Harry Dean Stanton’s television is blaring Family Feud when he picks up the phone and utters a quizzical “Hello?”
He says he’s long since stopped watching any movies or TV shows, opting instead for the Game Show Network. “My favorite show is Chain Reaction,” he says. The man who used to attend Lakers games with Jack Nicholson now says his favorite sport to watch is gymnastics. (He caught some of the recent Olympic games.) Stanton’s abstention from highbrow entertainment may seem strange for a man who’s acted in more than 200 films — so many of which have garnered awards or supreme cult status — over the course of his six-decade career, but as he says more than once, at 90 years old, he’s “just tired of all of it.”
In Sophie Huber’s 2012 documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Stanton croons his favorite Mexican ballads and opines — in very few words — on the futility of everything in that characteristically gruff but charming manner of his. David Lynch stops by to ask him a few questions about his life, but even with this old friend, Stanton is mostly tight-lipped, while Lynch devolves into platitudes about the peculiar “innocence” of the actor’s performances.
“I’m just playing myself,” he says to me over the phone on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. It’s interesting how many directors mention Stanton’s “soul” when they describe his performance, because Stanton doesn’t believe in the soul. “There’s a great Buddhist saying — and I’m not Buddhist, I’m not anything — that to think that you’re an individual entity with an individual soul is not only an illusion. It’s insane,” he says.
Because Stanton has often played different versions of himself in film, he’s had to turn down certain roles that he felt were too dark, because he didn’t want to “go there.” He reiterates one particular role he mentioned in Huber’s film being Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet (1986). "Dark" he has issues with on occasion, but "sad" is fair game for his characters. I ask him the saddest story he knows, and he says immediately, “I killed a mockingbird once when I was a kid. With a BB gun. It really tore me up, because I wasn’t trying to kill it. I was trying to scare it away.” The happiest story, however … that takes some time, and he’d rather not go there either.
Best known as a supporting character actor, Stanton’s only leading role in a narrative feature was in Wim Wenders’ now-classic Paris, Texas (1984), where he played a man who rarely spoke a single word. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been offered the leading roles — he was — but he turned them down if they weren’t right. Now, three decades later, he’s got his second leading role — playing himself, of course — in a movie called Lucky, directed by another honored character actor, John Carroll Lynch, and written by his long-time friend and assistant Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. In Lucky, Stanton is an alternate version of himself if he didn’t become an actor, just an atheist in the desert talking about life, and his co-stars are his real-life friends, like David Lynch and Tom Skerritt.
Take a look at Harry Dean Stanton’s IMDB page, and you’ll notice he’s got four projects either filming or in post-production; the man can’t be stopped. But in addition to the acting, he’s about to become the first recipient of what will likely become a highly prestigious award — the Harry Dean Stanton Award, obviously.
Longtime film champions Vidiots dreamed up this award when Maggie Mackay stepped in as their executive director. “The minute that they called me to interview for the job, I thought, ‘This is perfect.’” Mackay says. “I’ve been planning for how to do this award for Harry with Sophie [Huber] for years. And Vidiots and Harry are two iconic contributors to Los Angeles and film history, neither of which has gotten the real public appreciation that they should.”
Vidiots, founded by Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber, has been a Santa Monica landmark for decades. Not just a video store where Frances McDormand and the Coen brothers frequently trade movie rental suggestions with other regulars, Vidiots Foundation also does the work of preservation, maintaining their collection of 11,000 VHS tapes. You may chuckle at the thought of preserving VHS tapes, but what many don’t know is that there are numerous worthy, wonderful films that got left behind in the jump to DVD — often because of music rights issues or a perceived lack of interest in smaller films — and these tapes may be the only copies in existence.
Danielle Renfrew, producer of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, said that movie was only possible because of the footage they found in the Vidiots VHS library. Right now, Vidiots is working with an outside agency to identify which films are truly “rare” to make them more accessible to the public. They’ve also started monthly free screenings of selections from the collections, including a little-known alien-invasion comedy called UFOria (1985), directed by John Binder and starring none other than Harry Dean Stanton — he pops up more than a few times in the VHS collection.
The HDS Award is something Mackay hopes they can continue long into the future, honoring actors, filmmakers, composers, writers, anyone who’s displayed the same commitment to artistic expression that Stanton has. But the award and its ensuing performance will become a centerpiece for the foundation’s fundraising efforts for film preservation and education. On October 23, Ed Begley Jr. will host the awards ceremony, with special and secret guests, including Kris Kristofferson, John C. Reilly, Father John Misty, Karen O, and many others.
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Despite Stanton’s uncomfortable look while receiving praise from others (“Eh, I’ve just heard it all before”), he is submitting himself to this night of public affection. The older he gets, the more people want to soak up his wisdom about life and living, but Stanton insists, “There’s no answer to the whole phantasmagoria of life. No answer to it. There’s no beginning to the universe and there’s no end to it time-wise or distance-wise.” To those wishing Harry Dean Stanton will live forever, according to him, he will. And Vidiots is finding a way to make it happen.
To support Vidiots in their mission, check out their crowdfunding campaign right now.