‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’

Harry Dean Stanton reflects on his lifeWouldn’t you know it took a Swiss director to make a movie about the iconic American character actor and sometimes musician Harry Dean Stanton. Thank you, Sophie Huber.

Watching “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” is the filmgoing equivalent of reading a magazine feature where the writer hangs out with her subject, gathers quotes from colleagues and aims not for comprehensiveness but sheer readability about a person every moviegoer knows but probably doesn’t know that well.

Huber drives around L.A. with its longtime resident as Harry Dean gives directions but the destination is never certain. This is interrupted by interviews with her subject shot in arty black-and-white, in which several colleagues drop by to offer trenchant comments about his considerable abilities.

Now and then Huber turns to clips from the likes of “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Missouri Breaks,” “Alien” and “The Straight Story.” And every so often, Stanton breaks into song accompanied by guitarist Jamie James and himself on harmonica. Which means these are by no means spontaneous episodes but rather planned events within the framework of the doc.

Nevertheless, it’s an oddly satisfying mix that offers considerable insights into Stanton and his acting career.

Having appeared in over 200 films, Stanton clearly has played a variety of souls. Yet more than a few hue close to Stanton’s own personality: a loner all his life, a womanizer who never married (nor really wanted to), a musician who regrets not pursuing that art form as avidly as he did his acting, a chain smoker and more than occasional drinker.

Harry Dean Stanton sits at Dan Tana's barHe lived for a spell with a young and wild Jack Nicholson — “That was a trip,” he murmurs in awe — and lived for a spell with Rebecca De Mornay, who dumped him for Tom Cruise. He still shakes his head over that turn of events.

Then he plays a blues song or a bit of country. Cigarettes have taken a toll on his vocal cords but contribute more than a little to the deep feelings in his song interpretations. Yeah, he should have pursued music more.

(I say that despite having on more than one occasion in years gone by entered a club or saloon to find Harry Dean and his band playing. So it wasn’t as if he didn’t perform often.)

Laconic to a fault, his speech reminds you of what his frequent collaborator, filmmaker David Lynch, says about his acting: It’s what he “says” in his pauses, when he’s not delivering lines, that Stanton gives his great performances.

And so it is in his answers to Huber’s questions.

At Dan Tana’s, he and its longtime bartender grab smokes outside and reminisce about how long Harry Dean’s been coming to that Santa Monica Boulevard eatery and bar.

Kris Kristofferson pops up in one of the black-and-white interview sessions to recall how Harry Dean helped him get his start in movies. German director Wim Wenders remembers casting him in “Paris, Texas,” his first leading role after 30 year as a supporting actor, and how that nearly threw him off his game.

Songstress Debbie Harry reveals that she and Stanton were very close friends for a spell as well — then sings a song about it.

Harry Dean declines to discuss his mother and father but somewhere along the way forgets that vow. He relates a few facts about his Kentucky upbringing, which seems worlds removed from the Hollywood hipster he eventual became.

A classically trained stage actor, he admits wanting nothing to do with theater: You work too hard and they don’t pay you enough, he bitches. Fair enough.

Taking a cue and her title from Kristofferson’s “He’s a Pilgrim,” a song possibly inspired by Stanton himself, Huber, who is herself an actress, takes a casual approach to her subject, letting Harry Dean come to her rather than trying to coax stories from the reluctant actor.

Ultimately he does reveal himself — up to a point. Like all great actors, he has to keep something of himself in reserve.

Venue: LA Film Festival
Production companies: Hugofilm, Swiss TV & Radio
Director: Sophie Huber
Producers: Christian Davi, Chiemi Karasawa, Christof Neracher, Thomas Thümena
Executive producers: Sophie Huber, Seamus McGarvey
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Harry Dean Stanton, Jamie James
Editors: Angelo Corrao, Russell Greene
No rating, 77 minutes