Actors seem to have a nomad public life. Since there’s no more Studio System, they are left with their own public persona to keep them alive and busy. When they are in their Prime, they get calls from their agents with 5 to 10 projects and they can choose which one they want to be involved with, but when they’re not, they either take what comes, whatever it is, or simply find something else to do. Bruce Dern’s extraordinary performance in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ is not the first job he’s had in ages, as some may think. In fact, he hasn’t stopped working, mostly in supporting roles; some of them very generic and not too showy in films like Joe Dante’s ‘The Hole’, Coppola’s ‘Twixt’, Patty Jenkin's 'Monster',and even Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’.
To younger generations, he’s been just a face in the crowd, and some may even know him because is the father of actress Laura Dern. But the Best Actor prize in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival reminded Hollywood of this excellent and forgotten actor who’s been in the business for quite some time. His first uncredited work was in 1960 and had to learn to adjust to different techniques of production during the very changing 70’s, as he worked for Hitchcock and Roger Corman and also shared the screen with legendary Bette Davis in ‘Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte’.
Back in the 70’s it was the peak of his acting career, displaying works for Walter hill in ‘The Driver’, Sidney Pollack in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t they?’, Hal Ashby in ‘Coming Home’ and Bob Rafelson in 'The King of Marvin Gardens', before he started to fly low for three decades.
Suddenly, 2013/14 has become his resurgence. ‘Nebraska’ is the best performance of his career, and his agent is calling him again with some interesting characters in future films.
Sometimes, an excellent actor gets swallowed in the non-stop celebrity machine, and if they’re lucky, they’ll run into a film that will put them back where they belong. Bruce Dern, an actor, more than a celebrity, is back for good.
Here’s a list of his most distinguished performances in a 50-year plus career.
(2013) Directed by Alexander Payne Woody is an aging booze-addicted everyday man who suddenly gets the stubborn urge to walk to Nebraska and get a million dollars he won in one of those mail mega sweepstake-marketing scams. There’s no use in trying to convince him otherwise, he will go on no matter how many times you bring him back home to his dirty-mouthed wife and a stale life. A role like this requires an actor who can vanish into the common details of life, an actor who is not a star (Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Robert Forster were considered for the role), and so Bruce Dern ended up becoming this quiet, strong-willed and immensely human Woody.
For a full review of Payne's Oscar Nominated film, please click on the following link:
(1978) Directed by Hal Ashby This was Bruce Dern other Oscar nomination, as Captain Bob Hyde, Jane Fonda’s husband who was lost in the Vietnam war and returned home to a terrible dual realization: that his wife is having an affair with another Vietnam veteran, and that his traumatic experience has alienated him to a breaking point.
(1976) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock For Hitchcock’s last film, Dern plays a simple minded man that, with the help of his manipulative girlfriend, plan to steal money from old rich women. Because of the light nature of this suspense-comedy, Hitchcock did not want a typical “Hero” but an everyday man who deals with a complicated story, and Dern fit the bill perfectly.
(1978) Directed by Walter Hill Dern plays a self-assured detective going after Ryan O’Neal, a “Driver” who specializes in robbery getaways, and is tricked by a very clever Isabelle Adjani (“The Player”). This was a very physical performance that required numerous stunts for the car chase sequences, which had become a sub-genre in the 70’s thanks to Steve McQueen, for whom the film had originally been written.
The King of Marvin Gardens
(1972) Directed by Bob Rafelson Dern plays Jason Staebler, an extroverted con man who drags his brother David (Jack Nicholson) and his bitter aging beauty queen girl friend Sally (Ellen Burstyn) to Atlantic City for yet another scam that will eventually spiral to tragedy.
(1972) Directed by Douglas Trumbull Back when science fiction reflected current social concerns, Trumbull created this dystopian story about botanist Freeman Lowell taking care of the last botanical garden kept in a spacecraft. When word comes in that the ship is to be destroyed and the crew will return to Earth, Freeman rebels siding with plants instead of humans. This is one of the loneliest performances by Dern.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
(1969) Directed by Sidney Pollack Even if this is not one of his most relevant characters, the film itself seems to blend all the characters into the delusions of humanity as they engage in dancing marathons for the entertainment of an unknown mass of American in the midst of financial (and spiritual) crisis. Dern is one of the marathon dancers, leaving all hints of human traits behind as he runs desperately to win the contest.
(1977) Directed by John Frankenheimer The 70’s also brought the terrorist neurosis around the world and Hollywood was ready to cash in this mass frenzy with action films. One of the most alienating was this Frankenheimer’s film, filled with international stars, about terrorist organization Black September’s plan to attack American soil. In the core, there is the story of Michael Lander (Dern) whose traumatic life as a freed and tortured prisoner in Vietnam and a failed marriage takes him to a Kamikaze mission, completely alienated by Dahlia Lyad (Marthe Keller), an operative of the Black September group.
The Great Gatsby
(1974) Directed by Jack Clayton As millionaire Tom Buchanan, whose wife Daisy is the object of Jay Gatsby’s desires, Bruce Dern continued specializing in unlikable characters, being Robert Redford’s nemesis. For his role in this sumptuous Bob Evans production, Dern was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor.
(1970) Directed by Roger Corman A typical B-film from the Roger Corman factory, this was a violent film about the infamous Ma Baker and her equally deranged sons, as they spread crime during the depression era. Dern plays Fred Baker’s cell mate/lover who comes home to be part of the clan, sleeping with Ma and stir things up more.