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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.

‘The Straight Story’ (1999)

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

‘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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