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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Harry Dean Stanton

AUSTIN, TX: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a new film by director Sophie Huber playing this week at SXSW, is not your conventional documentary profile. In its opening minutes, director Huber is heard asking, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” After a pause, Stanton croons “Blue Moon” in response. Wim Wenders, who directed him in Paris, Texas, observes that he thinks great actors use their lives in their art, not as fodder for conversation. As Huber films Stanton driving around, he asks, “Do I have any lines? I don’t want any lines. How about doing nothing? How about silence?”

There is plenty of silence in Partly Fiction, but in it, the camera (in the hands of the great Seamus McGarvey) studies his face, and pays attention to how he doesn’t talk. And he says more when he sings, anyway; the film is full of songs, old favorites and standards, which flicker across his face and dance in his eyes as he sings them in lovely (if weathered) tones.

Despite his best efforts, however, some information is conveyed in his interviews (and those of his collaborators) — and some of it was new to this viewer, who knew him less as a person than as the characters he portrays in his voluminous film work. Here are a few of the more interesting biographical tidbits from the movie:

Even Stanton doesn’t know how many movies he’s done. IMDb lists 184 film and television credits, but he tells David Lynch that the number is “200, 250 maybe. I dunno, I lost count a long time ago.”

He once lived with Jack Nicholson. “That was a trip. That was right before he did Easy Rider. It was never boring!”

He doesn’t like the theater. Most film actors at least pretend to prefer the purity and continuity of stage work to the mechanical job of film acting. Not Harry Dean! “Too much work,” he says of stage acting. “Takes too long. Doesn’t pay enough.”

He and Bob Dylan ruined one of Sam Peckinpah’s shots. Stanton and Dylan were both supporting actors in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He’d planned a big shot for sunset, and they only had one chance to get it. All went well until Stanton and Dylan jogged through the scene and ruined it, forcing a reshoot the next day. As Kris Kristofferson tells it, Stanton tried to blame it on his novice co-star: “Sam, I was running after him, trying to tell him!”

He’s not one for religion. The laid-back, come-and-go nature of Stanton is Zen-like, almost Buddhist. But he insists he’s not of that denomination. When Huber asks what he is, he replies, “Nothing. Isn’t that a relief? When you’re nothing, you’ve got no problems.”

Deborah Harry wrote a song for him—and more. Harry’s 1989 song “I Want That Man” was written for Stanton, inspired by his performance in Paris, Texas (“I want to dance with Harry Dean/ Drive through Texas in a black limousine”). After he heard about this, Stanton tracked her down. “We got together,” he recalls, “and… bonded!” And if that’s not a strange enough image…

He dated Rebecca DeMornay. Way back in the early ‘80s, Stanton and DeMornay had a fling that lasted, according to the film, “’bout a year and a half,” until “she left with Tom Cruise.” She’d made a film with him called Risky Business. “I was heartbroken,” he recalls.

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There are other bits and pieces of trivia and minutia as well, but the film is more about mood and feeling than facts anyway. And music; the songs become his form of communication, and by the film’s end, when Stanton sings “Hands on the Wheel” over photos and knick-knacks around the house, it feels as though we know him far better than in any conventional documentary.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is screening this week at SXSW.

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