Director: Sophie Huber
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson
Release date: June 16th, 2013
Distributor: Adopt Films
Running time: 77 minutes
Best part: The interviewees.
Worst part: The confused visual style.
Character actors are an important and tenacious bunch whom heartily focus on playing background roles. However, their presence may be so effective as to overshadow the lead actors. Actors like Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Melissa Leo have all made the leap to stardom after many years playing supporting roles. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction paints a portrait of, arguably, one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. Juggling singing, acting, and being the friendliest man in showbiz, Harry Dean Stanton is almost depicted here as a wandering spirit touching the hearts of those closest to him (much like his character in Paris, Texas).
With his alarming physical features and potent performances, Stanton sticks out in any film he wanders through. Partly Fiction honours his unique personality and dense career (spanning over 250 feature films). The documentary’s ambition is to take Stanton from being remembered as ‘that guy from…’, to being seen, deservedly, as a tinsel town icon. For the most part, it succeeds in developing this enigmatic persona into a hilarious and thought-provoking character. This portrait travels from childhood to the present – chronicling how a seemingly normal youngster travelled America and became a Hollywood star. This journey features interviews with Stanton and many of his famous friends including legendary director David Lynch and actor Kris Kristofferson. Director Sophie Huber explores one day in the life of one of Hollywood’s most mysterious figures. Despite his many cherished memories and friends, not to mention hit songs being written about his unusual persona, Stanton remains startlingly humble throughout the film. In particular, Stanton’s transition from supporting actor to leading man for Paris, Texas is discussed by director Wim Wenders – providing a passionate description of Stanton’s work ethic.
I went into the screening unsure of what would come of it. Having seen Stanton in such movies as Alien, Cool Hand Luke, The Avengers, and Pretty in Pink, I already understood why he was lauded as an inspirational actor. Thankfully, Partly Fiction doesn’t shy away from showing us clips highlighting some of his many powerful performances and classic features. This choice could’ve been pandering, but, thankfully, each clip is short and concise (his death in Alien still gives me chills!). Huber chooses to stay away from expository documentary elements, allowing Stanton to speak for himself. If he wanted to talk about something he would happily spill the beans. However, there are some topics Stanton is uninterested in diving into. Any mention of his parents was treated with a slight grunt and short response. These moments may seem awkward, but make for some of the doco’s funniest moments. Looking back with fond memories, he lights up whenever he is with one of his closest friends. For example, the dynamic between him and Kristofferson proves that friendship is significantly more powerful than fame or wealth. Their anecdotes paint a disturbingly realistic picture of what big guns like Jack Nicholson and Johnny Cash were like in their heyday.
“They say when you’re truly at home, there’s no more suffering. No more leaf on the wind. No more crying, crying to get back to where you came from. “ (Harry Dean Stanton, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction).
In fact, Stanton is presented as a hilariously modest and honest person. It’s easy to see why he has garnered the cult fan-base and high profile colleagues/friends he currently holds onto. This is no more apparent than in the bar scenes. The room and Stanton’s friends light up whenever he walks in. At one point, Stanton’s buddy, known simply as ‘Mouse’, reflects on how important his friendship with Stanton has been. This moment becomes touching and awkwardly hilarious due to Stanton’s bumbling reaction. However, the brightly lit bar scenes are distorted by frustrating camera and editing tricks (there should be a drinking game based on how many focus pulls occur in these scenes). Thankfully, the black and white aesthetic beautifully contrasts the brightly lit/coloured bar scenes. This style smartly depicts that Stanton brings multiple shades of grey to everything he does. Throughout the interview, Stanton’s renditions of notorious folk/blues hits tug the heartstrings. Every note rings like the howl of a lone wolf. His emotions and desires are encapsulated in these renditions. These renditions are so effective they lend the doco. a consistent tone and pace that sorely could’ve been absent.
Much like Stanton’s favourite tunes, this doco. contains a significant amount of soul. Stripping away assumptions, and obvious iconic elements synonymous with Stanton, the doco. creates a mesmerising and meticulous portrait of Stanton that would’ve been extremely difficult to pull off. Honouring his legacy, this is a fun love letter to his professional and personal lives.