There are moments in Bruce Dern’s performance in Nebraska that express the regret of a life lived according to the expectation of others. Dern, a lifelong student of life and acting, doesn’t give it to you all at once. He doesn’t explode so much as he smolders. Watch him in this scene – all of the funny is on June Squibb. Every time she tosses a dagger at her husband he takes it. He braces himself as best as he can and he takes it. He is at a point where the empty space gets bigger inside the mind so you might as well let someone else fill it up. He’s not mentally up to fighting her anymore. He figures, why argue. Just let the hail stones rain down.
This is what a trained and experienced actor can do — and it’s something we don’t see enough on the big screen anymore. We value the angry flare ups and flashes of and emotion far more than we do careful exploration of character.
Dern isn’t an actor whose greatness we notice right off. It takes a while of careful examination of his career to see what kind of brilliance is at work within. The first glimpse I really got of Dern was during last year’s press tour for Django Unchained when Quentin Tarantino said that he spent an hour and a half talking to Dern about the character he was playing. For such a small part it seemed excessive but it made me think about the kind of actor who would go to such lengths to prepare. An actor who values the work, no matter how big the part.
This year, Dern is up for Best Actor for the first time in his long career. He already has one nomination behind him, for Coming Home. There has been some talk that his part in Nebraska is could be called supporting and how he should go for that category and win in a walk. But Dern’s Woody Grant is the lead by any reasonable definition. His son, Will Forte, is there to support what his father is going through. Nebraska is about Woody. It is one of the best performances of the year.
The chance to interview Dern (lunch at Musso and Frank’s no less) has to be one of the high water marks of my so-called career. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined lunch there, with Bruce Dern. But Dern’s role of a lifetime has come at last to the actor, now in his 77th year. His Woody in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska finally gives Dern the chance to showcase what he can do. He fills the screen with the vacant present Woody tries to define as he pulls out his rumpled promise from Publisher’s Clearinghouse — fake money he believes is real. We want to believe it so badly for him. Underneath his lost expression somewhere is the Woody that knows it isn’t real. In some ways he’s testing those around him, testing the fates, testing himself to prove it.
Behind his eyes, behind the way he slouches, the way he spits out sentences he sometimes doesn’t even mean, whole worlds emerge. Dern’s Woody is a slouched compilation of a life led to its end, with dreams deferred, with erotic memory of “screwing” his wife to make babies he didn’t even know he wanted. The tiny moments in our life we think will pass in the blink of an eye, never to be thought of again, are instead what our define our life. One fuck in the backseat of a car that makes a baby, a marriage, a family, a history. As we head towards the end and we remember those tiny moments it seems as though you could almost reach out erase them, redo them to fit the life you really wanted. But we all discover at some point that we could no more control them then as we can control them now.
Payne’s lonely, beautiful Nebraskan landscape huddles under the cold flatness without offering much to its residents in return. Woody’s “wonderful life” turns out less to be about the millions that might finally prove he was worthy of reward, and more about something else entirely: an acknowledgment of those dreams of greatness.
Musso and Frank’s still sits in its rightful place on Hollywood Boulevard, flanked by rowdy bars, pussycat lingerie shops and the hum of tourists from all over the world who still come to this street because they think Hollywood is really on the Boulevard. The early morning hour — more noonish, as it happened — shone a light on those trampled street corners, with the stars lacquered to the sidewalk beneath your feet. Is it still the boulevard of dreams or is it just a way to remember the names of people who mattered.
Dern sat with an assistant in the mostly empty restaurant, its deep red booths seeming to slump under the weight of layers of unseen Hollywood history. He had a coke in front of him. I said hello and sat down. His assistant evaporated and it was just us. I was face to face, one on one with Bruce Dern, trying to appear semi-normal. The actor put me at ease immediately by talking about old Hollywood.
Dern comes from a town outside Chicago called Glencoe, Illinois. It was an interesting family. His uncle was Archibald MacLeish, his godmother was Eleanor Roosevelt. His grandfather was one of the first non-Mormon governors of Utah and later became First Secretary of War under Roosevelt. His grandmother’s roommate in college was Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Dern was a well known runner in high school. “I never lost in high school. I never won in college,” he says of his aspirations to become a professional runner. When he couldn’t get on the US Olympic team he quit college as a sophomore, went to
Philadelphia and began to study acting. “I was driving an ice cream truck, I married a girl.” While studying acting in Philadelphia he realized that if he wanted to be an actor there were three things you had to be. “You had to go to New York, you had to try to get into the Actors Studio, and you had to work for Mr. Kazan.”
It wasn’t long before Dern had accomplished all three of those things. He was one of the most promising students at the Actors Studio. During much of his early years at the Studio, Dern was only allowed to do scenes with no dialogue — learning to simply react, feel and look. He did that for ten months before he was even allowed to say a word. “They trained my instrument so I could respond with honest feelings,” he said, then added, “It sounds kind of corny.”
One day while his team was playing baseball — apparently every actor doing New York theater or studying at the Actors Studio was on a team and those teams played baseball against each other. “The Broadway Show League,” it was called. “It’s the stagehands, basically, who are from the theater that you’re in, who are the really good baseball players.” Dern, who has a meticulous memory for recalling names described the various teams, “Circle in the Square had a team — George C. Scott was their pitcher.” On his team? Paul Newman was his first baseman. Elliot Gould was his catcher. Joey Walsh was his shortstop. He played with Jack Nicholson at one point before it all went under in the 1970s.
Dern, of course, was great as a ballplayer but one day on the field Lee Strasberg said “What are you still doing here Bruce?” Dern answered, “I’m driving a cab.” Strasberg said, “Well Gadg and I think it’s time you go.” Gadg was the nickname for Elia Kazan. “You’ve been with us. You understand what it is. You’ve done a couple of Broadway plays. You’ve starred in a play off Broadway. And it’s time for you to go out and make a living.”
“When you go out there,” Kazan told him, “No one’s really going to appreciate what you’ll be able to do. So understand, because you’re not an obvious leading man, you probably never will be. So understand it’s going to be an endurance contest. You’re going to be there a long time. So just ride with it. You’ll do a lot westerns cause that’s what’s there. You’ll be the second or third cowboy from the right,” then he grabbed Dern by the lapel and he said, “Just make sure you’re the most interesting, unique second fucking cowboy from the right. And you’re only going to get two lines to do it.”
Dern finishes the story with, “So that’s how I arrived in Hollywood.”
Dern is the kind of storyteller you can listen to for hours because not only has he done it all, seen it all and emerged from it all an actor who has surpassed the endurance test he was challenged by all of those years ago, but he’s so engaging and funny you never want him to stop.
The idea that he’d never be a leading man shadowed his acting career for decades. He tells one emotional story about being on the set of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They and there were some rumblings about replacing the film’s lead. Sidney Pollock, the film’s director, approached Dern about it, “I’ve talked to Redford, I’ve talked to Beatty and they don’t want to do it. Do you know anybody? You know actors from the Actors Studio, you see them all the time.” Dern pauses and says, “Tears started coming to my eyes. I said, ‘Sydney, you’re looking at him.’ And he said, ‘but no one will ever think of you as a leading man.’”
Dern did finally get the chance to play the lead in the Douglas Trumball film Silent Running, which has become a cult classic over the years. Here is an early video of the making of that film, featuring Dern talking about the role:
“Take a longer look at what’s around you. Don’t do what Thomas Wolfe said, don’t NOT go home again. Go home again. See who you are. See where you came from. See the community. And make sure you have someone in your life that is old and is starting to run down the hill a little bit. Make sure you sit down with them and tell them exactly what you feel about your relationship with them. Good or bad. And give them the best — the only — medicine in the world for every one one of us that can right anything. It can’t cure it but it can make it better and that’s a hug. Hold the people in your life. Let them know that you’re there.”
Dern thinks about it for a minute, knowing that with all people, in our major and minor life stories, some things still linger. “If you’re angry, let them know that too,” he said. “I didn’t. I spent the rest of my life beating myself up because I never said to my parents what I really wanted to say. I didn’t have the courage. What Nebraska says is that family units have courage when they pull together.”
The interview was over, our shrimp cocktails finished. Dern had a couple of phone calls to attend to, journalists from overseas. I stood up to say goodbye and he offered me his hand. But I hugged him. How could I not.
Musso and Frank’s dim lights and comfortable atmosphere vanished the moment I stepped out onto the boulevard of dreams. I stepped on the names of people who came and went, with these concrete stars to record their having been there.
Who could not be impressed with Dern, who has gone fifty years before finding such a great leading role to sink his teeth into. His career really did turn out to be an endurance test, as Kazan foretold. He did turn out to be the most interesting fucking second cowboy from the left. But he’s become so much more — a bright light doing his best work as an actor at a time when many of his contemporaries have shut things down.
Dern’s head is filled with memories and those memories have been shaped into wonderful stories. There isn’t a blank space to be had. His Woody has emptied out his thoughts so that the only thing he needs to fill up inside are new thoughts, good thoughts of dreams fulfilled. To play Woody, Dern found that part of himself that yearned for something more — big things, great things, small things, insignificant things. He didn’t turn around and realize what a great life he really did have. But he has someone who cared enough about him to help him fill those empty spaces with sweet dreams.