Aspen Filmfest: A farewell from Harry Dean Stanton in ‘Lucky’
If You Go …
What: ‘Lucky’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Isis Theatre
When: Thursday, Oct. 5, 2:30 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Isis box offices; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Thursday’s lineup also includes “Wasted: The Story of Food Waste” at noon; “The Desert Bride” at 5:30 p.m. and “Lady Bird” at 8:15 p.m.; www.aspenfilm.org
The late, legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton didn’t have many lead roles in his career, which spanned more than five decades.
But in his final film, “Lucky,” which screens today at Aspen Filmfest, Stanton is a leading man. As his last performance, and one of the few where he receives top billing and carries the picture himself, “Lucky” is likely to be a defining work for Stanton, standing alongside “Paris, Texas” and “Repo Man.”
“I knew it would be an elegy for Harry Dean, something of an ode and a celebration,” director John Carroll Lynch said in a phone interview this week. “But for the elegy to become a eulogy changes it for audiences. Though I don’t think it should change it that much, because Harry didn’t ever intend to have a eulogy. He intended to die and be nothing.”
The character Stanton plays in the film, likewise, intends to die and be nothing. An atheist, he confronts his mortality though a series of conversations on spirituality and death with friends at his neighborhood bar, diner and market.
“Those things are going to kill you,” a diner manager tells Lucky in the opening minutes of the film as he attempts to light a cigarette.
“If they could’ve, they would’ve,” deadpans Stanton’s Lucky.
Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja conceived the film specifically for Stanton, basing it, in part, on Stanton’s life, personality and mannerisms. The performance is an extraordinary final statement from the actor, who was 89 during filming and 91 when he died Sept. 15.
“Beyond being one of the best actors of his or any generation, it was an opportunity to tell a story that I think he was in a unique position to tell as a spectacularly powerful artist,” Lynch said.
The supporting cast Lynch assembled for the film is astounding. It features, in small but meaty roles, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerrit, Beth Grant, Barry Shabaka Henley and the filmmaker David Lynch (no relation to John Carroll Lynch) who directed Stanton in “Twin Peaks” and several films.
Though its theme is mortality, befitting Stanton there is much humor in “Lucky” — the elderly Lucky picking a fight with an estate lawyer and foul-mouthed riffs on game shows, crossword puzzles, small talk and the lifespan of tortoises — along with mournful moments. An extended take of Lucky in his underwear, sadly smoking a cigarette at his bedside as Johnny Cash sings “I See a Darkness” will rattle even the most cynical of viewers.
The film marks the directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch, the prolific character actor who has worked under legendary directors like the Coen Brothers (“Fargo”), Martin Scorsese (“Shutter Island”), Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”) and David Fincher (“Zodiac”) and who last year played President Johnson in “Jackie” and Mac McDonald in “The Founder.”
Born in Boulder and raised in Denver, Lynch said he thought about Colorado spots like the Village Inn and the Satire Lounge when thinking of the atmosphere of Lucky’s favored diner and bar. Set in an unnamed small town in the American West, the film was shot in Cave Creek, Arizona.
Lynch has wanted to try his hand at directing for some time, he said. “Lucky” called to him for the opportunity to work with Stanton and because of the decidedly non-Hollywood way the film deals with Lucky’s existential crisis.
“This man realizes he may not have months and years left, he may have days or weeks left,” Lynch said. “It makes him question what he’s doing with his life. But he doesn’t go back and reconnect with his old girlfriends or a long lost child. He goes about his business and reorders his perception of his world, which I think is a lot more like real life.”
Along with taking mental notes on the methods of the cinematic greats he’s worked with, Lynch reached out to friends who’ve transitioned between acting and directing, such as Adam Arkin, and found surprisingly useful tips in Jerry Lewis’ book “The Total Film-maker.”
“You might think Jerry Lewis is a weird source, but his book on directing is so practical,” Lynch said.
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