If anyone was to personify the feeling “I recognise the face but his name escapes me,” it must surely have been the late Harry Dean Stanton who died in September 2017 after a long career which included time serving as a cook in the United States Navy before establishing himself as an actor whose resume would span over five decades of film and television.
Despite buddying around and even living with Jack Nicholson for a while and playing a prominent role in one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time, Stanton apparently avoided the limelight given by starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters, preferring instead to play supporting parts or work with lesser-known, more artistic directors; Wim Wenders reportedly only clinched acquiring him for the main part in 1984’s Paris, Texas by explaining his character doesn’t say a thing for the first thirty minutes of the film.
It has been this almost vacant presence that sums up much of his body of work: rather than overtly acting out a role, Harry instead regularly understated it, catching the attention of the audience in an unfamiliar way. So average in appearance he could easily blend in while queueing at the butchers for a pound of sausage, he made you feel as though he had always been there and always would be yet in his craft he stood out because he did not stand out.
Lucky was the final film the actor would star in, but it deserves attention for much more than that, a culmination of a body of work spanning around two hundred roles, a ninety-one year life lived and droves of experience which made playing this unanticipated farewell look even more effortless than the rest. The emotions this role must have stirred up would have made it impossible not to reflect on his own life: a man who served in the armed forces, never had children, a staunch atheist and a heavy smoker, it may as well have been autobiographical.
Throughout the film, Lucky’s regimented daily activities seem to be more of a necessity than a pleasure. Never stopping to “smell the roses” but instead to pause and yell profanities at an open-air garden nursery, although he adheres closely and derives some joy and companionship from his routine, this could be interpreted as constant distraction keeping him from ever looking up at his own horizon, a mortal procrastination.
Smoke, yoga, smoke, walk, smoke, coffee, smoke and kick a tin can; repeat: all are done with absolute dedication. He has no regrets yet takes no real pride in things. If the Buddhist adage life is not a destination but a journey is to hold any sway then the feeling received from Lucky seems to be that he is merely waiting for the inevitable.
The parallels and consequent comparison between Lucky and The Straight Story in which Stanton played the ailing sibling of the protagonist are unignorable. The contribution from a great composer in David Lynch’s film, now twenty years old, is the starkest difference in their production, the double bass and heart-lifting strings arranged by Angelo Badalamenti creating a breathtaking aesthetic when coupled with Freddie Francis’ footage of the verdant cornfields and distant, hazy horizons, working to support the journey and optimism of Alvin Straight as played by the late Richard Farnsworth, also in his final role.
That is not to say that the ramshackle, dust-bowl of a town chosen for the setting of Lucky is not lovingly documented; arid savannahs, towering cacti (and wandering tortoises) all play just as big a role in setting the mise-en-scène here.
The choice to have David Lynch in front of the camera is always a risky one; safely cast in Twin Peaks amidst the myriad of other caricatures his performance is palatable. Taken out of such an exaggerated context, often not so much, however, despite bracing myself for having his appearance shatter the suspension of disbelief his eccentric presence is enjoyable.
As with The Straight Story, Lucky does deliver moments of heart-breaking poignancy. Alvin’s offering of wisdom to the runaway teen likening sticks to family is met just as profoundly by Lucky’s confession of his younger self and the bird in the tree tale, a true story from Stanton’s own childhood.
I used to think the encapsulating of an idea or emotion conveyed with a single glance is the pinnacle for any actor. Despite the heavyweights Stanton and Farnsworth both showing us how it’s done in their cinematic swan songs, maybe it’s more likely them encouraging of the viewer to fill in the emotions of the character is what invites such empathy for them.
Lucky does not strive for grandeur throughout its plight; the setting, script, narrative and direction by John Carroll Lynch all sit comfortably within humble confines. Yet, although not the same calibre of overall film as Lynch’s earlier spiritual counterpart, a few moments of pure Stanton rival those of the equally seasoned Farnsworth in this pair of character-driven, wholesome plod-alongs.
Harry Dean Stanton, July 14th, 1926 – September 15th, 2017
Lucky and The Straight Story are both available on DVD