When you’re deep asleep and not dreaming, where the fuck are you? There’s total blackness, it’s nothing, right? So I’m hoping that’s what death is, that it’s all gonna go. I don’t want to deal with any consciousness afterward. – Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017)
Harry Dean Stanton has the smallest (human) part in Alien, and the best death. Everybody else gets either screaming, spattering Grand Guignol or close-up, jump-cut trickery. Stanton, though, is allowed a full-on, classical Universal monster-movie death. Consider their locations of demise, their deathscapes if you will. Kane, famously, buys it over lunch. He convulses, froths and expels a chestburster in the most quotidian of surroundings – the works canteen. Dallas gets eaten in a pipe. Lambert and Parker are in the control room, and die as they lived, snivelling and pointlessly raging respectively. But Brett, Brett’s death is something a bit special. The others all cark it in slightly futuristic meeting rooms (or a pipe) but Brett dies in Castle Bloody Dracula. Why the Nostromo has a Gothic cathedral on its poop deck is never adequately explained, but there it is, and into it wanders Brett, the working-class heart of the ship, looking for the damned cat. He’s shot from above as he enters, his shadow stretching before him like Nosferatu, mingling and separating with the shadows of the great pillars, the audience’s ears filled with the sound of clinking chains like in a haunted house. He pauses in an unexplained spotlight to let the falling water, also unexplained, wash over him. This image of baptism, of cleansing, is an obscure reference, but one that fits comfortably with the film’s overarching metaphor of birth. He takes off his hat to let the water pour over his face, then replaces it, but pauses in the flow for a moment longer. He’s been sent to search for the cat, alone, whilst a terrifying monster roams the ship, but he isn’t displaying terror or even apprehension. What Stanton chooses to show us in this moment is something more universal – exhaustion, and respite. His life is hard, his job is hard, he is underpaid by management and disrespected by colleagues, but work is work and he keeps doing it; here though, for a moment, he is alone, unobserved, unjudged. He’ll stand in that water flow for a second longer, because he chooses to, and because no-one will stop him. He’ll let the grime of subservience and drudgery wash off him. It’s wordless and fleeting, but it’s one of the best thirty seconds of face acting in cinema history.
Then he wipes his eyes, turns back to screen left and exits the frame, back to work. You know what happens next – he sees the cat, calls the cat, the alien descends behind him from where it’s been hanging like a giant bat, the cat hisses, Brett turns and the we get a bit of shooty-outy, teethy-bitey tongue action and it’s goodnight Harry Dean. There’s another second there though worth mentioning. When Lambert sees the alien she is frozen with terror, Parker is outraged, Dallas shocked, but Brett seems to have a moment of awe. He screams when the pain comes, of course, but before that, awe. His awe is not wonder or curiosity. It’s very different to Kane’s earlier response to the eggs, and a million miles away from Ash’s aroused admiration. In Brett’s eyes the alien becomes sublime, ineffable. It’s the closest the film has to a spiritual centre.
Stanton’s dialogue delivery is, of course, wonderful. There really isn’t a bad performance in Alien and Stanton’s as good as any of them. He offers many of the film’s few laughs and he embodies the most explicit treatment of the theme of capitalism and inequality; but that, it could be argued, is all in the script and the direction. It’s in the wordless moments, the face and body moments, where Stanton makes Brett more than just a small part, the second corpse. Stanton gets the best death, and he deserves it, because he’s the heart of the film. There haven’t been many actors who could have pulled this off. Cinema is richer for having had him, and poorer for his loss.
Spank the Monkey
LOVER: I once saw a film in which the main character didn’t speak for the first half an hour… I was completely absorbed as to what would happen, because anything was possible.
WIFE: And then?
LOVER: He spoilt it. He spoke… And within five minutes I’d lost interest.
I’m sure he gets tired of hearing people say this to him, but fuck you, Peter Greenaway. And I speak as someone who’s a massive fan of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. When I first saw that film, I assumed the above speech by Alan Howard’s character Michael was merely a post-modern gag, because he himself had had no dialogue for the first 30 minutes. It wasn’t until years later that I realised Greenaway was making a sneaky dig at a real movie: Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which features a wordless Harry Dean Stanton in its first couple of reels.
As I said when I reviewed another 1984 Harry Dean Stanton film on the first day of this site’s existence: comparisons are odious. Let’s make some. Michael’s initial silence in The Cook isn’t significant, but rather a cheap way of gifting a degree of mystery to a character who gradually moves from the background to the foreground. It’s completely binary: he says nothing for the first half hour, and then afterwards it’s almost impossible to shut him up. (Though Michael Gambon manages it eventually.)
Stanton’s portrayal of Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas is on another level altogether. His silence in the first half hour is that of a man rendered catatonic by the guilt he feels for an act of betrayal he performed several years ago. The entire arc of the film is his recovery: from the broken figure we see wandering the desert at the start, to the vulnerability of Travis at the climax as he finally confronts what he did. Stanton pitches it magnificently – the gulf between his character in the opening and closing scenes is immense, but he makes the minute-by-minute transition between them utterly believable.
Moreover, anyone who can watch that climax and claim that they ‘lost interest’ once Travis opened his mouth… well, they don’t understand cinema, or possibly don’t understand people. Harry Dean Stanton did, on both counts. This is a scene that’s entirely built around him talking and Nastassja Kinski listening, and it’s electrifying to watch. This year, we’ve lost two of the people responsible for this extraordinary sequence: Harry Dean, and writer Sam Shepard. It would be nice if we could have a decent interval before losing any more of them.
Pretty in Pink
Harry Dean Stanton was a great and versatile actor who was rightly lauded for his work in films and television like Paris Texas, Repo Man and Twin Peaks – all great stories in which he played a great part. However when I think of Harry Dean Stanton its not these roles that I think of. No, I think of him as Andy’s Dad in Pretty In Pink.
Jack was everything his high achieving daughter wasn’t. She was beautiful, resourceful, upbeat, smart and going places. He was beaten down by life, single, an alcoholic and incapable of keeping a job and providing for his daughter. He was a failure in everyone’s eyes but her’s. It was a thankless pastiche of a role really, only of course it wasn’t because Harry could make any role, no matter how small, into something affecting.
I was in my early teens when I first saw Pretty in Pink. I was in love with Andrew McCarthy and bemused by the destruction of the perfectly fine 60’s style prom dress into a clearly home made craft project ensemble. But my heart was stolen by Harry. Watching him as Jack I was offered my first insight into a dead-beat Dad who wasn’t a caricature. To see an adult, a father, laid so low by life that he was poisoning himself with booze and self-pity was heartbreaking. At the end of the movie it is Andy and her heroic prom moment that the audience is asked to root for. But it is truly Harry’s Jack, turning up sober, washed, clothes pressed and determined to make his daughter proud who comes out the true winner. It was his moment that burnt into my consciousness and his story that transfixes me, even more so now as an adult and parent myself.
So thank you Harry Dean Stanton. Thank you for being Andy’s Dad. Thank you for teaching me that our parents have stories too. And thank you for being part of my journey into adulthood. I hope that heaven has your favoured brand of cigarettes.
Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, Lucky, will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival, with a full release to follow.