Cult Movie: Nobody's eyes did soulful or sadness quite like Harry Dean Stanton's

Harry Dean Stanton and Nastasja Kinski in Paris, Texas (1984), directed by Wim Wenders and co-written by the late Sam Shepard
Ralph McLean

HARRY Dean Stanton had the face of a man who’d seen some serious trouble in his time. In a movie career that saw him play villains and fools, heroes and heartbroken losers, it was that visage, all haunted and weary, that made him special.

Quite often he did little on screen, preferring to drift enigmatically where others would showboat. He had a stillness and a honesty that was rare in his profession. You got the feeling that he was feeling something so deeply it sometimes left him speechless. If you didn’t get that, you sensed old Harry simply didn’t care. In many ways he was the antithesis of the typical self-centred actor. Mostly he didn’t seem like an actor at all.

In a different era he’d have earned his crust playing soul-beaten cowboys in low-grade westerns, the kind of glum sack you’d find murmuring into his sour mash, staring off wistfully into middle distance and running over in his head all his disastrous life decisions in some sordid little saloon at the wrong end of a gold rush.

As it was, he plied his trade in many different types of movies for many different types of directors. He graced all manner of cult classics and rarely appeared in a film that he didn’t make better simply by being there. Even when his appearance amounted to little more than a scene stealing cameo he was still able to offer something special.

That world weary sadness and the sense that those sunken eyes suggested a deep soul forever on the brink of some startling revelation was always at the heart of every performance.

It’s always about the eyes. Take his turn as Travis Henderson in the beautiful Paris, Texas, a film that gave him a rare starring role.

Stanton played flashier roles and stole bigger films from under the noses of more handsome and emotive leading men but he never bettered his performance in that Wim Wenders masterpiece. Rising, almost ghost like, in the desert, the emotional pain he’s dealing with renders him mute for most of the film, but Stanton speaks clearly with those haunted peepers of a love lost and a life royally splashed across an outhouse wall.

Every moment he’s on screen in that film prove that few have ever matched him for isolation. His stunning 10-minute performance when he tracks down his ex-wife in a seedy peep show is Stanton at his best. Separated from the love of his life by a one-way mirror and a phone line, he traces their intersecting life journey with heartwrenching emotion. Wenders zooms in on the beautiful face of his ex (Natassja Kinski) for much of this exchange but it’s Stanton who owns the scene.

Never cast as a romantic lead – with a face like that such opportunities were always going to be limited – he is the heart and soul of Paris, Texas.

When he passed on earlier this month the film world lost more than a craggy-faced character actor; it lost a true original and one of the coolest figures ever to grace the silver screen.

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