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Slimantics: Harry Dean Stanton: a rare authenticity in the age of Facebook


Slim Smith



When "Lucky" makes its box office debut on Sept. 29, it will mark the end of 60 years of acting by Harry Dean Stanton, who died last week at the age of 91. 


For generations of movie fans, and likely, generations to come, he will live on through the roles that made him one of the most remarkable character actors of film as well as a surprisingly powerful actor in his too few leading roles. 


In the days since his death, newspapers and magazines have produced scores of obituaries, retrospectives and analyses. Perhaps those efforts to capture what it was that made Stanton special is the most telling: Character actors rarely evoke that degree of attention upon their passing. 


Some character actors are loved because the characters they play are lovable. But Stanton was loved even when the roles he played were repulsive. 


His characters, like the man himself, were complicated, nuanced and Stanton played them with skill and precision. When he stole scenes, as he often did, it was the result of talent rather than ego. 


In his few leading roles, he displayed the sort of range that only the great actors master. His performance in the lead role in "Paris, Texas," rivals that of any of the great actors in history. 


Off the stage, he was an eccentric -- described as poet-philosopher, a mystic and something of a nihilist and, often it seems, a fatalist. To suggest that he had no ego was a mistake. He took pride in his considerable talent, as an actor, but also as a fine singer. 


He liked to win, but was well-acquainted to losing. It almost seemed as if he expected that outcome and was able to temper that disappointment. He didn't seem to take it all that personally. 


In a Vanity Fair retrospective, an odd assortment of his friends -- famous actors, a retired cop, and fellow barfly -- remember Stanton's frequent assessment -- "You are nothing." 


It was an assessment he made most often of his famous friends and also of himself. If ever there was a guy who rolled with the punches, it was Stanton. 


On the screen and away from it, he could not be ignored. 


For all the efforts to explain that attraction, it may well be that the thing that set him apart was his authenticity, both in his film and television roles, and in his private life. 


Authenticity can be beautiful, of course, but it can also be disturbing. It often makes us uncomfortable, but we find it hard to look away.  


No one is entirely authentic, of course. In varying degrees, we all conform to the expectations of others. It takes great courage and honesty to be our genuine selves. We are all actors, in that respect. 


There are a rare few who approach the level of authenticity that separates them from all others. They are more real, somehow. We recognize it immediately. 


Harry Dean Stanton was one of those rare persons who didn't seem to give a much of a damn what other people thought. Secretly, we all admire that quality and wish we had more of it. 


That is why he'll be remembered. The authenticity set him apart as the actor we know and the man we didn't.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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