Harry Dean Stanton did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Johnnie Farragut in Wild At Heart.
The lead of Lynch's films of this style often is a straight man of sorts to play off the oddity of everything else particularly in the cases of Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet and Bill Pullman in Lost Highway. That's not the case here with Nicolas Cage giving a bizarre turn himself through his Elvis Presley inspired work. The closest we seem to get in this film is from the character actor of character actors Harry Dean Stanton. Of course he's still fairly far in terms of how the role is written, but Stanton take on the part does seem to make him fulfill the role a bit. Stanton plays a police detective who is recruited by Marietta to track down Sailor and Lula. Of course the reason he is able to be recruited by her is that Johnnie is in love Mariette, which keeps his character a bit absurd as well since he can't see through, not to mention he too has a few Lynchian moments in there. Nevertheless Stanton gives a pretty unassuming performance though as he presents Johnnie as kinda a classic sort of gumshoe. Stanton's manner reflects this so well with that perfect harried look of the hardworking detective.
Now Stanton's approach could not work better as he acts as a very much needed buffer against Ladd's extremely over the top performance. Stanton is hilarious as he stays so downplay against her while not necessarily portraying his own reactions as wholly realistic. That's fine though as Stanton in that is so good at showing the way Johnnie tries to deal with the crazy woman that he loves for some reason. Stanton's great because he plays it as though Johnnie sees her as basically a sane woman who has to be corrected on a few things. He's especially funny when trying to explain to her that Sailor is not a murderer because the man was going to attack him with a knife, an assassin sent by Mariette. Stanton's terrific because he so gently tries to correct her on this point as though she's genuinely messed about it's just marvelous. Stanton really brings this wonderful sweetness to his performance because he portrays Johnnie as so honest in his affections for Mariette. Stanton's earnestness about it plays particularly well off of Ladd who does not make a secret that Mariette is clearly playing Johnnie every step of the way.
Every scene that Stanton shows up, well until his last one, is a hoot because of his characterization of Johnnie as such a sweetheart towards Mariette. One of my favorite moments is early on as Johnnie tells Mariette not to call about her criminal connections to deal with Sailor, as Stanton is so moving as Johnnie by portraying just how hurt he is even thinking that Mariette does not return his love. Stanton is so brilliantly tragic in the role because he manages to be so
amusing portraying Johnnie method of dealing with her, but with a real
heart behind it. The concern, when Mariette alludes to something being seriously wrong only over the phone, is so pure in Stanton's performance, as is the enthusiasm in their last scene together when Mariette seems to finally want to be with him. Of course this love story is not the love story of the film since Mariette does not love poor Johnny going so far as to sell him out leaving him at the hands of the darkest elements of the film. This takes Johnny to be beaten down in a hotel room and unfortunately for Johnnie that is not the end of it leading Stanton's final scene which may be the very best scene in the film.
The scene is pure horror from its strange setting, to the ominous music playing throughout, to a horrifying performance by Grace Zabriskie, and of course there is poor Johnnie in the middle of it being tied to a chair forced to watch it all. Stanton's silent work here shows exactly how incredible of an actor he really is. He first begins as the straight man of sorts as he watches in almost complete disbelief at what it is that he is seeing, and there is some humor still left from this dead pan act. This does not last for long though as Stanton only brings out the terror of the scene all the more by reflecting it so fully through his expression. Then to end it all Stanton is absolutely heartbreaking as Stanton portrays the final sad realization in Johnnie about his fate. Stanton, for me anyways, was the most consistent thing in the film as his scenes always have something worthwhile that being him. Stanton's performance works so well within the film as he plays into the style so effortlessly while still keeping honest emotions in his character. Of course I love Stanton here though, I mean it's Harry Dean Stanton with an actual part, the man who can make something special out of almost nothing.