‘How About Silence?’: Remembering Harry Dean Stanton
Harry Dean Stanton meant a lot to me.
It would be impossible for him not to mean something to me.
I’ve been an actor for about eight years, and he, in many ways, defines what it means to be cool and rebellious in the world of acting.
But that was not what made him so remarkable to me.
It was his face that stuck in my memory. It was a tough face, that looked like it was made of tire tread, but when he spoke, it felt like I could see his heart through his eyes.
His ability to make an audience feel empathy for his characters is something that can’t be taught, and something very few people are born with.
Lots of actors can cry, can show you an emotion, but it takes real soul for an actor to show you a living, breathing human being.
That’s Stanton’s magic.
He always made me feel like I knew him.
Harry Dean Stanton died on Sept. 15, 2017, of natural causes, at the age of 91.
It seems unreal to think of him as dead, because I turn on one of his films, and there he is. It’s a kind of immortality.
My first experience of him as an actor was in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Science Fiction Horror film, “Alien,” when I was very young.
I first really noticed how powerful and different he was as a performer, however, when I watched Wim Wenders’ spectacular 1984 film, “Paris, Texas,” as a teenager.
“Paris, Texas” left an immediate impression on me. It was slow and deliberate, certainly not the sort of thing I watched much at the time.
It completely changed the way I saw films and the way I looked at art.
The movie had a way of mining every bit of emotion out of every shot, every line and every scene.
It had an emotional tone, and it wasn’t afraid to lose some of the audience to say what it meant to say.
Stanton was responsible for the palpable magic of the film.
There are many shots in the film in which Stanton is meant to have been walking in the desert for weeks, and he absolutely looks it.
His clothes are tattered and covered with dirt, and a scraggly beard takes up most of his face, but his eyes are deeply determined and thoughtful.
There was something undeniably human in his performance.
Later in the film, he gives one of the most unforgettable speeches in movie history. He is seated in a chair, speaking to a woman he can’t see, and he tells a story.
Everything in the scene is very simple, but there is something in Stanton’s face, and in his eyes that makes the speech deeply heartbreaking.
There is a reservation in his voice that is so believable, that it short-circuits every rule I know about “performance” and transforms into something real.
Stanton is one of the very few actors who had that kind of power. He didn’t steal a scene, he inhabited every aspect of a scene.
It is telling to me that Stanton was a musician as well as an actor.
There is some element of music in his performances, from the measured, thoughtful way he speaks in any of the numerous roles he played, to the deliberate, natural rhythm of his movements.
I believe it speaks to the quality of real humanity he brought to his characters.
Music is a deeply human art form. It does not require a clear articulation of a sentiment to draw an emotional reaction out of someone, and in many ways, neither did Harry Dean Stanton.
It speaks to his power as a performer that many great directors insisted on working with him.
Stanton was a close friend to David Lynch and collaborated many times with directors such as Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter.
He was a loner and notoriously hard to interview, but he had many friends in the world of film and commanded the respect of many actors.
One such actor, John Carroll Lynch, who also directed Stanton in his final film role, “Lucky,” remembered him fondly in a piece he wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
“As I look back at his work in the film and at his work over the years,” Lynch said, “he was just so willing to be present in front of the camera. It’s not like he doesn’t do anything. He does a lot. But what he does seems to be entirely interior, and the camera reflected that.”
Many actors speak of him in similarly glowing terms. He seemed to leave an impression on everyone he worked with.
Sam Sheppard, the great playwright who wrote the screenplay for “Paris, Texas,” said of Stanton, “He’s one of those actors who knows that his face is the story.”
In any review of a Harry Dean Stanton performance, his face was bound to be mentioned.
He had sunken eyes and deep wrinkles that held something lonesome stoic, and deeply human. When I looked at him, I felt the weight of experience.
Stanton’s completed his final role only a few months before he died. Titled “Lucky”, it is set for release later this year.
It tells the story of a 90-year-old atheist coming to terms with his mortality. Some of his closest friends wrote the part for him, and it is very nearly the most beautiful closing statement an actor could ask for.
There is a moment in the wonderful documentary about Stanton, titled “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” in which Stanton, sitting in front of the camera, is trying to figure out what the director wants.
Still in a jovial mood, Stanton asks, “How about doing nothing? How about silence?”
There is something fascinating about that moment. It speaks to the heart of the man that was Harry Dean Stanton. He was not afraid of embracing silence. In fact, his most powerful attribute, what he had that no one else had, was an ability to make silence compelling.
Harry Dean Stanton existed completely in the moment, and I feel grateful that those moments were recorded on film, and that his legacy will live on in the moments he inhabited.
In that way, more than many of us could ever hope to be, Harry Dean Stanton is still with us.
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