Featuring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Debbie Harry, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shephard, Jamie James, Logan Sparks and Wim Wenders.
Director: Sophie Huber
Feature-length documentary debutant Sophie Huber’s filmed biography of character actor Harry Dean Stanton achieves the precise laconic, abstract, existential depth and grace one associates with the man himself. An artful, mesmerising ode to the ultimate character actor’s outlook on the industry and life in general, …Partly Fiction never teeters over into hagiographic adulation yet manages to convey the very uniqueness that has made Stanton the enigmatic force he is today.
Portraying a man who exists within a sharply-defined world focussed via his own experience, Swiss filmmaker Huber employs subtle, lovely camera technique and lulling sound design to capture Stanton as a benevolent spirit, rich in wisdom. Credited with 40 years worth of iconic support turns in films as diverse as Cool Hand Luke, The Missouri Breaks, The Straight Story, Alien and Repo Man (all cliped here), and one of American cinema’s most affecting lead roles (as ‘Travis’ in Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas), the subject is now a ragged, camera-friendly presence who doesn’t give up a lot of words yet still conveys a great deal.
Ironically (or, perhaps, fittingly, given his skill at choosing well written parts), Stanton’s true self is most revealed in the lyrics of his favourite songwriters. He breaks into song regularly (accompanied by his offscreen guitarist friend), usually to the words of Johnny Cash; in one sequence that conveys just how respected he is by actors and musicians alike, he is serenaded by his Cisco Pike co-star Kris Kristofferson (from whose song, ‘He’s A Pilgrim’, the film draws its title).
The softly-softly approach Huber takes pays dividends when Stanton drops the occasional incisive bombshell. Most shocking amongst them his recounting of his long-term but ultimately doomed love affair with actress Rebecca de Mornay; “I lost her to Tom Cruise,” he laughs, recalling the fling the toothy star and leading lady had during the shooting of 1983’s Risky Business. Another revelation hinted at is the actor’s past with punk-pop queen, Debbie Harry.
Harry Dean Stanton’s Hollywood standing is legendary; he is humbly open about his relationship with Hollywood players such as Marlon Brando and ex-roomie Jack Nicholson. One the films most delightful passages is a couch chat between Stanton and his seven-time collaborator, David Lynch (it could have been eight, it is revealed, had Stanton taken the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet, a part he was offered but felt was too dark for his sensibilities).
Perhaps the most revealing scenes are those that capture Stanton as the ‘everyman’, downing shots at his local bar with old friends who adore him and young suited types who don’t know who he is (in one hilarious sequence, he convinces an ignorant twenty-something that his real name is ‘Ron’ and that he is a ex-astronaut who now works for NASA).
But both Stanton and Huber understand that true character is defined by the most non-verbal of traits; the lines in the aging actor’s face, or the pauses and silences that Stanton dwells in whilst contemplating, are the film’s greatest strengths.
Particular credit must go to DOP Seamus McGarvey, who lensed Stanton’s bit part in last summer’s blockbuster The Avengers but here exhibits a true artist’s touch; his use of crisp black-&-white cinematography for the interview close-ups captures every ragged crevice of the subjects face, while his warm, rich use of night-time colour helps Stanton become one with his surroundings.
Read the SCREEN-SPACE feature, Troupers: An Appreciation of Character Actors, here.