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Harry Dean Stanton: 10 Essential Movies

From ‘Alien’ to ‘Twin Peaks’ – our picks for the late character actor’s greatest onscreen moments

Harry Dean Stanton was a lot of things – a child of the Depression, a WWII vet, a beatnik, a bit player in TV and movies, a troubadour, a hipster icon. Most of all, though, people referred to him as “a character actor,” a term that he always hated and considered reductive at best and an insult at worst. But Stanton was part of an elite canon of screen performers who not only brought an edge or a sense of lived-in authenticity to a supporting turn, but could often lift a film out of the rut of a rote narrative. When news of the 91-year-old’s passing started making the rounds late last night, the one quote that keep circulating was Roger Ebert stating that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” Even a less-than-stellar flick got better whenever Stanton’s hangdog mug showed up.

Here are our picks for the 10 essential Harry Dean Stanton movies – a quick-and-dirty lineup of his movies that stand out from a long, varied career. Some of them are funny, some of them are devastating, and a lot of them are intense. But a character actor’s life is always intense.

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‘Alien’ (1979)

In which Stanton is equal parts cast member, set dressing and, eventually, lunch. The
massive spaceship on which Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic horror classic
takes place, the Nostromo, isn’t some state-of-the-art star
cruiser – it’s a glorified 18-wheeler, with a crew of blue-collar
working stiffs, and Stanton’s grizzled engineer Brett sells the setting as much as the vessel’s leaky pipes. In his bomber
jacket, trucker hat and Hawaiian shirt, Stanton plays him as familiar and endearing a
presence as that crusty but friendly regular at your local diner, the one that can shoot the shit or play wingman for his fellow working stiff (“Right!”). All of which
makes his sudden death at the titular creature’s hands – and retractable jaws –
truly terrible to witness. That final look of horror on his face …. STC

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‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

In an everyday setting, Stanton’s character in John Carpenter’s sci-fi/action classic might pass for a grizzled sad sack down on his luck or a Skid Row washout; put the man in a postapocalyptic Manhattan that’s been turned into a free-for-all maximum-security prison, however, and you’ll see he’s in completely in his natural habitat. They call him “Brain” for a reason, because you don’t work your way to the top of the heap alongside “the Duke” without serious street smarts; still, he’ll help an old buddy like Snake Plissken out. Stanton’s hangdog presence adds an extra layer of seediness to the dystopic affair, but it’s a testament to the actor that what could have been a rumpled, one-note supporting turn becomes a fully fleshed-out wartime consigliere. And damned if he and Adrienne Barbeau don’t look good together. DF

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‘Paris, Texas’ (1984)

Did any actor have a better 1984 than Harry Dean Stanton? The same year that he brought depth and wit to Repo Man, he got the best role of his career in director Wim Wenders’ heartbreaking, profoundly American masterpiece. Co-written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, Paris, Texas has Stanton
playing a lost soul named Travis, who emerges from the
desert and gradually reconnects with the family he
abandoned. The mute drfiter is brought back to life by his pre-teen kid (played by
Carson’s son Hunter), whom he takes to meet the boy’s long-lost mother
(Nastassja Kinski). The climactic scene – set in a peep-show booth –
features a stunning autographical monologue that’s one of the most mesmerizing pieces of screen acting ever
filmed. NM

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‘Repo Man’ (1984)

Writer-director
Alex Cox’s ode to classic Hollywood noir, bratty L.A. punk and Seventies’ midnight movies is perfect in pretty much every way. But the best choice
Cox made was to
hire Stanton to play a philosophical veteran repo man named Bud, who
teaches the rootless hero Otto (Emilio Estevez) how to swipe deadbeats’ cars with no regrets. A devout believer of a social order – on his own
terms, at least – Bud makes ruining poor people’s
lives sound like a religious calling. Plus he has one of the best lines
that Stanton ever uttered: “Look at those assholes. Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ’em.” NM

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‘Pretty in Pink’ (1986)

Stanton
was rarely cast in a role as “normal” as his part in this John
Hughes-penned high school melodrama, where he’s the struggling single
father to Molly Ringwald’s arty, sensitive
teen Andie. Ashamed that he’s unemployed and poor – and still quietly
seething at his daughter’s absentee mom — his Jack Walsh is very
much the kind of good-hearted individualist who could’ve raised someone
as special as Pretty in Pink’s heroine.
The moment when he surprises his kid with a prom dress is one of the most emotional and painfully real in any Hughes film. NM

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‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988)

Martin Scorsese stocked his passion play with some unusual, notably earthy choices (a red-headed Harvey Keitel as Judas? Lounge Lizards saxophonist John Lurie as the apostle James?), but his decision to cast Stanton as St. Paul now seems like divine intervention. “I gambled, I whored, I drank … persecuted, tortured, and murdered!” he tells a crowd gathered around him, the disciple becoming the original fire-and-brimstone preacher. The way Stanton extends the pronunciation of that last word sounds almost vaudevillian, but the man is a true believer – and the actor makes you believe this sinner has both transgressed and found peace in the message of this new messiah. When Jesus refuses to admit that he did in fact die and was resurrected, Paul tells him that people need to view Christ as a symbol of eternal rebirth and hope. He calmly, almost mournfully explains the definition of faith in a scant minute and a half. DF

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‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ (1992)

“I’ve already gone places. I just wanna stay where I am.” Stanton’s role
as tired-looking trailer-park owner Carl Rodd in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks
prequel was as cryptic as everything else in the film, lasting just a few short minutes and some spare
lines of dialogue. But he packs decades of world-weariness into his brief screen time; nobody could turn “It’s just more shit I gotta do now” into a punchline that doubled as a declaration of existential despair. Stanton reprised and expanded
the role in Peaks’ astonishing third season this year, cracking
jokes about defying death one minute, bearing witness to unspeakable
tragedy like an earthbound angel the next – a moving, bonus grace note in a
long, legendary career. STC

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‘The Straight Story’ (1999)

True
to its title, this G-rated David Lynch film is barely “Lynchian” at
all … at least until Stanton pops up at the end. Richard Farnsworth plays
real-life WWII vet Alvin Straight,
who made headlines when he drove his John Deere tractor from
Iowa to Wisconsin to visit the stroke-ridden brother he hadn’t seen in
years. Farnsworth is so sweet that it’s hard to imagine that he’d ever
made an enemy in his life. But as Lyle Straight,
Stanton is so growly that it’s easy to see why he might’ve driven his
sibling away – and so soulful that it’s clear in an instant that these
two weathered old gentlemen are related. NM

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‘Lucky’ (2017)

Stanton’s final appearance comes courtesy of this indie drama that revolved around his wry, charismatic on-screen presence; it now doubles as a cinematic last word. Lucky
is a creature of routine – the same Yoga exercise every morning, the same
diner every day, the same bar every night, But he knows that routine is
reaching its end. How does a 90-year-old atheist face the final
chapters of life’s
novel? Stanton perfectly captures the inner monologue of a man who sees
the world in practical terms yet knows he’s about to depart it. It’s
impossible not to consider Lucky as an extension of the actor’s personality, making his eventual enlightenment and sense
of satisfaction over a life-well-lived a poignant, fitting farewell to its star. BT

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