Thursday, 22 February 2018

Alternate Best Actor 2017: Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

"When I come on screen...You see whatever he's suppose to be playing. You know...and that's the gift...You can't teach that." - M. Emmet Walsh.

On September 15th of last year we lost one of the most vibrant residents of cinema in Harry Dean Stanton. The long faced actor, often sporting a hang dog expression, with a smoke in one hand and his lighter in another. Born of Kentucky though eventually training in California Stanton began his career in the early fifties which would last more than another 60 years. In that time Stanton, if he found a few seconds of screentime you'd say, hey who was that guy, a few minutes he might become more fascinating than whoever the lead suppose to be. Stanton simply became whoever it was that he was suppose to be playing. There was no time for, to quote Stanton, "bullshit" in his work. He just was whoever we saw, and was more than any bland idea from any screenwriter or director. This was a person we were meeting even for a few seconds of screentime Stanton made this character real whether it be a country singer, a bank robber, a "blind" preacher, the janitor on a star ship, or even the apostle Paul. Stanton was whatever was needed, as he never slept walked his way across the screen, when he came on this character was someone who lived a life that we might not have seen, but Stanton made us believe this person existed beyond the limits of the celluloid. Although leading roles were sparse for Stanton, we thankfully were granted one in his portrayal of Travis Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas. Stanton in that performance proved there was never too much of a good thing for Stanton as the more time we spent with him the more intimate of a portrait he could present to us, offering one the greatest performances of the 1980's in that film.

Although that was a memorable outlier Stanton more or less returned to the world of the character actor, remaining one of the all time greats in that regard, and always a welcome sight whenever his scraggly face would come onscreen. Before his passing though we were granted one last time with Stanton at the center of the spotlight through fellow character actor John Carroll Lynch's cinematic love letter to the actor in Lucky. The film proudly displaying the man in the lead as playing the titular role of one Lucky a man of Stanton's age making his way through life in a small town in the desert. A modest film in nature, and fitting to the nature of Stanton who needs no more than that to deliver a performance that could be only from the man himself as Lucky shares much in common with the actor that only seems to make this performance all the more special. Stanton comes on the screen in the way that defines Stanton as he is compelling just in his singular way of lighting his cigarettes while walking across the sandy sidewalks of the town like an old tumbleweed making its rounds. There is something inherently fascinating in Stanton as this unique performer who simply is well fascinating in himself. We see Lucky, we see him walking, and he already has more character than hundred disposable caricatures from most films. Stanton represents seemingly the very idea of life in his worn expressions, and just that gait that is Stanton's personal stride as he makes his way in his own damn time, thank you very much.

The film itself is representative of Stanton in making the possibly ordinary so very extraordinary in its own modest way. Stanton is right at home then, endlessly watchable as we watch Lucky go about his day that usually starts with a few exercises, a cigarette, then stop by for a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle at cinemas proprietor (Barry Shabaka Henley here going by the name of Joe)'s diner. Stanton is of course an effortless delight as he goes about trying to solve the puzzle briefly with his perfect little aside of a "three letter word for asshole starting with a J" when his particular puzzle solving skills are questioned by Joe. Lucky seems to solve most things with a walk to his next stop along the way to each which has its own little history that Stanton provides just in the brief words he shares with whatever who or what he comes by. Whether that be his slightly more contentious attitude towards Joe, or his more overt pleasantries to the local shopkeeper and his commenting on her son's name of Juan Wayne. Stanton finding just a bit comical nuance while offering the more appreciative warmth to the rather unusual use of the name. The one thing that seems a bit of a sour note is Lucky occasionally stopping by at one point on his walk, towards an initially unseen sight, to utter an expletive. There is a harshness from his lips naturally, but a real anger in his eyes evoking some tale of woe to whatever this may be though we will not know for some time. Even with cruder moments there is almost a certain, for the lack of a better word, cool that Stanton offers this old guy who is just going about his day in the way he knows how.

His nights all lead to the same place a bar called Elaine's filled with its own color and not just the bloody Marys that Lucky prefers in his choice of drink. Lucky seems there just as much for the conversation as he waxes on one of his crossword answers, realism. Stanton's particular delivery of the examination of the word by Lucky is a marvelous bit of idiosyncrasy that could only be offered by Stanton's particular way with words. He captures this philosophical emphasis on the idea of looking at things as they are, and in Stanton's eyes there is a man pondering what exactly it means to see things completely clearly. All the same simply in his way with the words itself has a smoothness that is pure Stanton and just wonderful to hear him ponder away on "what you see is not what I get". In every interaction in this bar though there is that distinct life that is Stanton in every little exchange whether it be with the bartender, the tough as nails bar owner Elaine (Beth Grant), or her longtime companion Paulie (James Darren) you can feel the years really of Lucky passing the time with this most unusual crowd. The most notable of them being Howard played by David Lynch, and though we were just talking about realism it seems surrealism follows the director where ever he may wish to traverse. Stanton and Lynch were frequent collaborators in the directors own work, and seemingly the camaraderie of that experience shines right through the screen as old Lucky so genuinely offers comfort for Howard and his loss of his old tortoise, President Roosevelt, who "ran" away.

I will admit that I probably could watch a whole film of just Harry Dean Stanton hanging out at Elaine's and engaging in just a few conversations. There is that vividness of his performance that just grants such a pleasure to watch this man who has such abundance of experience exuding from his very being. The film grants us more though as Lucky has a fall that perhaps changes what realism means to the old timer. This is initiated through a most fascinating and most humorous meeting with his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.), who can't do anything for Lucky but to suggest he keep living while while also suggesting he reflect on his age. Stanton's blend of sardonic asides with a bit of genuine confusion at the most unusual advice of the doctor is but a little gem of a scene. Stanton finding this exasperation in the explanation of his situation, yet a more serious curiosity in the doctor's suggestions that he can't do anything for him that wouldn't hurt him, placing Lucky in a state being as old with nothing he can do about it. This is right down to the idea that he might as well smoke since it hasn't harmed him at this point in his life. Stanton from his moment though creates this sense of introspection in Lucky as he must now examine what it is to be his age, and what it is to have lived the life he has lived. Lucky maintains more or less his routine, but Stanton shows that it is no longer in more or less the same way. There is now a different type of contemplation not of discovery of a word like realism, but rather facing the idea of realism in the examination of life and death.

Naturally enough Stanton finds this quiet struggle, and makes this conflict of thought so very palatable as he examines this even as he just attempts his simple little crosswords at the diner, or goes back to his bloody Marys. There's not a comfort within this though as Stanton finds the real difficulty in examining mortality that is something truly remarkable in his eyes that say much in each and every sorrowful glance. The one thing that initially rips him from this state Stanton so elegantly finds in a bit of sudden anger as he finds Howard making out his will with the help of a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston). Stanton still of course manages to be hilarious in his quick ripping into the poor lawyer trying to set up Howard's estate to give it all to his missing tortoise. The bluster that Stanton brings is terrific in this evocation of perhaps a bar fighter of old as he so effectively pesters and prods the rather meek little man with jokes and more direct threats for what he sees as hectoring his friend. Stanton finds though in this anger that same sorrow that itself projects less amusingly as he tells Howard that his tortoise is not coming back. In that moment Stanton instantly finds just the seemingly sadness in this, as this loss seems so cold in Stanton's voice as a man projecting his own pain. Stanton's reaction to Howard's breakdown though is both moving and pretty funny as he brings such concern in his eyes for his reptile loving friend yet fashions through towards almost bubbling over in anger towards a somewhat baffled Bobby Lawrence esq. who has barely said a word.

It is the way that Stanton breaths truth into every word though that has defined his career in a way, and helps to define this performance. Stanton finds what there is in the past and summons it towards the center while he so effortlessly brings us this state of Lucky nearly stuck in this unease. This can be more tumultuous as found when Lucky tells the story of having accidentally killed a mockingbird due to his inaccurate BB gun. Stanton in his eyes and his delivery of these words brings us to this point in his life in heartbreaking detail. He fashions the vividness of the event in his mind of just a boy losing all joy of a moment in this loss of life that led to only a silence. This idea of silence though is what Stanton attaches Lucky's sad state to, although even this is wonderful in the way he doesn't allow it to artificially overwhelm his work, but rather so naturally turns it into this recurring thought. The silence makes the mind ponder his past mistakes, even as simple as mistreating Liberace in his mind, and Stanton's performance conveys this sense chagrin towards the foolishness of youth as it places him in this uncertain future. The one moment of a real breakdown is so modestly yet powerfully realized in Stanton's somber cry of "I'm scared" that reflects this state of Lucky who is temporarily caught up in his own feelings of self doubt and pondering what is to be both alive and what it means to eventually die.

As notable as Stanton's work is when he is the focus, as also typical to Stanton, his work never stops even when he is simply listening to some else. Stanton always creates this awareness that again is of a man taking what their saying not waiting simply for his next line. This is essential within his work though in Lucky's journey isn't a descent but rather uplifting in the end. This seemingly begins when he is able to explore the idea of a mortality with a much younger man, and a man he just so brazenly disrespected in ole Bobby Lawrence esq. Stanton is wonderful in every word of the man's own story of near death he takes in and within his eyes there is this growing appreciation not only for the man, but also this idea that he's not the only one who need to contemplate death nor need he contemplate it as a stark sorrow. One of the best moments in this film comes when Lucky spots a fellow veteran in the form of old Alien co-star Tom Skerritt. This scene is pure beauty though in the two old timers coming together as Skerritt and Stanton find such a warming pleasant chemistry that they realize so perfectly in their war tales. Lucky's tale as a cook on a naval ship, a history he shares with the real life Stanton, Stanton finds the appreciation for the past again in his more pleasant tale of the war of avoiding potential death. Skerritt's is far more heart wrenching as he describes a Japanese little girl's smile while believing she is embracing death, while it his moment as intended, Stanton naturally knows when to support and when to lead. His work stays quiet, and I don't mean because he doesn't speak, but he truly supports Skerrit's work by in every moment so clearly reflecting the meaning of every word in Lucky's mind that makes the scene all the more affecting.

Stanton's performance is a distinct pleasure and something wholly poignant to watch as he finds Lucky losing that sorrow and just fully embracing a joy in life by appreciating the journey. In a scene of Lucky going to a Mexican fiesta is a particular joy for us as well as Stanton regales the party but really all of us with a song. This is one that is an unforgettable moment as Stanton delivers one so purely from the heart. Every moment of the song finding this profound jubilation in the very act, as Stanton finds Lucky embracing his life to its fullest. This is not by blinding himself from the realism, so to speak, but rather finding in the song an acceptance of discovering happiness even when there may be sadness in one's mind. This idea though could still seem alien though until Lucky's final visit to the bar where he hears of Howard's acceptance that his tortoise had to go somewhere, and he decides to try to light up which is strictly forbidden. Lucky, in his attempt to explain the "truth" of the matter of the claimed expulsion from another bar, the very place he habitually utters an expletive to along the street, he falls into his philosophy of the life and death. The verbal gymnastics of falling into this discussion of bar loss to life loss couldn't be more natural in that this is who Lucky, and Stanton so flawlessly delivers that through his performance. What is more downright awe inspiring though is as he speaks about life amounting to technically nothing, and that we all must eventually go into a dark void, is that Stanton's delivery of this with the most perfect of loving smiles makes the idea of staring into nothingness downright inspiring. He seems to comfort us all in these words and it is a marvel onscreen that could only ever have been created by Harry Dean Stanton who so embodies simply the act of living. That's what he did in every one of his performance and this is culmination of that talent. Not since John Wayne in The Shootist, or perhaps this supersedes it, has a swansong leading turn been such a flawless representation of a performer. I want to end this on just the Stanton's final scene in the film as he breaks the forth wall to show a truly happy man staring at us. He says adios without word but fitting to Stanton with all the emotion you would need. Of course we're going to miss him however we can only say goodbye right back, and appreciate the time we spent with him.


Robert MacFarlane said...

Multiple pictures. We have our winner.

Matt Mustin said...

Robert: I agree he's gonna win, but I think the multiple pictures was just another way to celebrate Harry Dean Stanton.

Michael McCarthy said...

I'm not crying you're crying.

Charles H said...

I would really love and want to see Gosling have his first win here. But i can't be upset if Stanton wins. This performance is a work of art. Beautiful and touching review. Made me appreciate him even more.

Calvin Law said...


Beautiful. Beautiful. A spectacular performance and beautiful write up.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: This might be one of my favourite reviews of yours, a terrific tribute to a terrific actor.

Matt Mustin said...

I watched Okja. I really enjoyed it. I want to make a quick note on Jake Gyllenhaal. I don't think his performance worked completely, but I sincerely want to give him a lot of credit for even attempting something like that. I just think he goes too far with it, which is especially noticeable when compared to Tilda Swinton who's also walking a tightrope with her performance, but finds the exact right balance so she never falls off. Gyllenhaal does fall off, but again...huge credit for trying.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Matt: Gyllenhaal's a 3 for me, his performance becomes less grating with rewatches.

Luke Higham said...

Brilliant review.

Matt Mustin said...

Tahmeed: I imagine so. He's a 2 for me at the moment, because he has moments I liked and also, again, just for the fact that he took that risk. But I still found he went too far. Not even by a lot, if he had just toned down a few key moments a bit, his performance could've worked.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Having looked at both Chastain and Adams, I have to agree with you. Reason I chose Adams initially was that I've been somewhat off on Chastain lately and was very disappointed in her work in Crimson Peak albeit as the antagonist compared to Beverley. Just hope she'll deliver this time.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the opera scene in Revenge Of The Sith.

Anonymous said...

Louis: your top 20 michael shannon acting moments

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Is Stanton in your top 10 actors list.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: What's your current top ten actors list.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Ratings and thoughts on Elizabeth Rodriguez in Logan.

Psifonian said...

There ain't enough Mifune faces, man. What a tribute to the greatest character actor of all time.

I gotta say, though, I don't think it's as clear-cut that he's top of the year for me, as Gosling is *definitely* right up there. If ever there was a year for Louis to deign a tie, it might be this one.

Fun fact: Harry Dean Stanton was always my desired choice for Deckard. Imagine him, instead of doing "Lucky," in "2049" as his farewell. Placing that gnarled old hand against the glass.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Could you post your 2017 winners on the My Wins page.

Luke Higham said...

Since 2008 is coming next, my lead lineup is:

PSH - Synecdoche, New York
Mikkelsen - Flame & Citron
Yoon-Seok - The Chaser
Joaquin Phoenix - Two Lovers
Johannes Krisch - Revanche

Others for consideration:
Vincent Cassel - Mesrine
Kåre Hedebrant - Let The Right One In
Song Kang-Ho - The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Leung/Kaneshiro - Red Cliff
Harrelson - Transsiberian
Fassbender - Eden Lake

Louis Morgan said...


A scene that does have things worthwhile in it, the Plagueis story is one of the better pieces of writing from Lucas in the prequels, though that isn't say too much, and McDiarmid's delivery is fairly remarkable, even with the multiple head turns. Although even that it does have strange things like Lucas's weird visual manipulation of Christensen's performance and the "opera" is an attempt at a cool visual but only an attempt. It is an example of the prequels having potential, but still not quite realizing it.

Well for the moment here's my unranked top twenty:

Richard Attenborough
James Cagney
Tom Courtenay
Daniel Day-Lewis
Robert Duvall
Ben Foster
Alec Guinness
Gene Hackman
Tom Hardy
James Mason
Toshiro Mifune
Viggo Mortensen
Tatsuya Nakadai
Gary Oldman
Laurence Olivier
Robert Shaw
Harry Dean Stanton
James Stewart
Claude Rains
Edward G. Robinson

Yes I know, and I am hating myself for leaving off Raul Julia.

I'd like to make annual montage first, but I will update the wins page after that.


Rodriguez - 2.5(There's nothing wrong with her performance however I would deign this character as a weaker part of the film just because the role is a bit cliched. She's more than fine in her brief moments of just portraying an extreme fearful exasperation but she doesn't is granted more to do than that.)


1. In the cellar - Take Shelter
2. Only thing I felt sorry for - The Iceman
3. Birds - Take Shelter
4. A final "vision" - Take Shelter
5. Kill each Other's Families - The Iceman
6. Breakdown - Take Shelter
7. "Pray to God" - The Iceman
8. Eviction - 99 Homes
9. Visiting his mother - Take Shelter
10. Audition - The Iceman
11. Opening - 99 Homes
12. Visiting a psychiatrist - Take Shelter
13. Ambulance Drivers - Premium Rush
14. Insulting his girlfriend - The Iceman
15. Samson - The Shape of Water
16. Being Fired - Take Shelter
17. Thanks for the Fingers - Premium Rush
18. Buying Friendship - Elvis & Nixon
19. Reintroduction - Nocturnal Animals
20. Confronting the zealot - Midnight Special

Honorable mention to "WRESTLEMANIA!" from Groundhog Day.