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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Harry Dean Stanton

“Everything changes every day.” – Harry Dean Stanton

American enigma Harry Dean Stanton was a creative butterfly, an actor, musician, singer and all-around favourite of filmmakers including Sam Peckinpah, John Milius and David Lynch. The legacy he leaves following his death in September 2017 is an impressive one, having worked with dozens of the industry’s finest minds, leaving his impression wherever he went. Harry Dean Stanton is a sage of cinema, you best listen to his every word.

Born in West Irvine, Kentucky, Stanton was brought up in a family with a musical background, himself performing at the Guignol Theatre under the direction of British theatre director Wallace Briggs whilst studying journalism and radio arts. “I had to decide if I wanted to be a singer or an actor. I was always singing. I thought if I could be an actor, I could do all of it,” Stanton commented in an interview in 2011. 

He would later go on to serve in the United States Navy during WWII, a role which included a stint as a chef aboard a landing ship during the battle of Okinawa. As the actor fascinatingly recalls, “I was in the battle of Okinawa,” the actor recalled. “People who are actors now don’t have that kind of life experience; I saw action on a ship. I was damn lucky I didn’t get blown up or killed”. 

So, how did Harry Dean Stanton go from a young student with a golden voice and military experience to appearing in some of cinema’s finest films?

Let’s explore the actors’ six definitive films.

Harry Dean Stanton’s six definitive films:

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

The rise in prominence of Harry Dean Stanton was slow to put it lightly, taking 25 years for Harry Dean Stanton to secure a major role, earning his salt in countless random television roles and film appearances. 

“To put it mildly, I was just a very late bloomer,” Stanton said, with his very first film role attributed to an uncredited appearance as ‘Department of Corrections Employee’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Despite roles in 1967s Cool Hand Luke, 1971s Two-Lane Blacktop, and even Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II in 1974, it wasn’t until Ridley Scott’s horror classic Alien that the actor would see a role of considerable importance.

Lucky, then, that Scott’s sci-fi horror went down as one of cinema’s most iconic masterpieces, catapulting Harry Dean Stanton into the view of audiences worldwide for the very first time. His role as an engineer, Brett, and more accurately his on-screen death at the hands of the Xenomorph alien would quickly become celebrated.

Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

At the turn of the 1980s, Stanton would see his profile rise, albeit gradually, for the time being, performing in roles of increasing importance. After small parts in Mark Rydell’s The Rose, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, Stanton would collaborate with yet another iconic director.

Fresh off the back of 1978s Halloween and 1980s The Fog, director John Carpenter wrote the bombastic Escape from New York, in which a bank robber (Kurt Russell) is sent to save the U.S president when he crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison. 

Once again brought into the cast as an engineer, Stanton plays Brain, a man responsible for fueling Manhattan’s remaining cars and who helps guide Russell’s ‘Snake’ through the city. Although the role wouldn’t be groundbreaking, it once again established the actor’s name among the Hollywood greats, appearing alongside Kurt Russell in a highly popular blockbuster.

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

1984 would be the year to change Harry Dean Stanton’s luck for the better, appearing in two different films that would establish his name as two different personalities in the film industry. The first of these films was Alex Cox’s Repo Man.

Stanton would co-star in a leading role as Bud, a repo-man who recruits a young punk called Otto (Emilio Estevez) to help him find a Chevrolet Malibu that is wanted for a $20,000 bounty, as well as a mysterious bounty hidden in the trunk. Stanton’s cocaine-snorting lead character was the most significant role the actor had received to date, despite Repo Man not being as large in stature as Ridley Scott’s Alien

Whilst the actor had of course been seen littered in roles across the landscape of cinema, Repo Man was the first where Stanton could properly let his personality come alive, making an eccentric, non-conformist identity for himself thanks to Repo Man’s perpetual cult legacy.

Paris Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Whilst the poster for Alex Cox’s Repo Man might find itself onto the walls of beatnik teenagers, Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas, Harry Dean Stanton’s most important film role, would go down in the notebooks of film aficionados and find itself etched into the very history of American cinema. 

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas is quite simply one of cinema’s very best, starring Stanton in a leading role as Travis Henderson, a drifter who has been lost for four years who wanders out from the desert and tries to reconnect with life. Despite being the largest, most significant and most celebrated role in the actor’s career, Stanton admitted that he was “a man who had an extreme lack of self-confidence”.

Though as the actor also rightfully notes, “Paris, Texas gave me a chance to play compassion and I’m spelling that with a capital C”. Stanton’s vulnerability would prove to be his strongest acting virtue, being able to capture painful emotions of a lost soul which Wenders put down to the actors essential “innocence” as a person, as well as how “he kept the child that’s dead in most adults”.

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

Both Repo Man and Paris, Texas showed an eclectic maturity to Harry Dean Stanton’s character, suddenly the whole landscape of film was vacant to his talents. From action cult favourite Red Dawn, to the John Hughes penned Pretty in Pink to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Stanton enjoyed the many fruits of the film industry. 

The world of David Lynch was a natural destination for the actor whose eccentric personality and genuine talent was perfect for 1990s Wild at Heart, a strange dreamlike exploration of wild love. Stanton plays Johnnie Farragut, a private detective hired to find two young lovers by one of the individuals’ mothers, a minor role which Stanton grabs with both arms. 
Though it showed a return to a smaller role for Stanton, his performance in Wild at Heart feels so genuine, it belongs in the world of David Lynch, a director who would state, “All actors will agree, no one gives a more honest, natural, truer performance than Harry Dean Stanton”.

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, 2017)

Well into the 21st century, the release of Lucky in 2017 would be among the actor’s final roles, appearing again only in a minor role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, as well as the small independent film Frank and Ava

Ever since the 1990s Wild at Heart, Stanton’s career was marked with homages to past characters and personalities with short appearances in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Rango, as well as consistent roles throughout the filmography of David Lynch. 2017s Lucky would not only mark the actor’s final role, but it would also signify one of the times he would take a leading role in a film. 

The film, directed by John Carroll Lynch, follows the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old man and the quirky characters he shares his small desert town with. Discussing the meaning of life and death, and whether existence is anything more than a “black void”, Stanton’s final film feels like a natural conclusion for the career of an actor who has drifted from role to role, like Travis Henderson wandering through the desert.

“Whatever psychological traumas or conflicts I’m going through I try to put into my roles,” Stanton said of his final performance, a fact that resonates in Lucky, eliciting the very qualities that made the actor such an adored figure. 

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