Movies

MFA presents monthlong tribute to Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky.”
Magnolia Pictures
Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky.”

When Harry Dean Stanton spoke, there was nothing to it. That’s the beauty of the late, one-of-a-kind actor: There was seriously nothing to it.

Stanton lived by the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and aspired to the “non-self,” as he often acknowledged. Yet he insisted he was no Buddhist.

“I’m nothing,” he says in the 2012 documentary “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” which screens as part of “Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True,” the Museum of Fine Arts’ monthlong tribute to the actor. “It’s a relief, isn’t it? When you’re nothing, there’s no problems.”

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In more than 60 years on camera, Stanton played a long list of characters who had their share of problems, and then some. They were jailbirds (“Cool Hand Luke”) and wanderers (“Paris, Texas”), struggling single dads (“Pretty in Pink”) and stroke victims (“The Straight Story”).

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But Stanton, a slightly built Kentucky native with a hangdog look and a scrappy attitude, knew just how to convey the sense, whatever the role, that nothing really matters. It’s a cosmology that makes “Lucky” — the eccentric little movie that premiered in September, just after Stanton’s death at 91 — an apt capstone to his career.

Stanton, in a rare leading role, plays the title character, a cranky World War II veteran who lives by himself in the desert, profoundly affecting the regulars on his daily rounds — diner, corner grocer, cocktail lounge — very much in spite of himself. “You’re nothing!” he barks at the owner of the diner, and gets the same heartfelt greeting in return.

“Lucky,” which screens three times in December as part of the MFA’s 15-film retrospective, is a kind of feature-length poem, according to the film’s director, John Carroll Lynch. The film “illuminates the endgame of the worldview Harry espoused,” says Lynch, the actor (“Fargo,” “The Founder”) and first-time director, on the phone during a promotional tour in Europe. “And it adds something — that sense of joy. The sense that mortality can bring meaning.”

Like Lynch, Sophie Huber first met Stanton at his home away from home, the landmark Hollywood canteen Dan Tana’s. A native of Switzerland who moved to LA in the early 1990s to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute, Huber was friends with Stanton for 20 years before she finally persuaded him to let her make “Partly Fiction,” which she directed. Over the years, while living in Berlin and elsewhere, she kept up a long-distance bond with Stanton by phone.

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Their phone calls were typically long and aimless, she says in a Skype interview. “That was the great thing with Harry. You wouldn’t have to perform or be interesting. You could just kind of be.

“That’s what was really exciting about his whole philosophy, the way he chose to make sense of his life — present and in the moment.”

Her film project began when Stanton grudgingly agreed to record some of his favorite songs, including “Blue Bayou” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

“I loved the way he sang, but nobody ever recorded him,” says Huber. “People had asked, but he always said no.”

“Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” was Huber’s first film. She’s currently wrapping up edits on her second, a history of the Blue Note Records jazz label.

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“That’s because of Harry, too,” she explains: Blue Note President Don Was has told her he’s a big fan of her directorial debut.

Stanton was “among the last of the great supporting actors,” the film critic David Thomson once wrote, describing him as having a face “like the road in the West.” Like “Paris, Texas,” Stanton’s other big starring role, “Lucky” makes the most of the character’s oneness with the landscape. Co-written by Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks, who worked for years as Stanton’s assistant, “Lucky” is a dusty trail in a world of busy highways with mega-malls crowding every exit.

“This movie is very meaningful to me,” says Lynch. “Maybe if you can change somebody’s heart or help somebody through something difficult, then you’ve done your job.”

There’s a certain strain of “small” film, he says, that can do something no noisy blockbuster can manage. That kind of film was Stanton’s specialty.

Years from now, Lynch says, he hopes a few film buffs will be sitting having a beer, talking about the obscure films that taught them something about what it means to live this strange life.

“And I hope they include ‘Lucky’ on the list.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.