Sunday, September 8, 2013

Discover America's pre-eminent character actor in Sophie Huber's fine documentary HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION

Seems like we've seen him a million times (though, according to the IMDB, the guy's made only 215 film and TV appear-ances). Yet Harry Dean Stanton -- who worked the first 16 years of his career as Dean Stanton, switched in 1971 to H.D. Stanton for a couple of films, and from 1972 onward graduated to the name we all know -- has become (with no particular ambition, I would suspect, to achieve this goal) the pre-eminent character actor in all of Hollywood. He's someone who is now known worldwide and whose appearance in a movie, while it cannot force that film to be good (The Mini-Skirt Mob, anyone?) almost guarantees it'll be worth seeing -- if only to discover what Mr. Stanton will do with his role in it.

In her new film (one that's almost indispensable, I think, for anyone who wants to know how to make an interes-ting documentary about an actor), HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION, the actress/filmmaker Sophie Huber (shown at right) spends quite a bit of time with Mr. Stanton (below). The actor starts out the film by telling her that "I don't give anything away" and then soon asks, "How about silence?" But slowly, quietly, perhaps by beginning to trust, he starts to talk as she films. Before we know it we're neck-deep in Stanton-land, which turns out to be a pretty fascinating place, full of both buried sadness and overt strength, the reason for which we derive only hints -- from childhood, mostly failed female relationships, close male friends and an integrity regarding his profession that has consistently seen him through.

As expected, Huber has larded her film with some archival footage, mostly from various of his films, plus interviews with important directors -- Wim Wenders, David Lynch (below, left) -- who have worked with and clearly admire him immensely.

One of the things the movie makes clear, and that I either did not know or had totally forgotten, is how much music means to the actor, who turns out to be a fine singer, even now (he's in his 80s). Song has dotted his career throughout; remember Cisco Pike?

We get a clip of that film (above) -- one of those in which our guy was billed as H.D. Stanton and in which he co-starred with Kris Kristofferson -- as well as a nice duet between these two in more current times. It was Stanton, notes Kristoffwerson (below), "who got me my first part."

The leap an actor takes when he moves from character work to leading man can be frightening, and so it was with Paris, Texas, which catapulted Stanton -- not to "stardom" (that was never in the cards) but to greater prominence. One of the more interesting segments concerns all this. We see clips from this odd, rich movie and hear from Wenders, who directed it; Sam Shepard, who wrote it; and Stanton, who acted it. (That's Nastassja Kinski, below, who also starred in the film.)

The only other major and starring role I remember with Stanton is that in Repo Man (which arrived in the same year as Paris,Texas), which we also see here. His co-star in it was Emilio Estevez, who was riding high at the time and continued so for maybe a decade. I have nothing against Mr Estevez, but which man's work is now (and probably will be in perpetuity) remembered most?

We also see and hear from Deborah Harry, who looks fabulous and charms us as she probably did Stanton (and clearly, he her) and later from a young man named Logan Sparks, the actor's assistant who helps him practice lines for memory. Toward the end Stanton talks a bit about people like Nicholson and Brando, and we learn some more interesting stuff.

Style-wise, Ms Huber moves from present to past and from color to black-and-white (for some of the more current interviews) and back again, and she finds some impressionistic visuals to accompany Stanton's words and thoughts. Mostly though it's that face, craggy and deep, together with what the actor has to say, that holds us. Was H.D. ever a young man? Younger, of course, but even in the clips we see here, he always seems middle aged.

By its finale, the film has becomes something akin to spending quality time with a new friend who, in 77 minutes, you have gotten to know well enough to want to know better. Who, as Ethel Merman used to wonder, could ask for anything more?

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction-- from Adopt Films -- opens this Wednesday, September 11, in New York City at City Cinemas Village East and in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt on Friday September 13. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here (and then click on the film itself).

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