Saturday, 21 October 2017

Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017

Harry Dean, 2003

This is a story I have about the late and rightly lamented Harry Dean Stanton, who died on September 15 at the age of 91. I met him one evening in Los Angeles in October 2002, when he’d have been 76?

I’d spent that afternoon very cheerfully in the old port city of San Pedro, with Linda Bukowski, widow of the legendary Charles. It was a special afternoon for me, having got a great deal of fun out of Bukowski’s writing during my youth, to pass some hours chatting to Linda in the home she and ‘Hank’ had shared, site of so many escapades. We had a couple of drinks: I was on beer, but somewhat cautiously, as my next appointment was to meet Mr Stanton at his home on Mulholland Drive.

Charles Bukowski
I was aware he wasn’t widely thought to be the easiest man to get to know. I knew Charles Bukowski had said as much to Film Comment magazine back in 1987: ‘Harry Dean’s a strange fellow. He doesn’t put on much of a hot-shot front. He just sits around depressed. And I make him more depressed. I say, ‘Harry, for Chrissakes, it’s not so bad.’’

But Linda knew him well, of course, and assured me all would be fine. She even rang him as I was packing up to go, and told him to go easy on me: ‘You be nice to him now, Harry, OK?’

The skies were still light, or as light as Los Angeles gets, when I left San Pedro, but it was extremely dark by the time I was winding my way down round Mulholland Drive, which had very surely taken on the menacing aspect of a place where David Lynch might shoot a movie.

Harry Dean’s place was a bungalow. I had to step cautiously down flagstones overhung by trees in order to get round the back of the place and ring the doorbell. Before I got there something dark and small darted across my path: in my mind’s eye I remain convinced it was a raccoon.

Harry Dean answered the door in bathrobe and slippers, spectacles on the end of his nose, hair a little wild. He welcomed me in, though there was a wariness to him, a certain senior stiffness. Still his living space was nicely arranged for a cordial chat, big sofas squared round a big coffee table with a big ashtray. In fact I admired his bachelor pad all the way round: open plan, cosily masculine, done in russet shades, a tidy kitchenette behind me, while I could see that to the right of the front door was the master bedroom: a tall mirrored wardrobe door hung open.

HDS in Fire Walk With Me
He didn’t seem keen on interviews - the legend was all true. He asked me to prove to him that my tape recorder was really working. He wasn’t sure I knew his body of work and needlessly listed the directors he’d done time with – Hitchcock he seemed especially proud of. Of course, if we’d had time I would have gladly enthused about everything from Missouri Breaks to Young Doctors in Love to Fire Walk With Me.

Then we were done. He told me he was ‘going out’ but I was welcome to hang awhile, and that we might 'have a drink' once he was dressed and ready? So he pottered off to that bedroom. I checked my tape recorder, reviewed my notes, looked back on my busy day. That was ten minutes maybe. Then Harry Dean re-entered, newly purposeful.

The phrase that leapt into my head, honestly, was ‘Alley Cat.’ (‘Rat Pack’ might have been in there, too.) The man was dressed sharp; and he was tapping a cigarette on a silver case. He’d donned a black suit and a crisp shirt, tie with clip, shoes with a high sheen; and the hair was now slick. Now he was smiling a great deal, like everything amused him, since it was time to ‘go out.’ And I felt I understood it all now, including the story about the date he'd brought to Sean Penn’s wedding in 1985. He fixed us vodka tonics, plenty stiff, and the evening got yet more memorable.

So count me in as a big, big Harry Dean fan, all the way. Too many superb performances to cite, but my favourite, if I had to pick one, is this – this scene, especially.

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