It is no exaggeration to say that Harry Dean Stanton might be one of the greatest character actors ever. A living legend. He has appeared in more than two-hundred films and worked with the industry’s finest directors. As it often happens with iconic and grand personalities of his caliber, it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, the man and the myth. If that annoying journalist in Somewhere somehow made it into this picture, he would probably ask: Who is Harry Dean Stanton? No need for that however, because that seems to be exactly Sophie Huber’s quest in her staggering debut documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.
Instead of trying to be a biopic, Sophie smartly choses to try to get at Harry Dean Stanton’s core, his essence. She asks him directly to tell her about himself, but surprisingly he doesn’t seem to think much of himself as a person or an actor. He seems convinced that there’s “nothing” to tell. Now, if psychology has taught us anything, nothing actually means everything. So she asks him about his childhood. He prefers not to speak of his parents, especially his mother. There seems to be some kind of dark past we are not allowed into seeing. Harry doesn’t want to talk about it.
Sophie decides to ask some of his friends and collaborators to talk with and about him. We see David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson and even Debbie Harry. They all think of him highly and seem to enjoy reminiscing the good old times and the director even choses to show these interviews in crispy clean black & white to emphasize the nostalgia. Speaking of cinematography Seamus McGarvey does a fantastic job in color as well. Harry seems to be gradually opening up. He tells us about living with Jack Nicholson, meeting his idol Marlon Brando and partying with Hollywood royalty.
Throughout the film I couldn’t help but notice a veil of melancholy. Is it Harry’s solitude (which he says he enjoys)? Does he have any regrets? Is he searching for something that he thinks he’ll never find? Huber manages to get insights to Stanton’s outlook on life, his philosophy. He seems to feel that ultimately nothing really matters, everything is ephemeral and everything will end. These existentialist tones crept up on me fairly unexpectedly. I was hoping to hear a great success story, celebrating a man’s life and career, instead I got a the portrait of a lone wolf, that got into acting because it pays better than theater.
Harry also became an actor, because as he says it gets you women and at the end of the day men just want to get laid. He recounts how he used to be a womanizer, but now just seems to be feeling empty. His common man sadness, is touching, but at the same time not something we are used to think about, when we contemplate the fabulous lifestyle of movie stars. His honest live performance of country songs alternated to scenes of his films tell us more about him and the human condition than he ever could put into words. He advises young actors to “play themselves” and yet Wenders recalls how insecure he was when he took his first leading role in Paris, Texas as Travis Henderson. Once again we’re presented an insecure and fragile human being, even though he had already achieved a great deal of success at that point in his career.
I don’t know to what degree it is possible to know someone or even oneself, but this documentary certainly does its best to holistically capture Harry Dean Stanton.
Rating on First Viewing
(at the Locarno Film Festival)
8.5 out of 10