Roger Ebert once came up with what he called the “Stanton-Walsh Rule,” defined in his book Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary as, “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” In Stanton’s case, that’s a lot of movies he’s saved, just by showing up. Since launching his career as a character actor in the mid-1950s, Stanton has worked steadily in front of a camera, playing cowboys and criminals, lost souls and lovers, burnouts and gurus. With his soft, smoky voice, small frame, and sunken eyes, Stanton commands attention by not begging for it. He occupies space on the screen like he’s always been there—a part of the location long before anybody bothered to show up and start filming.
Stanton never seems entirely comfortable talking about himself in Sophie Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction—but he doesn’t get up and leave, either. As Huber asks Stanton about his private life and his extensive filmography (or has Stanton’s friend David Lynch ask the questions) Stanton squirms and dodges, answering nearly everything with just a few words before staring away from the camera and dragging on a cigarette while smiling wanly. Stanton comes to life more when he can sing an old folk or country song and talk about its history, or when he can deflect the praise for his performance in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas onto writer Sam Shepard, who wrote for Stanton one of the best monologues anyone’s ever gotten to deliver in a movie. Stanton can recognize other people’s great work, but as far as he’s concerned, his job as an actor has always been to do what Jack Nicholson once recommended to him: Stay quiet, and “let the wardrobe be the character.”
But is that really what Stanton believes, or is he just playing a character for Huber? (“It’s all a movie,” he mumbles to her at one point. “Including this conversation.”) According to Stanton’s assistant, contrary to his “do nothing” image, the actor works around the clock when he gets a part, learning his lines and everybody else’s. And for someone who seems so reticent, Stanton has had cherished friends—such as Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and Kris Kristofferson—with whom he’s carried on conversations that lasted lifetimes. Throughout Partly Fiction, Huber photographs some of the memorabilia scattered throughout Stanton’s house, and it’s clear that if he wanted to, Stanton could tell her a hundred stories, explaining all the faces that adorn his walls.
It’s a little frustrating at first to realize that Huber isn’t going to get much explanation of anything from Stanton. But she ends up making a virtue of the actor’s Zen calm. Partly Fiction includes extensive clips from Stanton’s most famous films, which are famous in large part because of what he doesn’t do: He never over-emotes, or concocts some phony motivation for his characters. As he sits patiently for Huber, talking tersely about the value of minimalism—while being shot through a black-and-white filter that makes him look like he’s made of silver—Stanton becomes the living embodiment of his own philosophy of screen action. He’s so present, it’s as though he’s burned into the screen.
Now where’s the documentary about M. Emmet Walsh?