If you don’t like Harry Dean Stanton, I will forever have just the slightest bit of mistrust in my heart when it comes to your judgment. The deadpan character actor who has been in 200-some movies is one of those guys who shows up all the time to make whatever film he happens to be in at the moment just a little bit better. He is precisely the sort of guy who merits a comprehensive documentary about his career, yet Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction isn’t that movie, at all.
Director Sophie Huber met Stanton in a bar 20 years ago, and this is less a portrait of an actor with an epic resume than an attempt to capture the spirit of that guy she drinks with. Stanton’s primary love, as some may know, is music, yet he states he has deftly managed to avoid success in that field. Paradoxically – or perhaps inevitably – his singing is a total 180 from his acting; the guy with the stone face and matter-of-fact delivery (Red Dawn “Avenge me!” speech notwithstanding) unleashes all his emotions and hits the high notes even in songs like “Danny Boy.” The documentary plays like a particularly artful episode of VH-1 Storytellers, with Stanton singing in beautiful black and white that recalls the photos of Anton Corbijn, while driving at night and talking in other settings.
A few of his movies get mentioned – Missouri Breaks, in which he worked opposite Brando; Alien; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for a funny anecdote about Bob Dylan; but mostly Paris, Texas, for being his first lead role. Asked what he did to prepare for playing that character, Stanton is hilariously anti-method: “He didn’t talk for about a half hour into the movie, so I did nothing.” His advice to young actors is “play yourself”; he turned down the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet because “I didn’t want to deal with those emotions.” An inveterate drinker and smoker – hey, he’s lived to 86 anyway, so why not? – he recalls getting drunk on the set of Cisco Pike just to spite the director and get a rise out of costar Kris Kristofferson, whose acting career he takes credit for.
Former housemate Jack Nicholson apparently declined to be on camera, but Kristofferson is here, along with Wim Wenders and David Lynch, who is characteristically weird, “interviewing” Stanton by blatantly reading off of cue cards while drinking from a gigantic coffee mug. If you were hoping for Joss Whedon to pop up and talk about casting him in The Avengers, this isn’t that type of movie – but if you want heart-rending versions of sings like “Blue Bayou” and “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” from a guy who “knows that his face is the story” (quote courtesy Sam Shepard), it absolutely is.
Best of all, after the movie screened, Stanton came out and sang a couple of tunes to the entire theater, and it was one of those things to remember forever. Time is catching up to him: he’s hard of hearing and has trouble seeing which harmonica is which, but the emotions in his eyes and voice when he belts out the Paris, Texas theme in Spanish are timeless. As he no longer likes to travel much – though his zen-like philosophy is that the world carries on regardless of what he likes, including travel plans that may be made for him – the documentary might be your only chance to see the man actually do the thing he loves best. I recommend you do so when this sees wider release in the fall.