Eclectic Energies

A new documentary pays tribute to cinema weirdo (and inspiration to David Lynch) Harry Dean Stanton

Some know him as Molly Ringwald's dad in Pretty in Pink. Others know him as David Lynch's go-to guy when he needs somebody weird. And still others remember Harry Dean Stanton doing coke with Emilio Estevez in Repo Man.

At press time, Stanton has 186 acting credits on his Internet Movie Database profile. He's co-starred with Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. He's that rare character actor, like Walter Brennan, for whom many film aficionados can actually put a name to the face. In short ... he's an American film institution.

Director Sophie Huber does a fitting tribute to the still very much alive actor with Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. The documentary features lengthy sit-downs with Stanton in his home, while hitting bars or driving around in a car. It's a very relaxed film and a lot of fun to watch.

Stanton doesn't just talk during the interviews; he sings, and sings quite beautifully, I might add. From "Blue Bayou" to "Everybody's Talkin'" (the theme from Midnight Cowboy), Stanton will just bust out a song in the middle of answering a question. The musical interludes are quite soothing and, given Stanton's offbeat nature, feel appropriate.

It's hard to sum up an actor as versatile as Stanton with one movie, but Huber does a great job. The film has interviews with some of Stanton's past directors and co-stars, along with movie clips. Huber ignores Stanton's more commercial roles (no Red Dawn or Pretty in Pink) in favor of his more eccentric cinematic participations, like Paris, Texas and Repo Man. The most commercial effort shown in the film would be Ridley Scott's Alien, where we see a clip of Stanton searching for Jonesy the cat, mere seconds before his head gets impaled.

In the film's greatest segment, David Lynch sits down for a cup of coffee—make that a giant cup of coffee—with Stanton at his home. It's fun to see the impossibly polite Lynch take a sip of his coffee and compliment its flavor, while Stanton admits it's just Yuban.

Together, the two reminisce about Stanton's roles in films like Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and, most notably, his heartwarming appearance in The Straight Story with Richard Farnsworth. Huber utilizes the wonderful clip of Stanton, as Farnsworth's brother, tearing up when he realizes his bro rode across the country on a tractor just to see him. I think that might be the single greatest acting moment of Stanton's career.

In another team-up, Stanton walks into the middle of Kris Kristofferson's interview, and the two happily discuss their movie together (Cisco Pike) and hanging out with Jack Nicholson.

The film spends the most time exploring the Wim Wenders masterpiece Paris, Texas, the rare movie where Stanton actually played the leading man. Wenders himself sits for an interview, as does Sam Shepard, who wrote the screenplay. Shepard does a great job of describing Stanton's physicality, detailing how his expressive face "tells a story."

Stanton is a wonder to behold, at once aloof and engaged. There are moments where he doesn't seem to be part of the conversation, but then he makes a brilliant, concise observation to show he's very much in the moment. In a great sequence, he sits with a bartender he's been frequenting for more than 40 years, and they reminisce about his womanizing days. The always engaging Stanton is perhaps a little dazed, a little sad and more than a little drunk.

The movie makes a couple of revelations that I may have known at one time, but have long since forgotten. For instance, Stanton was romantically involved with Rebecca De Mornay, and lost her to Tom Cruise after, as he claims, he helped her to get a role in Risky Business. Stanton also reveals that he turned down the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet because it had emotions he didn't want to deal with.

Much of the interview footage is shot in a smoky black and white that looks a little like last year's Bruce Dern movie, Nebraska. The color footage occurs in the film clips, and when Harry visits a bar or sits in the back of his car. Mixing up the film stock is a good stroke in that it conveys the many faces and roles of the actor.

Stanton is clocking in at 87 years old, and he's still making movies, appearing in last year's The Last Stand with Schwarzenegger and with Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths. The man has had stints on Bonanza, Laverne & Shirley and The Fugitive, so he's made his mark on TV as well.

When it comes to Stanton, a straight-up talking-head movie not featuring his yearning singing voice would not do. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is as eclectic as it should be, and a reminder that one of the greats is still with us and still wonderfully strange.