Harry Dean Stanton’s most storied character — one of his few leading parts, from Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) — gets introduced in the middle of an existential journey. The image of Stanton’s Travis Henderson, lurching across the country in a dusty suit and red baseball cap in search of his past, suggests that we’re watching a western; later, when the man finds himself in an intimate conversation with his former beloved (Nastassja Kinski) in a peep-show club of vividly saturated colors, the movie plays more like a melodrama in miniature. This traversing of terrain and tone proves a fitting shorthand for the adventurous and quixotic nature of Stanton’s screen career, which spanned from the Sixties until this September, when the actor died, of natural causes, at the age of 91, just as his new movie, Lucky, was nearing release. (It opens this Friday, at the Quad and other local theaters.)
With his seen-it-all visage and his curiously remote expressiveness, Stanton always had something of the self-sustaining wanderer about him — the just-passing-through stranger who you get to know and like for a little while but who then disappears, never to resurface again. The Quad’s thorough current retrospective, “Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton” — which continues through October 5 — embraces the journeyman in all his nomadic glory, checking off the rare commercial hits in which he played small roles (like Ridley Scott’s Alien, from 1979, screening September 30), but more importantly presenting a wealth of the fringe oddities that make up the Stanton canon. The series was in the works well before the performer’s passing but has since been expanded — to the great benefit of mourners and moviegoers.
One of these last-minute, little-revived additions, John Binder’s UFOria (1985; screening October 5), turns out to be an astonishment. Stanton, second-billed, plays a manipulative traveling preacher by the name of Brother Bud, who regales small-town crowds with God-fearing proclamations (“You are on your way to hell!”) before soothing them with contrived displays of spiritual power. (Stanton also plays a preacher in John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which screened at the Quad last weekend.) Bud has an itinerant partner in the two-bit crook Sheldon Bart (Fred Ward), who, at one of the rallies, appears in the guise of a crippled, widowed car-crash victim whose bogus onstage transformation — Bud yells, “Bend that leg!” until the fellow’s impairment miraculously disappears — sends the crowd into a roar of uplift. Binder’s story, however, revolves around a third character: the impressionable grocery clerk Arlene Stewart (Cindy Williams), who falls into a romance with Sheldon, and whose starry-eyed belief in the impending arrival of a UFO strikes Bud as a singular moneymaking opportunity.
Binder lulls you into these dusty scenes with just a glint of absurdity, only to then pivot gears into casual, where-did-that-come-from? profundity. This tendency yields rich dividends in the snapshot characterizations of seemingly simple townsfolk, whose tossed-off reflections are spoken with disarming sincerity. (An elderly customer at checkout proclaims, “As I reviewed my dreams one by one, I suddenly realized that all my dreams were just memories.”) It also pays off in the gentle blossoming of the relationship between Arlene and Sheldon, which at first is premised as little more than a one-night stand for the rakish, hard-living drifter. Stanton’s Bud, for his part, is the movie’s most openly venal and one-dimensional character — and, therefore, not a frequent recipient of Binder’s flights of empathy — but the actor still gets maybe the richest punch line: “Everybody ought to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.”
Recent appreciations have noted Stanton’s gaunt physique and hollowed-out eyes — qualities that generally don’t signify the cleanest bill of health — but the actor actually had a beautiful top row of teeth, and several movies in the Quad series reveal him using those pearly whites to particular effect. In UFOria, he flashes them ever so briefly to an unsuspecting bank teller. He wields them more substantially in Michael Almereyda’s Twister (1989; screening September 30, also available to stream on Amazon Prime), in which he embodies another patriarchal figure of financial avarice, Eugene Cleveland, a moneyed man who has made a fortune from an unlikely combination of business interests: soda and mini-golf. In Almereyda’s deranged scenario, the outsize wealth of this Kansas-based clan has produced stunted, isolated offspring (including one played, deliriously, by Crispin Glover) struggling to cope with the realities of adulthood. Stanton’s Eugene presides over this house of chaos with equal parts nonchalance and frustration. In the character’s more heated interactions — as when he strains to paint a veneer of domestic normalcy in front of the children’s-television personality (Lois Chiles) whom he hopes to wed — the actor deftly employs that pretty smile of his as a kind of last-ditch assertion of calm.
Stanton enjoys substantial chunks of screen time in both UFOria and Twister, an unusual but welcome occurrence. That’s also true of Fool for Love (1985; screening September 30), Robert Altman’s version of the Sam Shepard drama, starring the late playwright himself and Kim Basinger as doomed but eternally locked-together lovers rehashing their histories, feuds, and resentments on the grounds of a roadside motel. Stanton is credited here as the “Old Man” and is, in fact, the first person seen onscreen: He worms out of a beat-up trailer in the back lot of the El Royale Motel, parks himself in a rocking chair, and blows a tune on the harmonica. The Old Man contributes to the movie a delicately spectral presence: In some scenes, the characters seem to notice him, and to speak with him; in others, his background babbling, usually offered in between sips of whatever alcohol happens to be nearby, has no effect on the principal action. This is a tricky assignment, the role hovering somewhere between memory and flesh-and-blood man, but Stanton manages a legible and poignant mix of boiling regret and wry, detached humor. (The Old Man doesn’t even think twice about reaching into the path of gunfire for a bottle of tequila.)
The deadpan neutrality so crucial to some of Stanton’s background gesturing in Fool for Love is also a highlight of his shorter turn in Slam Dance (1987; screening September 28), an uneven but pleasingly scrappy noir from Wayne Wang. Tom Hulce features as a hand-to-mouth newspaper cartoonist who becomes the lead suspect in the murder of a woman (Virginia Madsen) with whom he once had an affair; Stanton is the reserved, close-to-retirement detective that gets put on the case. In one moment set at a crime scene, Stanton’s Smiley surveys the increasingly bizarre complications wrought by Wang’s busy plot and offers up this pricelessly quick conclusion: “Uh huh. Yep.” The throwaway observation barely even counts as a line of dialogue, and yet Stanton invests it with the kind of mythical certitude that has come to be associated with the actor himself. Across his work, and in the copious stories that have been told about him over the years, Stanton appears forever unruffled by the world around him — engaged in its happenings and its obstacles but, at the end of the day, never seeming to worry too much over any of them.
‘Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton’
Through October 5