Earlier today the great Harry Dean Stanton left the planet. He was 91. HDS’s greatest role, no question, was Bud, Emilio Estevez‘s sardonic father figure and spiritual guide, in Alex Cox‘s Repo Man. There’s a good reason why I bought Criterion’s Bluray of that landmark 1984 film, and that’s Harry Dean.
His second best performance was in Ulu Grosbard‘s Straight Time (’78), in which he played Jerry, an amiable thief and old friend of Dustin Hoffman‘s Max Dembo. Jerry’s luck runs out following the robbing of a Beverly Hills jewelry store, but it’s really Dembo’s fault for taking too long after the alarm had sounded and for choosing Gary Busey, a junkie and a weakling, to drive the getaway car. I believed every word, every line that Stanton said in that film. 100% genuine, absolute real deal. Jerry to Max: “Get me outta here…get me outta here, man.”
Stanton’s third best wasn’t a performance but a wordless cameo. It happened at the very end of David Lynch‘s The Straight Story (’99). Richard Farnsworth finally completes his journey to his brother’s (i.e. Stanton’s) home, and HDS steps out and stands on the front porch and looks at his brother and just kind of quietly melts, almost imperceptibly.
And that’s it, really — just those three performances. No, wait…one more.
In Frank Perry‘s Rancho Deluxe (’75), HDS played a glum but romantically susceptible ranch hand named Curt. Curt is always hanging with his best friend Burt (Richard Bright), and of course their names are a running gag. And of course a young woman whom Curt falls for, a niece of Slim Pickens‘ bounty hunter called Laura (Charlene Dallas), has a hard time recalling if his name is Curt or Burt. Her affections, in other words, are less than 100% sincere. I think it’s allowable to mention that Rancho Deluxe has a great (if brief) blowjob scene between HDS and Dallas. Amusing and curiously erotic at the same time.
I could never quite invest in Wim Wenders‘ Paris, Texas (’84), in which Stanton played Nastassja Kinksi‘s ex-husband, Travis. HDS was just shy of 60 when he played the part, and he could never generate even a hint of a sexy-older-guy vibe — it just wasn’t in him. Kinski was 22 or 23, and there was just no buying them as a couple. I therefore watched Paris, Texas with a certain detachment. I’ve never even thought about re-watching it.
20-plus years ago I went down to The Mint to hear Stanton and his band play a couple of sets. He was a reasonably decent vocalist. The band was mainly performing top-40 soul and blues standards. At one point Harry announced that they were about to play “Mustang Sally,” and I remember wincing and saying to myself, “Oh, no…don’t do that..please. I hate that song, mostly because it’s been played to death for decades.” But they did, of course. That tore it for me. I left 15 or 20 minutes later.