Lucky: Harry Dean Stanton’s Swansong a Touching Career Snapshot

By Liam Lacey

(RATING: A)

Lucky is a gentle little oddity of a film, light but serious, short but meandering, more of extended vignette than a conventional movie.  For Harry Dean Stanton fans, it’s indispensable, a gallant swansong performance, custom-made for the poet-philosopher actor, who died last month at 91.

In the film, Stanton plays the title character, Lucky, who lives an unremarkable life in a desert town in Arizona. Apart from not being a famous actor, Lucky shares a great deal with the actor who plays him, in his life experiences and his agnostic, vaguely Buddhist beliefs.  (The writers, Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, were Stanton’s longtime friends, who presented the finished script to Stanton as a surprise.) 

 The late, great Harry Dean Stanton...

The late, great Harry Dean Stanton...

What this means is there’s a lot you’ll recognize if have seen Sophie Huber’s 2012 documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. You will hear again of Stanton’s sudden terror of “the void” in his adolescence; his experiences in the Pacific War, his rejection of the idea of an afterlife, his passion for music.

Stanton — who tended to scrawny, ruffled eaglet even in his youth — is not the kind of actor who’s a master of disguise. (“He’s the kind of an actor who knows his face tells a story,” said his friend, the late Sam Shepard.) Yet, the veteran of a couple of hundred television and movie roles is versatile, a go-to casting choice for all manner of drifters, grifters, and shape-shifters over a six-decade-plus career.  It wasn’t until he was 58 in Wim Wender’s 1984 film, Paris, Texas, that he became a cult favourite.

Much of this film simply follows Lucky’s daily routine: A morning cigarette before his feet hit the floor, then exercise to a love song from Mexican star Pedro Infante, then a quick glass of milk and he gets in his cowboy uniform: plaid shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat.  The soundtrack plays a refrain of “Red River Valley” on harmonica (played by Stanton) as he totters down the street to the local diner. There, he orders his usual sugared coffee while he does the crossword puzzle and kibitzes with the owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) and waitress (Yvonne Huff).

Afternoons consists of visiting the convenience store for more cigarettes, then returning home to watch vintage game shows on TV. At night he goes to the bar for a Bloody Maria (a Bloody Mary with tequila) and to listen to the local gossip and grumbling. There’s Elaine, the barmaid (Beth Grant), her man (James Darren — yes, he of the Gidget movies), Vincent (Hugo Armstrong), the barkeeper and Howard (director David Lynch) who frets about his recently escaped tortoise, President Roosevelt.  And Lucky gets cross with an estate lawyer (Ron Livingston) who talks too much about legacies and death.

First-time director John Carroll Lynch is a character actor with an estimable resumé of his own (Fargo, Zodiac, Shutter Island). He holds the film to a deliberately contemplative pace, filling it with small vivid turns from a posse of character actors; along with the barflies, they include Ed Begley Jr. as Lucky’s doctor, and Tom Skerritt as a fellow war vet.

Then comes a very small plot turn. One day, Lucky takes a fall and begins to worry. His doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him, despite the pack-a-day smoking habit, but there’s a crack in Lucky’s confidence. Though he has always fiercely guarded his independence, he undergoes a shift in perspective, as he recognizes his interconnectedness with his community. The waitress comes over to his house to check on him and shares a joint as they watch Liberace on TV; the store-keeper invites him to a Mexican party. There, he retrieves something lovely from his memory bank, and rouses the crowd by singing a heartfelt rendition of the Mexican love ballad, “Volver, Volver (Return, Return).”

And for a few minutes, the world feels like a lucky place to be.

Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., and Tom Skerritt. Playing Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox October 6 to 20 and in select cities across Canada throughout October.

Interview: Lucky Director John Carroll Lynch

What was it like directing the legendary Harry Dean Stanton? I had the chance to ask John Carroll Lynch shortly after he introduced the film for a preview screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Because of Stanton’s age, Lynch says, he staggered the 18-day shoot into three days at a time with two-day breaks to keep the actor “as fresh as possible” though the movie was both “physically and emotionally taxing.”

 And then there were the peculiarities of Stanton’s working method.

 Lucky director (and noted character actor) John Carroll Lynch

Lucky director (and noted character actor) John Carroll Lynch

“Harry’s focus, always, always, was on two primary things: he was never going to ‘act.’ He was always going to be Harry Dean Stanton. That had been his foundational keystone for 40 years at least.”

The shift, says Lynch, came when Stanton played the character, Blind Dick Riley in the 1966 western, Ride in the Whirlwind, when his friend and co-star Jack Nicholson advised him: “One thing — you’re only going to play Harry Dean.” As he said in the Nicholson AFI Tribute, “and I’ve been working ever since.”

“So that was one thing you couldn’t shake from him,” Lynch continues. “He wouldn’t respond to any character notes. And he wouldn’t respond to any structural notes. If you said to him, ‘I need this moment like this because three scenes from now….’ That was never going to fly. You had to earn it in that moment. You had to talk about that moment and it had to be specific.”
Lynch says he doesn't mean to imply that Stanton didn’t play a wide range of characters, only that he had a certain standard of interior authenticity that had to be met.

“I think what happened with the 'Harry Dean’ thing, and about focusing on the moment, were his way of gauging whether or not it was truthful. Or, whether he could live in it, which was what his goal was. In my experience of watching film actors over the course of my life, nobody had a stronger sense of being in film.  He was able to move well past the idea of doing to a place of being, to a place of presence.”

The result, says Lynch, was that even in the smallest character roles, Stanton always felt like the real thing. 

“You could put him anywhere. You could use just three minutes. The Straight Story won’t work without Harry Dean Stanton at the end, no matter how good Richard Farnsworth is or how much David Lynch directed.

“The emotional impact of the film takes place in the last five minutes, with Harry’s ability to go from vendetta to regret to realization to love without saying anything. That’s what he always brought and that’s what we wanted him to bring. And that’s what he certainly brought to this film.”