The Rear-View Mirror: Harry Dean Stanton (1926)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I first saw Harry Dean Stanton in Alien, I think, though it is just about possible that I’d previously seen him in another film (Private Benjamin, perhaps? Or one of the TV episodes he’d done previously?), but I don’t think I would’ve noticed him. I have to admit that even in Alien he didn’t stand out as such, but that’s because that film was perfectly cast. Everyone ended up being perfect in their parts, so you can’t really blame Stanton for not being more perfect than everyone else.

Stanton was never a chameleon of an actor. He was pretty much the opposite of a Daniel Day Lewis or a Meryl Streep. I couldn’t imagine him as a young lover in a Shakespeare adaptation. Looking at what he’s been in, I see that he was cast as the Old Man in Robert Altman’s 1985 adaptation of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, and even in Alien, six years earlier, he already seemed pretty much as he would seem for the rest of his career – a career that had started in the ’50s already. Was Stanton always already the old, crotchety man? I imagine him being born looking exactly as he did in Lucky, one of his very last performances: old, weathered, cranky, but also somehow sad. Never sentimental, though, because a Harry Dean Stanton performance by and large balanced melancholy and cantankerousness, and even at his most stony-faced and hangdog, Stanton’s eyes often had a mischievous sparkle to them. This is a man whose face very clearly expresses that he might have to take the bullshit that life throws at him, but he won’t keep quiet about it. He could infuse a single syllable with weary sarcasm.

Obviously Harry Dean Stanton was the heart and soul of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), the actorial counterpart to Ry Cooder’s soundtrack, and that film even hinted at Stanton having been young once. He’s a large part of why the immensely silly Repo Man (also 1984) works. His presence in The Godfather Part II seems like a subversive in-joke, because who would ever think that Stanton, that country song of a man with tongue firmly in cheek, would be suited to suiting up and playing FBI Man #1?

I have many fond memories of Harry Dean Stanton, but I was surprised myself by how happy it made me when he turned up in a small part in the MCU’s first big family reunion. In The Avengers, after the Hulk falls out of the sky and smashes into a warehouse, he – or rather this decidedly less green counterpart Dr. Banner – is found by another one of Stanton’s old men, a security guard. The part itself could easily have been cut and wouldn’t be worth a single line if it wasn’t for Stanton; his presence in this big tentpole of a film somehow grounds Banner, the Hulk, the Avengers and all the superheroics. If Harry Dean Stanton exists in a world, then I can believe in that world, and I can care about that world.

I very much hope there’s a place where Harry Dean Stanton is sitting right now, a guitar next to him, a bottle of Tennessee whiskey in front of him, and he looks down at the world and drily chuckles to himself. Right.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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