Harry Dean Stanton on How to 'Avoid Success Artfully' (But Not Really)
Film critic Roger Ebert once said that any film with him couldn't possibly be "altogether bad." Great cinematic minds such as Wim Wenders and David Lynch count themselves lucky for having had the opportunity to work with him. Huge talents like Kris Kristofferson credit him with their rise to fame. Debbie Harry even wrote a song about him. This man has never won an Oscar; he's never even been nominated for one. Yet odds are, if you have been to the movies in the last 50 years, you have seen this man's face.
With roles in more than 180 films over the course of his almost six-decade-long career, actor and musician Harry Dean Stanton is an undeniable, yet somehow inconspicuous, legacy of American cinema. But for how much of Stanton’s presence has quietly saturated the great movies of the last half-century, the man himself allows only a select few to penetrate his life off-screen. This might be why the new documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction came about only after a long-term friendship with would-be filmic biographer Sophie Huber, a friendship based on respect, trust and an understanding of the importance of silence.
Before conceptualizing what would be her unconventional, impressionistic portrait, Huber set out to make audio recordings of Stanton singing his favorite country and blues songs—an act he loves dearly, and one he regrets not making into more of a career. What started as sessions for Huber's laptop and small microphone very slowly turned into performances for the camera of acclaimed cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, The Hours), with Huber there to put Stanton at ease. As he became more comfortable in front of the camera, his reservations about exposing himself in a filmed portrait began to melt away—but even then, it was a slow thaw.
"When I started to interview him for the documentary I did notice that we didn't talk as much on the phone as we did before," Huber recounted recently in an e-mail exchange. "I think we both had our own reasons: he was worried that I would want something from him, and I wanted to save the conversations for when we were filming."
Stanton is nothing if not protective of his privacy. Rarely in this 77-minute portrait do we see him anywhere but in his living room, in a car or sidled up to his favorite bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. And rarely do we hear him speak more than a few words at a time. We learn bits and pieces about this man from conversations with the artists with whom he has worked over the years. We learn even more through the seven songs he sings while sitting in his living room, accompanied by musician Jamie James’ guitar and occasionally his own harmonica. Each one of them about longing, lost love and the concept of home, the tunes featured in Partly Fiction allow Stanton a chance to say with his singing voice and the pain on his face that which he is reticent about expressing in conversation.
The majority of Huber and McGarvey’s footage was converted to black and white in post-production, with occasional forays in color when Stanton leaves his hillside home. This visual convention makes the transitions to clips from Stanton's filmography seem more integrated into the film as a whole, but there’s certainly an ulterior motive behind this aesthetic choice. With the rich black and white, we're able to move beyond the superficial details and really feel the texture of things on screen. And for a man who, according to writer Sam Shepard in an interview from the film, “knows that his face tells a story,” the texture conveyed through this crisp black-and-white stock allows for the audience to give Stanton’s subtle life their full attention.
"The main reason for this decision was that I wanted to create the feeling that one spends real time with Harry," Huber explains. "Another reason [we] choose black and white over the original color footage was that it made Harry's face even more expressive, more dramatic. And since he does not convey that much verbally, one has to use every way to magnify what he conveys in other ways."
The film’s visual style befits the austerity of its subject, a self-proclaimed loner who has "proposed two or three times" but has never been married, who at age 87 lives by himself at a simple home in the hills above Los Angeles. It's almost too perfect that one of his only roles as a leading man required 30 on-screen minutes of silence as Travis Henderson in Wim Wenders’ 1984 drama Paris, Texas. "Harry put himself behind the part with his whole biography," Wenders recalls to Huber. "He allowed himself to be very vulnerable in that part."
At one point, Huber asks Stanton if he has any advice for young actors. Without even pausing to think, Stanton replies, “Play yourself.” Huber integrates aptly chosen clips from films like Paris, Texas; Cisco Pike; The Straight Story and Cool Hand Luke, further emphasizing Stanton's mantra. In each of these roles, we see just a little glimpse of the man slowly revealed through the songs he sings for Huber's camera.
The title of Huber's film comes from Kris Kristofferson's "The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)", which the musician claims he wrote about Stanton, Dennis Hopper and himself. The lyrics suggest a man mostly content with his life decisions, even if they might not have followed the most conventional path. This quiet man whose career has taken him in many different directions has somehow woven his way into the lives of Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Willie Nelson, yet still believes that he's "avoided success artfully." There's humility. There's realism. And then there's Harry Dean.
Does one leave this film with more insight into the man who is Harry Dean Stanton? This might not be the point. Rather, Huber's portrait lends a soft reverence and sensitive peek into one quiet man who has somehow stumbled through a life of undeniable greatness.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction opens in New York on September 11 and Los Angeles on September 13, through Adopt Films.
Katharine Relth is the Web and Social Media Producer for the International Documentary Association.