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Character actor reluctant to reveal truths about life

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THE second part of this doc's title is taken from the great Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim Chapter 33: "He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home."

Kristofferson himself sings the song to character actor Harry Dean Stanton near the end of this documentary tribute out of both affection and gratitude: The songwriter credits Stanton for helping him land his first acting gig as the drug pusher hero of Cisco Pike (1971). Kristofferson also says it has been widely assumed The Pilgrim was written about Stanton, but in that particular post-'60s epoch, it could have applied equally well to just about anyone in their particular circle of friends.

Any information is useful. The well-weathered Stanton, now 87 years old, is a reticent and cagey subject for a documentary, initially unwilling to talk about, say, his parents and his upbringing in rural Kentucky. Director Sophie Huber's solution to this problem is to resort to a few expert witnesses to Stanton's low-key genius, including Kristofferson, Deborah Harry, director Wim Wenders (who recalls Stanton being uncomfortable in his sole leading role in Paris, Texas), Sam Shepard and an unusually effusive David Lynch.

She also shoots lots of footage of Stanton riding around Los Angeles by night in the back seat of a car, a strategy that actually makes the film resemble a Lynch movie, a la Lost Highway.

Most filmgoers would probably recognize Stanton from his role in Alien as Brett, an early casualty of that film's monster, but his film and TV credits number in the hundreds, and in that body of work, a few gems shine though, including Kristofferson's drug-addled musician pal in Cisco Pike and Richard Farnsworth's ailing brother in Lynch's The Straight Story: The climactic scene between Farnsworth and Stanton is included here, and it's a master class in wringing maximum impact from minimal performances. (Michael Caine won the best supporting actor Oscar that year for The Cider House Rules and Stanton wasn't even nominated -- a travesty.)

Given his shyness in front of a documentary lens, Stanton does oblige Huber with some performances of some of his favourite tunes, sung in a reedy but effective twang.

If the end result doesn't qualify as a conventional Hollywood bio, it does succeed in capturing a bit of the essence of a Hollywood actor who remains uncomfortable taking centre stage.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2013 D6

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