With close to 200 appearances on screen, Harry Dean Stanton is one of our best character actors, and it’s often through his quiet moments that he does great work, from a rare starring turn in Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” to a blue-collar space engineer in “Alien," to Lyle Straight, brother of Alvin Straight in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” to the sympathetic father of Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.”
There are generally two approaches to a career biography on screen: there’s the chronological A&E-style narrative, and a more pastische-like approach. Director Sophie Huber chooses the second option in “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” new on DVD from Adopt Films and KinoLorber. Huber follows the actor as he visits warmly with fellow regulars at his favorite bar in Los Angeles, and trains her black & white camera on his weathered face during a sit-down interview that often detours into song. Stanton croons some of his favorite folk and country songs, ones that if they weren’t already written by Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson, might even be semi-autobiographical.
One of them, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” lends the documentary its title. Kris Kristofferson’s song from 1971 includes the line “he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher, partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction.”
Stanton is reluctant to reveal many details about his personal life and career in the movie, though there are a few surprises, including the fact that his heart was broken by a “Risky Business”-era Rebecca de Mornay.
“Not saying anything is a very powerful statement,” Stanton muses at one point, which is very true. Huber brings in some ringers to help guide the film, including Kristofferson, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, and Debbie Harry, who paid tribute to Stanton with her song “I Want That Man.” The tone of the conversation is relaxed. At 87, Stanton is slower, but then again was he ever sprightly?
“Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” casts a spell. There are plenty of clips from Stanton’s films, great stories, and Stanton’s own flat, midwestern voice. He may not say much, but when he speaks and sings, it’s the only thing you want to hear.