Harry Dean Stanton did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas.
Harry Dean Stanton, the always reliable character actor, is certainly a recognizable face in films. He moves across smaller characters in a large variety of genres with an incredible ease, it is fascinating though to see Stanton given the chance to take on a lead role such as this. Stanton certainly does not have any hesitations in his performance, and he shows here that his always fine shorter performance given before this film can translate to a further reaching leading role.
At the beginning of the film, in fact for a little of twenty minutes Stanton does not say single word in his performance. In fact he seems to mostly just walking, literally trying to just drift from one place to another. Stanton though certainly is not underwhelming even though he may be silent here. Stanton with his very particular world weary face captivates our attention nevertheless. He of course does not say it, but Stanton effectively conveys the mystery of this man through the haunted expression that seems sewn into him.
There is a sadness Stanton portrays perfectly that this is a lost man here who just keeps walking unable or unwilling to talk to anyone, he just keeps moving over again. Eventually though his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) shows up and tries to bring him home where Walt and his wife have been raising Travis's son. Stanton is very subtle and very effective as he portrays Travis's slow coming back from what ever the place his mind is. It certainly is not fast, but Stanton makes the moment in which Travis finally talks a powerful one even if a very quiet because he slowly earned Travis's return to the world.
Travis is brought to Walt's home, and Stanton is incredible in showing the shyness that is prevailing through him. He never forgets the fact that Travis had been in that walking trance for years, and seemed hard bent on staying that way. Once Travis can speak it is not an instance moment into finding himself. Instead Stanton beautifully portrays his returning senses. It is a tender performance by Stanton overwhelming in emotion as he so quietly has Travis start to finally recognize his past, portraying so well that difficulty that Travis clearly has to forget whatever it was in the past that had caused him to wander the desert.
Stanton is wonderful as he portrays Travis's hesitations in trying to bond with his son. Stanton delivers the pain in Travis over his past that keeps him from a certain distance from his son, and his son a certain distance from him. Stanton always stays effective though because he always stays absolutely realistic in his method of portraying Travis. He portrays an honest struggle for Travis to be able to overcome all of the restraints he feels in regard to connecting with his son. He though at the same time is able to convey the overwhelming feeling of love in Travis that does push him to actually confront his fears and bring himself to coming closer to his son.
What works so well in Stanton portrayal again though is the effort he consistently shows that Travis must do to try to retake his old life back. There is one scene in particular where he purposefully goes about dressing the part of a successful father to try and attempt to bring himself closer to his son. Stanton is absolutely amazing in this scene as he genuinely portrays a strange sense of discovery as Travis either is learning or relearning just very normal things. He really brings to life this slow but successful struggle against the almost comatose of a past that Travis once had, and Stanton's deliberate portrayal of Travis's transformation to becoming a once again lively man is stunning.
When Travis finally does start reconnecting with his son Stanton again makes it far more powerful but not rushing through this portrayal. It is not a sudden change to Travis becoming just a confidant competent father, rather Stanton successfully brings about the idea of Travis trying to become a great father even though he really is not. Stanton though because of the moments where he does show Travis being hesitate in his relationship with his son, he is able to make their journey together as they slowly come closer to one another far more resonate than it would have been otherwise.
Stanton very best scenes though may come when he goes to find his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski). His scenes where he goes and finds her in a strip club where the customers can see the stripper but the strippers cannot see the customers in individual booths. Stanton is incredible in his subtle but very moving reaction to first seeing her alluding to his long complex history with her in a single outstanding reaction. It is one of love surely, but again there a deep seeded lack of assurance Stanton portrays in Travis over this relationship. The reason for this is told in a single scene that is the best of this great film. Travis tells her over the phone in the booth the story of the two revealing what lead him to the desert to begin with.
This pivotal scene is flawlessly portrayed by Stanton as well as Kinski. The two are absolutely stunning together as Kinski reacts to Stanton slow deliberate telling of the story. Again Stanton keeps it very much downplayed, but his quiet but firm voice is perfect in the scene. He does not show only to be a sort of an apology to his wife, but also he is able to convey that at this moment Travis finally understands himself. In his finally firm delivery of the story he brings about Travis as a man that is not longer the lost soul he was at the beginning. This is a spectacular performance by Harry Dean Stanton. Often a quiet one, but always a powerful. It is a truly stunning characterization that proves Stanton's abilities go far beyond what he is usually allowed.