Harry Dean Stanton Award at The Theater at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
The Spanish Gothic United Artists Building, the current Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, was the perfect setting for the Vidiots Foundation’s inaugural Harry Dean Stanton Award – presented to its nonagenarian namesake Sunday evening as the first in an annual recognition of artists who have helped define American cinema.
Built in 1927, the restored Theater at Ace Hotel was once the flagship theater for United Artists, the company started in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, with the express purpose of granting to the artist control of his or her work. Stringing along Broadway in various stages of disrepair and restoration like inlaid gems, these once-glorious, once-neglected monuments to Hollywood’s Golden Age – when the mere act of going to a movie required a palace – are an essential instrument in the rebirth of the Broadway corridor.
The evening was a celebration of a life as much as a life’s work. For it is a life lived that informs Stanton’s work. It is his truth – the truth in his eyes, in his voice – that transforms otherwise ancillary roles into powerful character studies and concise, meaningful bursts of humanity that elevate the films in which they are housed. By working in his chosen medium as a “character actor” Harry Dean Stanton has forged a lasting influence on film, and on culture itself, more than most leading men.
By remaining consistent and true, Stanton slides seamlessly between Old Hollywood and the avant garde. It is almost impossible to consider Hollywood without his presence, as embedded in the fabric of the city as the red booths at his favorite haunt, Dan Tana’s. His is an honest, soulful connection to the world. He makes us feel because he feels.
These worlds coalesced in the Broadway theater as a varied and diverse parade of legends and A-list talent came forth to pay tribute to perhaps the most beloved man in Hollywood. There was the Old Hollywood of Angelica Houston and Ed Begley Jr., and there was the avant garde of David Lynch and Johnny Depp. Other speakers and performers throughout the night included Kris Kristofferson, Rebecca De Mornay, Griffin Dunne, Helena Kallianiotes, Logan Sparks, Jacob Dylan, Harper Simon, John C. Reilly, Karen O, Father John Misty, Inara George, John Densmore of the Doors, and an ace house band including bassist Paz Lenchantin and Carla Azar on drums.
It was an evening of tribute, conversation and music.
John C. Reilly dedicated a tender “Kentucky,” the ballad first popularized by the Blue Sky Boys and later immortalized by the Everly Brothers, to Harry Dean’s home state.
Karen O, accompanied by the stellar whistling of Molly Lewis, gave a perfectly understated and powerful performance of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” the hymn Harry Dean so memorably sang in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke.
Kris Kristofferson, the Rhodes Scholar who turned down a literary professorship at West Point to empty ashtrays in a Nashville recording studio, and who worked with Stanton on 1972’s Cisco Pike, was noticeably frail, coming off a bizarre and terrifying misdiagnosis of dementia. But his performance was strong and his songs just as mighty.
Kristofferson sang “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” a song he wrote about watching his idol, Johnny Cash, deteriorate from self-inflicted demons. He sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” his rumination on self-inflicted loneliness, and an allegory for Stanton’s own ethos of suffering for our sins. He sang “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” the monster hit for Sammi Smith and a bona fide contribution to the Great American Songbook, as mariachi fiddles provided the string section and Harry Dean blew harp.
For a night of performances from such a renowned roster, it was local Mariachi Los Reyes who stole the show. Harry Dean was admittedly moved as anyone at the mariachi outfit’s rendition of the habanera, “La Paloma” – the singer’s powerful voice reverberating off the ornate wood paneling and vaulted ceiling – the very sound of Old L.A.
With over 200 credits to his name, Harry Dean Stanton has inhabited many worlds. His craft has shaped film and television stories for over 60 years, gracing indie cult classics like Repo Man, poignant dramas like Paris, Texas and The Straight Story, blockbusters like Alien and Red Dawn, and iconic masterpieces such as Cool Hand Luke and the The Godfather Part II. He’s been a working actor long enough to have played recurring roles on Gunsmoke and Rawhide, shows from a time when the frontier town of Los Angeles was still obsessed with its Old West roots.
But Harry Dean Stanton is more than an actor – he is a balladeer. He emotes stories; he breaks our hearts.
After a humble introduction by David Lynch, the man of the hour took the stage to blow harp and sing, kicking off with Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” accompanied on guitar by Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Depp.
His most heartfelt and powerful performance came when backed by Mariachi Los Reyes on the ranchera standard, “Volver, Volver.” At 90, Harry Dean Stanton’s rich voice carries upon it, through the theater and into the night, all of the pathos and emotion that has infused his work for over 60 years.
Voy camino a la locura
y aunque todo me tortura, sé querer
As at least one speaker observed, there will likely never be a future recipient of the Harry Dean Stanton Award as deserving as its namesake. And fewer still who can boast the naming of an award in one’s honor during one’s lifetime. There remains perhaps no other soul capable of conjuring such homage from such a wealth of talent so manifold, and a love so palpable and pure.