Soon after the start of “Paris, Texas,” Harry Dean Stanton appears in an astonishing gorge called the Devil’s Graveyard. He’s playing a lost soul, Travis, who will spend the rest of the film getting found. Right now, though, surrounded by rock formations that evoke the westerns of John Ford, Travis is an enigma. On foot and wholly alone save for a watchful eagle, wearing a red cap and an inexplicable double-breasted suit, Travis looks like a former cowboy or maybe a businessman who took a wrong turn. He looks like someone Dorothea Lange might have photographed during the Great Depression. He looks like the American West, all sinew, dust and resolve.
Mr. Stanton, who died Friday at 91, had a rare starring role in “Paris, Texas,” the 1984 Wim Wenders film that, along with Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), will probably be the titles for which he’s best remembered. His role as Travis, who’s on a redemptive journey, certainly elevated Mr. Stanton’s profile and helped make him an emblem of cool. Of course, he was already cool, at least to those who knew him from “Cockfighter” and other under-sung touchstones of the 1970s American cinema. Yet even as “Paris, Texas” brought Mr. Stanton a measure of fame, he remained a quintessential character actor, a performer who ranged wide and far (“Laverne & Shirley”!), imparting something real and true called Harry Dean Stanton.
Looks tend to be destiny for character actors, who are often cast for what their physicality, including their faces, suggests: the jutting brow that, however unfairly, telegraphs menace or the plump, roundness that conveys joviality but sometimes something sinister. With a long face and a lean frame that in later years turned gaunt, Mr. Stanton could look hapless, but also vaguely sinister, deflated or as wily as a hungry coyote. He knew what he looked like and that he could play menacing, but after appearing in “Paris, Texas,” he said he didn’t want to do “anything else that’s life negative.” You could feel for him, even if he made an exceptional villain.
Harry Dean Stanto and Emilio Estevez in “Repo Man.”
Alex Cox, who gave Mr. Stanton a meaty co-starring role in “Repo Man” (1984), once wrote that the actor “had the perpetually sad face of someone who had been yelled at by successions of tough-guy directors and actors who were bigger and more brawling than him.” That registers as colorful projection, even if it speaks to how certain character actors, given the right roles and directors, develop a mythic aura of their own. Mr. Cox admired Mr. Stanton. But he also wanted a performer who came “with a bit of iconography,” which Mr. Stanton had, having worked with actors like Warren Oates and directors like Monte Hellman, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah.
Mr. Hellman gave Mr. Stanton some of his most important earlier roles, including in “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1966), about three cowboys (one played by Mr. Stanton’s longtime friend, Jack Nicholson) who, after meeting some outlaws, are themselves mistaken for desperados. Mr. Stanton plays one of the outlaws, Blind Dick, and he fits the role as comfortably as his character’s grimy, sweat-stained clothes. As serves Mr. Hellman’s purposes, the performance is restrained, built with minimal dialogue and lived-in moments, which makes the expression of open emotion – like the smile Blind Dick flashes at the cowboys – more disturbingly ominous.Mr. Stanton’s future cult status was further burnished by his modest yet memorable part in yet another Hellman film, the brilliant “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), in which he plays a hitchhiker picked up by Warren Oates’s driver, known as G.T.O. Dressed in denim and a cowboy hat, Mr. Stanton’s hitchhiker immediately settles into the passenger seat as if to take a snooze, only to softly place a hand on G.T.O.’s knee. “I’m not into that,” G.T.O. barks. “I just thought it might relax you as you drive,” Mr. Stanton’s hitchhiker pacifically responds. Mr. Hellman’s low-key approach dovetails perfectly with Mr. Stanton’s quiet matter-of-factness for a scene that feels as ordinary as life and, remarkable for the time, contains not a trace of gay panic.
Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in “Two-Lane Blacktop.”
It’s an emblematic turn for Mr. Stanton, who didn’t so much steal scenes as inhabit them, employing an uninflected naturalism that could make other actors seem forced. In “Straight Time” (1978), he has a supporting role as a robber who tries to pull off a heist with an ex-con played by the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman is excellent, but you’re always aware that you’re watching an aesthetic creation built on technique, executed with craft and aided by realistic accouterments like a leather jacket, bushy sideburns and dolorous mustache. By contrast, Mr. Stanton appears to be playing himself or at least what we believe that self is.
Dustin Hoffman and Harry Dean Stanton in “Straight Time.”
In other words, Mr. Stanton seems authentic. Time and again, this sense of genuineness served as a kind of guarantee, proof that he was offering us what seemed like truth rather than something manufactured and plastic, something like Hollywood. Mr. Stanton studied acting, including with Martin Landau who had studied with Lee Strasberg and knew the strength of screen stealth. Mr. Landau once said that “how a character hides his feelings tells us who he is.” Whether Mr. Stanton absorbed this observation into his methodology or just followed his own inclinations, he often did his finest work by tunneling into moments rather than inflating them.
Harry Dean Stanton and Hunter Carson in “Paris, Texas.”
As the years tugged at Mr. Stanton’s face, pulling down the corners of his mouth and further hollowing out his cheeks, his face became a fantastic landscape. Mr. Wenders understood its power beautifully. When Mr. Stanton first appears in “Paris, Texas,” Travis looks as emptied out and stunned as you would expect of a man tramping in the desert with too little water. Gradually, though, as the story opens up, Mr. Stanton fills Travis with tremors of feeling and fugitive smiles. By the end, this shadow has become a man who is as substantial as the rocky land through which he once staggered and, much like Mr. Stanton himself, a kind of monument.
Manohla Dargis grew up in the East Village in New York where she attended public school and was a frequent attendee at both St. Mark’s Cinema and Theater 80. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University. A class with the longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman led to her being hired to write about avant-garde cinema for the Voice. She kept on writing and since then has written about a lot of movies for a lot of publications and her work has been anthologized in several books. She has been the co-chief film critic for The New York Times since 2004. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.