It’s so frequent that we get bad news about favorite actors, authors, writers dying that when someone whose work we love suffers a close call we seem to forget quickly — there’s always someone else who needs mourning right around the corner. But why not celebrate these close calls? As scary as they are, we know the ending and the hero wins. Eighteen years ago the gloriously rumpled actor/singer Harry Dean Stanton went through such an experience, and it’s a great gift to all of us that we still have him around.
It was a January day in 1996 that Stanton’s Mullholland Drive home was invaded. He was beaten and pistol-whipped while his home was burglarized, and his car was stolen (and later crashed). Stanton faced the horror with his usual combination of spiritual aplomb and a moderate level of macho, but not too much to be unable to show awareness, sensitivity (in this case, fear) and emotion.
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This same combination is in full flower in Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974), available free via FilmOn’s on demand service. The film is essentially a Warren Oates vehicle (and Stanton’s friend and fellow Kentuckian is great here).
Oates’ character is the lead and is willingly mute for much of the film, allowing Stanton to toss off many of the film’s best lines in this subtly surprising and always fascinating post-Easy Rider look at a micro-culture of the ‘70’s deep South. Based on the book by the great crime fiction writer Charles Willefored, it of course looks at the rooster fighting. The near-wordlessness of Oates in Cockfighter also must have come to Stanton’s mind in his later iconic performance in Wim Wenders’ 1984 Paris, Texas).
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Still this film contains the biggest manifestation of Harry’s flamboyant side I have seen on the screen. In his sartorial splendor it is obvious how this man could get with Debbie Harry, Natassja Kinski, Rebecca De Mornay and Sophie Huber (maker of his recent biographical documentary Partly Fiction).
Cockfighter was Monte Hellman’s first film after his iconic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and marked his return to Roger Corman’s production house. Unfortunately for all involved, the film was a flop, “one of only two I’ve produced,” according to Corman at the time. The film may have fallen between two camps – the subject matter may have turned off the pacifist, liberal post-hippie audience while the lack of over-the top violence turned off the action/exploitation crowd – and in the ‘70s, word-of-mouth could be killer.
The rest of the cast is also not-to-be-missed. The late Laurie Bird expands on her tag-along role in Two Lane, and presages her role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Steve Railsback makes a brief sophomore screen appearance, his suave, unpredictable presence explaining why he would soon be chosen to play Charlie Manson in Helter Skelter (1976) as well as the title role opposite Peter O’Toole in Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stunt Man.
Ed Begley, Jr. (who was Stanton’s main companion in the immediate aftermath of the home invasion) makes an early big-screen appearance as an over-wrought young rooster owner, Richard Shull (Holmes and Yo-yo, Lou Grant, Splash!) contributes to the surprising sweetness of the film, while Robert Earl Jones (brother of James Earl, just off The Sting) should have gotten a spin-off of his own.
Michael Franks delivers a wonderful, bluegrass mandolin-inflected score, a couple of years before his track “Popsicle Toes” would propel him on a course to be vilified as an example of mid-eighties yuppie music (The track itself features Crusaders Wilton Felder, Joe Sample and Larry Carlton). There was admirable taste there to begin with, as Harry Dean Stanton would be the first to admit.
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