An Elegy for Harry Dean Stanton

Lucky, Directed by John Carroll Lynch

By Pamela Zoslov

When I saw the trailer for “Lucky,” the film featuring one of the last performances of Harry Dean Stanton, who died September 15 at age 91, I was struck by how frail he appeared, a skinny wraith lighting cigarette upon cigarette. (“I only eat so I can smoke,” Stanton had said.) The movie itself created a somewhat different impression. Stanton, though exceptionally gaunt, seemed as vital as ever, the intensity of his acting undiminished.

John Carroll Lynch, a character actor recognizable from roles in Fargo, The Founder, Zodiac and American Horror Story, made the film, his directing debut, as a “love letter” to Stanton. The actor’s death fourteen months after the movie’s completion adds poignancy to its release. “When we made this movie,” Lynch told a master class at his alma mater, Catholic University in Washington, D.C., “we didn’t know how long Lucky was going to be out there. And now he’s not. That changes a lot.” Lucky is the actor’s penultimate film; another in which he appears, Frank and Ava, is in post-production.

The film follows the daily life of Lucky, a gruff 90-year-old loner in the desert town of Piro, California. His routine consists of coffee, yoga exercises, TV game shows, crossword puzzles, glasses of milk (there’s nothing else in his refrigerator), and visits to the diner and Elaine’s, the local tavern. And, of course, smoking, lots of it. He is well known among the locals, and we hear some of their stories in well-written monologues that suggest a stage play like The Time of Your Life or The Iceman Cometh. There is Howard, who laments that his 100-year-old tortoise, named President Roosevelt, has run away. Howard praises his lost friend in a speech that balances pathos and absurdity: “He was as noble as a king and kindhearted as a grandmother.” Howard is played by David Lynch, with whose movie The Straight Story this film has a lot in common.

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The voice of the turtle: David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton.

There is the diner’s owner, Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), who has to keep reminding Lucky not to smoke in the restaurant, and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), the waitress who serves his coffee just the way he likes it, lots of cream and sugar. Bibi (Bertila Damas), the Latina clerk at the store where he buys his smokes, invites Lucky to her ten-year-old son’s birthday party — “a big fiesta.” And bar owner (Beth Grant), who boasts of pulling her Saturday night special on a rowdy crowd, and her husband, Paulie (James Darren), who cheerfully admits his wife is stronger than he is. There’s the lawyer (Ron Livingston), whom Lucky threatens with fisticuffs because he thinks he’s taking advantage of Howard. “I fought the fuckin’ Japs,” Lucky rasps. “You don’t think I can take you?” There is also the unseen person Lucky calls on his red landline phone when he’s stumped by a crossword-puzzle clue.

After Lucky takes a fall in his kitchen, he gets checked out by his doctor, played by Ed Begley, Jr., who can’t find a thing wrong with the old guy despite his pack-a-day habit. Dr. Kneedler wonders if Lucky, who never married and has no children (that he knows of) isn’t lonely.  Lucky says, “There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.” For all his cynical and profane bravado, Lucky is privately troubled by thoughts of his mortality, and at one point admits he’s scared. He’s an atheist who believes the soul doesn’t exist, and that in the end there is only blackness.

The screenplay threads together elements of Stanton’s life, including his smoking, yoga and penchant for puzzles. Like Stanton, Lucky is a Navy veteran with a fine singing voice (he sings “Volver, Volver” at the fiesta). The script was written by Logan Sparks, Stanton’s longtime friend and personal assistant, and Drago Sumonja, who made a 2009 documentary about Stanton.

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Singing “Volver, Volver” at the birthday fiesta.

The movie is gracefully directed, and Tim Suhrstedt’s cinematography nicely captures the desert setting.  Lucky is philosophical but not didactic, humane but not sentimental. Certain scenes stay in the memory. In one, waitress Loretta comes to check on Lucky after his fall. Lucky is initially irritated, but soon the two are sitting on the sofa smoking a joint and watching Liberace on TV. Another scene, in which Lucky listens to a World War II memory told by a Marine veteran played by Tom Skerritt, is devastating.

With outstanding acting, writing and production, Lucky is a fitting elegy for a unique actor. Grade: A

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