Harry Dean Stanton had seen some shit. That was arguably the defining quality of a varied career that cast the actor as heroes and villains, wanderers and guides. Even from his youngest years, the man’s unmistakable sunken-in eyes seemed like they had borne witness to entire millennia; to paraphrase Andrew Lloyd Webber describing Pilate describing Jesus Christ, he had that look you very rarely find — the haunting, hunted kind. Those eyes didn’t need to change to convey emotion, instead refracting a given situation back through their unflagging stoicism. In an upbeat moment, the stillness of his gaze would hint at isolation, an inability to feel along with the rest of us. In the Westerns of yore, the thousand-yard stare marked him as one of the strong, silent types who stood tall in a hostile frontier. And in the master actor’s finest hour, he telegraphed a lifetime of regret with a glance — and what very well may be the greatest monologue in the history of the film medium.
Travis Henderson, the weary mute portrayed by Stanton in the unassailable Paris, Texas, begins with the eyes. When he emerges from the desert as if materializing from nothingness, his vacant looks constitute his primary mode of communication. He’s been paralyzed by a force too powerful for him to name, and only in the film’s virtuosic climax does Travis dare to reckon with the pain that has silenced him. He’s finally tracked down his wayward ex-wife Jane to a small-town peep show, where she scrapes together grocery money from the goodwill of area perverts. With a one-way mirror concealing him from her and a landline as their only means of connection, Travis lays out their entire story over ten spellbinding minutes. Director Wim Wenders spends a goodly amount of the scene in close-up on Stanton’s scene partner Natassja Kinski, and you can hardly blame him. Hers is the changing, emotive face, and her realization that the stranger on the other end of the phone is her long-lost love gives the scene its highest peak of feeling. Stanton, however, is the one truly running the show.
All the aspects that made the actor’s eclectic filmography so uniformly excellent have a presence in this winding, almost unbearably sincere scene. Travis’ turbulent history with Jane began with the two as young paramours thumbing their noses at society’s rules about love, proudly laughing about “stupid things.” Stanton didn’t log much work as a romantic lead, his perpetually shell-shocked expression naturally fighting the type. (Appropriately, Stanton begins his recitation a touch awkwardly, moving at a halting and uneven cadence, even pausing to clear his throat at one point.) But that dimension of withdrawing from the mainstream fit snugly in Stanton’s persona as an actor. He never had any interest in playing by anyone’s rules; this is the guy who told Ridley Scott that he didn’t like “sci-fi or monster movies” while auditioning for his role in Alien. Stanton never was especially Hollywood, picking roles out of pure interest and never out of career-maneuvering showbiz calculation. He charted his own path.
This is a man who professed to turning down what would have been any actor’s dream role because “I like to do nothing.” It was all too easy to project that unwillingness to submit onto Travis, who extends that principle to a dangerous extreme. Travis recalls quitting various jobs to free up more time to spend with his beloved, caught between his desire to live an individualistic life and the demands of adulthood. (Flashes of his unemployed, working-class dad from Pretty in Pink; work has always been anathema to the Stanton ideal.) The inner torment that flowers as Travis realizes he’ll have to do a lot of stuff he doesn’t want to in order to function on even the most basic level ultimately undoes him. Self-hatred, abuse, an unplanned pregnancy, an unspeakable tragedy, and estrangement follow.
In Travis’ sad origin story, he’s essentially laying out the blueprint for the typical Stanton persona. We’ll most likely never discover the extent to which the actor himself related to that sense of hardened world-weariness — his determined unknowability was no small part of his appeal as a screen presence — but that was a crucial element of his cultivated essence all the same. As the mentor in punk cornerstone Repo Man, Stanton tacitly hints at decades of buried hurt, cracking the day’s first beer at 9 a.m. and casually tossing off contempt for “ordinary fuckin’ people,” the gravest insult there is in Stanton’s world. On Twin Peaks, traumatic scars invisibly criss-crossed Carl Rodd’s craggy face. “I’ve already gone places,” he says, half warning and half confession.
The place Carl’s referring to there, perhaps the Other Place that Michael J. Anderson’s backwards-talking dwarf hails from, is an existential no-man’s-land that bears a strong resemblance to the negative zone Travis describes in the final lines of his immortal monologue. It’s a place from which “every sign of man had disappeared.” Stanton erected his wheelhouse in this purgatory of alienation, where the native tongue is the stare that bores a hole in your soul. He inhabited it alone, that loneliness not incidental to the melancholic power suffusing so many of his performances. I’d like to believe he’s somewhere a bit kinder now, doing all the nothing he ever wanted.