Bruce Dern is Back!
By John H. Foote
In the seventies Bruce Dern was among the most reliable character actors at work, giving an array of performances that should have landed him at least one Oscar for Best Actor and another for Supporting Actor. Add to that another nomination for supporting actor and you begin to see his worth as an actor through this incredible decade of cinema. Best friends with Jack Nicholson the two came up through the biker films of the sixties, and the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, though of course Nicholson became the bigger star. Their film together The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is a superb study of two brothers in a relationship that is spiralling out of control because of the actions of one of them. A rough little gem in the landscape of seventies cinema, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is worth a look by anyone who enjoys cinema and great acting.
When he shot John Wayne dead in The Cowboys (1972), Dern was forever thought of as a “crazy”, meaning the thinking was in the film business, he was best in role where he was required to be a nut. How sad that this great actor was reduced to such a stereotype when in fact he was among the elite of his generation. In the last few years he has been present in films such as Monster (2003) with Charlize Theron and on HBO’s Big Love as Paxton’s father, but sadly the business has not been kind to Bruce Dern.
When Oscar winner Alexander Payne began looking for an older actor to portray the lead in his new film Nebraska, he looked at the usual suspects, Gene Hackman who refused to come out retirement to play the plum part, Jack Nicholson, whom Payne guided to an Oscar nomination in About Schmidt (2002), Nick Nolte, and Christopher Walken. Finally he decided on Dern because he was “a fan of the actor in the seventies and wanted to see what he could do with the part” and “Dern is a helluva of a nice guy”. So Bruce Dern lands the lead in an Alexander Payne film, meaning he lands the top role in one of the years most important films. Perfect, because this means an entire new generation of film fans and new critics will be exposed to the work of Dern, and it just might cause them to go back and look at his work in the seventies and into the eighties. Remember my motto, every film you have not seen is a new film. Do not cheat yourself of the experience.
His finest performance came as Captain Bob Hyde in Hal Ashby’s haunting Coming Home (1978) in which he portrays a gung ho marine who goes to Viet Nam and discovers the war is not what he had hoped it would be. Injuring himself to come home, he finds that he has been betrayed by his wife, his country and himself. Dern gives an extraordinary performance in the film, but it was Jon Voight and Jane Fonda who went on to Oscar wins. While receiving the only nomination of his career, the actor watched Christopher Walken win for The Deer Hunter (1978).
The year previous Dern could have won for his terrifying performance as Michael J. Lander in Black Sunday (1977) one of those great buried treasures of the seventies. As a former prisoner of war, angry at his country for leaving him a POW he joins a terrorist group, Black September, and plans to help them bomb the Super Bowl using the Goodyear blimp. The performance called for Dern to move through various different emotions, and what is astounding about the performance is that despite the fact this man wants to do an evil thing, we feel for him. His breakdown when learning the mission might be cancelled is heartbreaking, yet we are always aware of just how dangerous he is.
And of course Dern stole The Great Gatsby (1974) right from under the noses of its stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, with his superb performance as Tom, husband of Daisy, in love with Gatsby. A rich blow hard who gets what he wants through money, Dern brought something sinister to the role, something knowing, though he missed the fact Gatsby was a gangster and could do him harm. His lie is what leads to Gatsby’s doom, and at the end of the film we can see it means nothing to him. For this one he deserved an Oscar nomination that did not come, and a recent viewing of the film in anticipation of the new version this May made it clear to me Dern’s work holds up.
All of his great work holds up, which is why I am so excited about Nebraska.
I think of him in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), The Cowboys (1972), The Laughing Policeman (1973), Smile (1975), or Middle Age Crazy (1980) and I smile at the immense enjoyment his work gave me when I was younger.
Here is a chance for this great actor to be found again, for his work to be celebrated and experienced by those who have never seen it. To recognize that he is so much more than Laura Dern’s dad.
If Nebraska is what the other films from Alexander Payne have been, Dern will land himself in the best Actor category next year. Payne has never disappointed and in fact has given us some of the best films of the last twenty years. Election (1999) was superbly caustic and nasty, About Schmidt (2002) a fine and sobering study of what it is to grow old knowing you have not done much with your life, Sideways (2004) was the finest American comedy since Tootsie (1982) and The Descendants(2011) was the best film I saw last year and frankly George Clooney was robbed of an Oscar for Best Actor.
Perhaps Dern will be standing in the winners circle next year.