Every cinephile remembers the first time they witnessed the legendary Harry Dean Stanton on the screen and experienced his soul-catching presence. For many folks, it was his turn as the troubled father of Molly Ringwald in the romantic teen film, Pretty in Pink. For others, it was as the streetwise mentor in Alex Cox's punk cult classic, Repo Man. For me, it was in an episode of the unintentionally horrifying Shelly Duvall TV experiment, Faerie Tale Theater. It was the Rip Van Winkle episode where he played the title character. To me, it was the role he was born to play. As far back as his roles went, he'd always looked like he'd awoken from a deep sleep. Harry Dean Stanton, like many of the great rock musicians of the world, had the permanent face of a man who just awoken from a twenty year slumber.
While many actors become staples of their respective times, Harry Dean Stanton always felt out of time, no matter which decade he'd performed in. He looked as though he could belong in any time period. His gaunt, yet imposing, form and his disorienting manner in which he'd delve into the hearts and minds of his characters made his output exceedingly versatile. His brief mainstream roles in such films as Alien, Cool Hand Luke, and The Godfather Part II may all be thankless parts in the eyes of those who could understand his method to which he showcased his pitiful earthiness, but his work with David Lynch, in addition to the passion involved in partnering with such an artistic equal who was on the same creative page as he was in crafting characters and scenarios, is what really best demonstrates why Harry Dean Stanton was one-of-a-kind. Few actors have managed to successfully skirt the line between mainstream familiarity and indie brilliance and even fewer had pulled it of as consistently and for as long a period of time as he did. To the day he passed away, on September 15, 2017, he never hit an inconsistent block in his filmography, balancing his work in small parts within major blockbusters, such as The Avengers and Rango, alongside independent tour-de-forces such as Inland Empire and, finally, Lucky, which many are regarding as his ultimate artistic triumph.
However, it was his legendarily masterful performance in Wim Wenders' 1984 Palme d'Or winner, Paris, Texas, that won my heart, and few moviegoers will argue that his role as the troubled drifter searching for the title location was his greatest triumph. Harry Dean Stanton, as Travis, did something that few actors have ever managed to do. He transformed a quiet character into a symbol that represents both the love and the horror of the freedom land and, in doing so, transcended the unbridled realism of the film and reached a plateau of poetic human despair. The dark journey at the heart of Paris, Texas is illuminated by Harry Dean Stanton as he took a character who could easily be a cypher and injected just the right amount of passivity and expression that made the journey feel shared. We, in a sense, became the character. We experienced the pain of his life through his actions and confessions, and we were transported and transformed. To date, Paris, Texas is one of a handful of films that I can confidently describe as flawless, and Stanton's deafeningly quiet performance is one of the primary reasons why.
Harry Dean Stanton was an artist, through and through. His musical accomplishments were minimal, yet highly noteworthy in the world of folk music. His accolades from film critic Roger Ebert are a charming footnote in the cannon of movie buff fandom. When I watched him on the new Twin Peaks, all I could think about was how much I was going to miss him when he passed away. But I like to think that his death from natural causes came peacefully and resembled little more than a much deserved rest that, like with Rip Van Winkle, will be longer than expected.