With Marietta far gone by the time the story begins, it's Johnnie whom we depend on to show us her humanity through his longing for the woman she once was. Though well versed in dodgy dealings himself, he's a character who immediately attracts sympathy, not least because it's obvious that his enduring love will lead him to his doom. Stanton gives us the sene that he's aware of this, imbuing him with an aspect of Greek tragedy.
Stanton's talents are tested to the full in Wim Wenders' epic mystery, in which he plays wanderer Travis. Not only does this troubled man begin with his sense of identity compromised by amnesia, but he spends the first half of the film apparently mute; it is a remarkable performance that keeps viewers focused on him at the centre of events, even in light of impressive work from the rest of the cast. Even after he begins to speak, most of what we learn about him comes from his face and body language as he responds to what he sees around him. It's a powerful story of lost love and redemption; Wenders trusted Stanton to carry it and the result is one of the finest pieces of work ever produced by either.
Escape From New York
When convicted criminal and former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent to the anarchic prison colony set up of the island of Manhattan in a future US, he needs help to track down the President he's been ordered to rescue. That help comes in the form of Stanton's character, Brain, a fixer who knows everything everyone is up to and can not only locate the President but might be able to get him to safety. This is one of the few films in which Stanton gets to play a man in a happy relationship, with his girlfriend played by Adrienne Barbeau - not that that means things will go well for him. It's a film full of impressive cameos but Stanton still stands out because of the depth and sense of history he brings to his character, alongside a joyously bitter sense of humour.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Every great actor deserves to have his story told like this. Sophie Huber's documentary is a gem, and if it never quite succeeds in getting close to the studiously enigmatic man, it has plenty to say about his work as an actor and also about his passion for making music, especially blues. It says something that even David Lynch, notoriously reticent about interviews he hasn't arranged himself, speaks at length here about his admiration for Stanton's talents and the joy of working with him. Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard are among the others sharing their thoughts in a documentary packed with sharp observations, and with the occasional moment when we seem to glimpse the real Harry Dean Stanton, the man behind so many beautifully created myths.
Stanton died just a fortnight after the airing of the final episode of Twin Peaks Season Three, in which he reprised his character from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and produced remarkable work for a man in visibly fragile health. His most recent film, Lucky, is out in the US on September 29 and his final film, Frank And Eva, is currently in post producton.