Watch Harry Dean Stanton reads poems by Charles Bukowski
(Credit: Magnolia)

From David Lynch to Martin Scorsese: Harry Dean Stanton’s 10 best films

“You want people to feel something when you tell a story, whether they feel happy or whether they feel sad.” — Harry Dean Stanton

American actor, singer and musician, Harry Dean Stanton had one of the longest careers in Hollywood until his death in 2017 aged 91. With 116 film roles and 77 parts in TV series since his first appearance in Inner Sanctum (1964), Stanton went on to appear in multiple indie and cult films as well as mainstream Hollywood productions.

Stanton was a WW-II Vet as well as a hipster icon and one of the few authentic presences in Hollywood history. Roger Ebert famously stated that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” His breakthrough part came with the lead role in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). In a 1986 interview, Stanton recalled telling Sam Shepard, the scriptwriter for the film, “I was telling him I was sick of the roles I was playing. I told him I wanted to play something of some beauty or sensitivity. I had no inkling he was considering me for the lead in his movie.”

On his 94th birth anniversary, we take a look back at ten essential roles that Harry Dean Stanton played in his lifetime.

Harry Dean Stanton’s 10 Best Performances:

10. The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)

Harry Dean Stanton brings the Lynchian quality to this 1999 film when he appears only at the very end as the stroke ridden brother of a WW-II veteran (played by Richard Farnsworth). Stanton’s fleeting and soulful performance on the screen makes us forget about the startling lack of surrealism in a David Lynch family and delivers the same shock through raw human emotions.

Critic Greg Cwik beautifully said that Stanton’s performance “makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do”. Richard Farnsworth won multiple nominations for Best Actor, including a nomination for the Academy Award, making Stanton’s brief role a regrettably overlooked one.

9. Dillinger (John Milius, 1973)

In this 1973 film about the most wanted man in America, John Dillinger (played by Warren Oates), Stanton takes on the role of Homer Van Meter who underestimates a group of country hicks. He is gunned down by them in the middle of a street, contrary to the actual death of Van Meter in real life (he was killed in an encounter with the police). Stanton gives a powerful performance even in a minor role.

His memorable line, “Goddamit! Things ain’t workin’ out for me today!” is said with the conviction of a man who finds himself spiralling down into the abyss. One critic appreciated Stanton’s contribution, saying: “Harry Dean Stanton always makes me smile.”

8. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese 1988)

Scorsese’s decision to cast Harry Dean Stanton as St. Paul was a brilliant one.

From when he first appears as Saul, up until his final appearance as St. Paul, Stanton undergoes a process of transformation. He starts out as a thug and ends up as a con-man. In what is one of his finest performances, he tells the crowd around him: “I gambled, I whored, I drank… persecuted, tortured, and mur–dered!” Even though he is supposed to be a repentant saint, Stanton exposes the lies of faith by drawing out the pronunciation of just one word.

Scorsese’s 1988 film won him a Academy Award Nomination for Best Director. The film is certainly an important part of modern Biblical discourse but attention must be paid to the brilliant performance of Stanton as the faux figure of faith as well.

7. Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

After working with Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ, Stanton established a life-long relationship with American filmmaker David Lynch that was continued in the 2017 return of seminal TV show Twin Peaks. In Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart, Stanton played the role of a private investigator, Johnnie Farragut.

Stanton masterfully plays along with the surreal nightmare of Lynch’s world, a world in which he is tortured and killed by three vicious psychopaths. The look of despair and defeat on Stanton’s face right before he is shot sends a more powerful message than any dialogue ever could.

6. Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

In John Carpenter’s 1981 action/sci-fi classic, Stanton plays the character of Harold Hellman, also known as Brain. Carpenter transformed New York into a post-apocalyptic prison, with the Duke (played by Isaac Hayes) as its king and Hellman as a sidekick. Stanton’s character used his street smart attitude to rise to the top of the corrupt hierarchy in place but is ultimately killed because he cannot read maps.

Stanton puts on a stellar performance that makes the viewer feel as if he truly belongs to this dystopian environment. As only Stanton could do, he changed a mere supporting role to a fully fleshed out person with real emotions.

5. Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979)

Set in the Deep South during the post-war era, this 1979 film is an adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s eponymous novel. It is one of John Huston’s most stunning, original films that features a brilliant cast of left-field character actors like Dourif, Ned Beatty, William Hickey and Harry Dean Stanton.

Stanton plays the role of Asa Hawks, a “blind” preacher who opposes the formation of a new religion in a rural Tennessee town. Although he has very few scenes, he delivers a stand-out performance in each and every one of them.

4. Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

This 1978 crime drama is mainly recognised for the well-modulated performance of Dustin Hoffman as paroled criminal, Max Dembo who is forced to withstand the cruelty of his parole officer (played by M. Emmet Walsh). Based on Edward Bunker’s novel, Straight Time is a realistic probe into criminal psychology.

Harry Dean Stanton’s performance as Jerry Schue, an ex-con adds immeasurably to the depth of the film but is, quite sadly, not credited enough for it. Stanton has died multiple times on camera but this might be the most poignant death scene of his where he is shot by the police as he tries to flee on foot.

3. Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, 2017)

The last film that Stanton ever worked in, John Carroll Lynch’s 2017 drama follows the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist (played by Harry Dean Stanton). It is an honest exploration of morality, loneliness and human relationships. Stanton’s final performance is a powerful one in which he dominates every frame he is in. Lucky is Stanton’s beautiful farewell letter.

When John Carroll Lynch was asked about his experience working with Stanton, he replied, “Delightful, challenging, frustrating, angering, as well as breathtaking and surprising. He focused so clearly on the moment that he only responded to notes you had on that individual moment of how to play something. You had to say it in a way that was clearly about that moment and not about what you needed as a director. Structure was of no interest to him.”

2. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

Director Alex Cox’s tribute to classic Hollywood noir, Repo Man is an amalgamation of L.A. punk and the midnight movies of the ’70s. It is one of the most enduring cult films out there and there is a lot to be appreciated about it. Cox’s choice to cast Stanton as philosophical, veteran repo man called Bud is one of them.

In one of the most memorable scenes of Cox’s cult classic, Stanton says, “The life of a repo man is always intense.” Stanton brings a breath of fresh air to the big screen as he subverts traditional morality while stealing cars without any regret. He has his own beliefs and he sticks to those.

1. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

1984 was arguably the best year for Stanton’s career, a year in which he played the iconic role of Bud in Repo Man and also managed to land the best role of his career in Paris, Texas. Wenders’ film is a truly deep and brilliant cinematic tour de force and so is Stanton’s performance in it, as the protagonist, Travis Henderson. Scriptwriter Sam Shepard described the role as one “that called for the actor to remain largely silent … as a lost, broken soul trying to put his life back together and reunite with his estranged family after having vanished years earlier.”

The climactic scene, filmed in a peep-show booth, is Stanton’s most powerful stint on the big screen where an overwhelming sense of tragedy annihilates all inhibitions and leaves only what is emotional and human. This scene alone is enough proof that Harry Dean Stanton was one of the greatest actors that Hollywood ever produced.

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