Lexington's Harry Dean Stanton Fest Is a Model for Other Actor-themed Film Festivals

05/27/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016
Andrew Brinkhorst

This year's Harry Dean Stanton Fest in Lexington, Ky., which occurs Friday through Sunday (May 29-31), will be the fifth, and features the director Monte Hellman as guest.

That the festival has lasted this long and even prospered is a tribute to Lucy Jones, who as a member of the Lexington Film League, created it in 2011.

She wanted to honor the great character actor Stanton, who is a Kentucky native with strong Lexington connections. He has been in almost some 90 motion pictures, as well as numerous TV series.

"For me, he has every bit as much star quality as James Dean," Jones said. "There's something about Harry that comes through in every role. There's vulnerability -- a kindness -- that even when he's playing the worst of worst, you see something injured and relatable. I do think that is a measure of his star quality."

Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, a 1966 existential Western starring Jack Nicholson and featuring Stanton, will be shown at Downtown's Kentucky Theater, a restored old movie palace, in its 340-seat small cinema, with the 85-year-old Hellman on hand for a Q&A following the 7 p.m. screening on Sunday.

Also, a Los Angeles gallery called Velveteria: The Museum of Velvet Art has commissioned a show of black-velvet art related to Stanton and Hellman to be displayed in the Kentucky Theater's gallery space.

Other films to be shown at this year’s fest are a drive-in-like drive-in presentation of Hellman’s 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop on Friday at a club called Break Room at Pepper outside Pepper Distillery; 2011’s Rango, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe and 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at the downtown library on Saturday; and Hellman’s 1974 Cockfighter at the library on Sunday afternoon. All are free except Whirlwind, which costs $8. A Saturday night Twin Peaks Homecoming Dance featuring music by Who Killed Laura Palmer? also costs $8.

In championing Stanton, Jones has discovered fertile ground for prospective film festivals looking for an unusual or local angle -- honoring the creative forces that symbolized the breakthrough anti-establishment "New Hollywood" films of the 1960s and 1970s. Stanton, now 88, was in many of that era's independent-minded gems, like Cisco Pike, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Rancho Deluxe, Wise Blood and Hellman's films.

"I think it's only been in the last 15 years that period is getting academic attention," Jones said. "For me, the Peter Biskind book (1998's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) was the entry into that period."

Stanton continued after that era to serve auteurist and hipster directors like David Lynch, Alex Cox, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam and Martin Scorsese, while also working in more commercial fare and on the HBO series "Big Love." Wenders gave Stanton his most important role, a starring one, in 1984's classic Paris, Texas.

Jones already has encouraged film enthusiasts in Louisville to start a Warren Oates Festival in honor of that late actor who often was in movies with Stanton and grew up in and near Louisville.

Jones said Stanton has urged her to feature Hellman. So in 2013, she first brought Ride in the Whirlwind for a screening at a local bistro/bar.

"I had asked (Stanton) what films he would like to show in the future and he asked specifically for Ride in the Whirlwind," Jones said.

Hellman's appearance will be an important and satisfying close to this year's festival. But it will be hard to top the drama of last year, when Stanton, himself, made his first visit to the event held in his honor. He dislikes flying, but came from his home in the Hollywood Hills with Michelle Phillips, his co-star in 1973's Dillinger, the fest's showcase presentation in 2014.

A near-capacity crowd stood, cheered and applauded heartily when Stanton was introduced to them at the Kentucky Theater's 816-seat large cinema. There were old friends and relatives along with younger cinemaphiles in the audience.

Dressed crisply but casually in a black sport coat and burgundy shirt, his dark hair a bit tousled, he waited while Mayor Jim Gray proclaimed Harry Dean Stanton Day. He then tried to make some polite introductory remarks -- he seemed a little bemused to be the subject of an entire ongoing film festival. But almost inadvertently, he plunged into a subject far from the kind of innocuous pleasantries one expects of film-festival guests. However, for the eccentric Stanton, it seemed just right.

"What happens when you die," he asked the crowd. "I think it's black, right? Nothing, right?" He laughed slightly - "Ha, ha" - and continued. "You go to sleep, right? There's a Buddhist saying: 'To think you're an individual with an individual soul is not only an illusion, it's insane." Stanton then addressed the meaninglessness of the concept of an afterlife. "It's frightening, terrifying, but, joyous too."

The crowd took a few seconds to realize this wasn't a goof, a joke - the man was talking life-and-death matters. What to do? Then Stanton helped put everyone out of his or her momentary unease. "I don't know what else to say. We all ought to watch the movie, I guess. Are we ready for it?" The applause renewed.

"Everyone I've talked to since says that was their favorite part," Jones said afterward.

The daughter of horse breeder and former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, she grew up without cable TV but did have a VCR. "It was just sort of me and movies," she said. "I've always loved film and I studied film theory and history in college. I love sharing movies that are important to me with other people."

Now 38, Jones first was drawn to Stanton in 1967's Cool Hand Luke. "My dad had a copy and I would watch it, without having any idea what it was about," she said. "I think Harry Dean probably launched himself into my subconscious."

She also saw him in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, but said her true entry point to Stanton came at age 15 when she saw 1984’s Repo Man at a midnight screening at the Kentucky Theater “and immediately wanted to know everything about him.”

Also, Jones as a youth attended the James Dean Festival at his hometown of Fairmount, Ind., which has a film-screening component. (It occurs this year from Sept. 24-27.)

"I was blown away by the fact an entire community could be built around an actor who everybody relates to. I grew watching a lot of movies, but in a very solitary way. So to see people come from all over world to this tiny town in Indiana to celebrate film and an actor lodged in my subconscious."

Jones basically underwrote the Stanton festival's first year, prepared to lose a modest amount - and she did. She was able to screen a new documentary that Tom Thurman had made for Kentucky Educational Television, Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland and to fly in Hunter Carson from Dallas, the actor who played Stanton's young son in Paris, Texas. Also screened were Cool Hand Luke and 1984's Repo Man.

For 2012, Jones brought in Donnie Fritts, a musician in Kris Kristofferson's band who had a role in 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was screened. And she got the non-profit Downtown Lexington Corporation to fund a free outdoor screening of Pretty in Pink. Repo Man again played, in a club followed by the band Palisades playing its soundtrack live. The downtown library got involved with free screenings of 1978's Straight Time and Crossing Mulholland. Attendance rose considerably and the event was on the way to establishing itself.

For 2013, Crispin Glover was the guest for a sold-out opening-night theatrical screening of 1990's Wild at Heart followed by a Q&A session.

A new documentary, Sophie Huber's Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, screened and was followed by a panel discussion featuring Stanton friends and family. The downtown association funded a free screening of 1984's action film Red Dawn, and the 1968 Mini-skirt Mob played in a club with the band Palisades doing a set of Mod-era rock. The fest grew again and broke even.

For 2014, in addition to Dillinger (and a $60-per-person after-party hosted by Stanton and Phillips), there were a free outdoor screening of Cool Hand Luke, a midnight theatrical screening of Repo Man, and several free showings at the library - 1983's Christine, 1981's Escape from New York and 1976's Missouri Breaks. And at a post Escape party, the band Please Kill Mes (a special version of the Palisades) played early New York punk songs.

Jones raised $5,120 through Indiegogo to bring Stanton and Phillips to town. The festival ended up with a surplus, which was applied to this year.

As far as Jones knows, this is the only annual film festival devoted to a contemporary American actor. There are, or have been, ones dedicated to others -- a Humphrey Bogart fest in Key Largo, a Lillian Gish one in her hometown of Springfield, Ohio; Spencer Tracy in Freeport, Ill., the Dean festival and more.

But the Stanton fest's success opens the door for other festivals dedicated to the individual actors, many still active, who shaped the rebellious, daring films beloved by Boomers -- Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Jane Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, Woody Allen, Al Pacino and more.

Oddly enough, there may yet be another single-actor festival in Lexington -- for native-son Jim Varney, the folksy comedian best known for his character Ernest P. Worrell. He died in 2000.

"I think it would be great," Jones said. "But I wouldn't want to dilute the importance I give to Harry Dean Stanton by working on multiple film festivals. That's for someone else."

For more information about the festival, visit Photo from 2014 festival shows Lucy Jones on left, Michelle Phillips center, Harry Dean Stanton on right. It is by Andrew Brinkhorst and used with his permission. Steven Rosen can be reached at