Spotlight: The Career of Bruce Dern (And Why You Shouldn't Write Off Any Actor Until They're Dead)

This week I saw Alexander Payne's latest film Nebraska, and it got me thinking about a lot of things. First of all, a lot of people my age, and certainly younger than I, aren't really familiar with Dern's long career as an actor, and this column will seek to rectify that by recommending several films in which the actor proved why he was one of the premier character actors of the 1970s. It also stirred up a lot of thoughts surrounding the notion that an actor's career is truly never over until they're no longer able to make films for one reason or another, most notably their death. Until I heard that Dern was going to be starring in Nebraska, I hadn't thought much about what he might be up to, and I certainly never thought he was capable of once more being the subject of awards recognition, and how many other actors have faced a similar paradox. As Yogi Berra once put it so succinctly, "it ain't over 'til it's over."
Bruce Dern started his career, like so many great character actors of the time, by doing journeyman work in television. Beginning in 1960, Dern appeared in no fewer than 30 different big name programs of the day such as The Outer LimitsThe Fugitive, and Gunsmoke. After snagging bit parts in a handful of westerns, his first big break came with a featured role in Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They? It was his work with Bob Rafelson & Bert Schneider's BBS Productions that brought him the two best roles of his early film career in Jack Nicholson's directorial debut Drive, He Said and then opposite Nicholson in Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (both of which, incidentally, are available in Criterion's fantastic boxed set America: Lost & Found, The BBS Story).
Dern proved that he was an electric screen presence, not content to play it safe, and he had an edge to him that was hard to fake. Like my favorite character actor of all time, Robert Mitchum, Dern had a danger to him when you watched him work, and you could tell he had the life experience to back it up. The 70s were Dern's crowning achievement as an actor, turning in memorable performances such as playing Tom Buchanan in the otherwise lackluster adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and as an astronaut in visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull's directorial debut Silent Running.
His best work of the decade would come in two very different films, first as pageant director "Big Bob" Freelander in Michael Ritchie's essential comedic skewering of the pageant world Smile, a film I can't help but watch from beginning to end anytime I catch it on tv. Then came the crowning achievement of his work to that point, his Oscar-nominated performance in Hal Ashby's Best Picture nominee Coming Home. His work as the cuckolded Vietnam veteran Bob Hyde was overshadowed by his Oscar winning co-stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, but Dern shows tremendous range and angst in what could have easily been a throwaway default antagonist role.
The 80s and 90s were a bit of a wilderness period for Dern, as his brand of character actor became obsolete in an era of safe, sanitized Hollywood films. There were two notable exceptions, the first being his turn as Ton Hanks' deranged neighbor in Joe Dante's highly underrated 1989 black comedy The 'Burbs. The second was as the crooked sheriff in Last Man Standing, Walter Hill's inessential re-telling of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. For the most part however, he was underutilized at best, despite working consistently, mostly in bit parts.
The 2000s were a bit kinder to Dern, seeing him taking on more memorable roles in films like All The Pretty Horses and Monster, as well as the HBO series Big Love, though none of those seemed to offer him anything more than a role to honor his stature as a statesman for character actors everywhere. When he turned up in last year's Django Unchained, as the slave master who ordered Django's cheek be branded with a "runaway r", it seemed more like a favor to Dern than the kind of meaty role Tarantino was throwing the way of great 70s actors like Robert Forster & David Carradine. Then came a godsend in the form of Alexander Payne's perpetually in development film Nebraska, a role that had always been intended for Dern.
Dern's performance is amazingly strong and as good as any lead male performance this year, but he faces a predicament not unlike another distinguished older actor from several years ago, Peter O'Toole. In 2006, O'Toole was nominated for his strong but understated work in Venus, but lost to the much flashier but no less powerful Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. O'Toole had been given an Honorary Oscar for his entire career in 2003-- an honor he initially turned down in hopes he would "win the little bugger outright," which alas will never happened now that he's officially retired from acting-- but his eight career nominations and zero wins speaks to a larger problem in the Academy. There are far too many politics involved in the voting, and he lost his first go around in 1962 for Lawrence of Arabia since everyone naturally figured he'd have another shot at one in the future. He lost to his contemporaries such as Cliff Robertson and Ben Kingsley at future ceremonies, but his loss to John Wayne in 1969 points directly at this problem. The Academy gave Wayne the Oscar because he was a statesman of the profession, and not because his work in True Grit was better than O'Toole's in Goodbye Mr. Chips and especially Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy, but he won because he was due.
This feeling pervaded the Academy for many years, bestowing Oscars upon James Coburn for Affliction, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, and countless others simply because they hadn't been recognized yet. This honor eluded such performances as Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Albert Finney in Erin Brockovich, but those days are all but gone now. Therefore it seems that Dern will likely be consigned to also-ran status when he loses to the flashier work of Chiwetel Ejiofor or Matthew McConaughey (both of whom are fantastic and deserving, but have much showier roles than Dern's). If the 2008 Best Actor race taught us anything, it's that the Academy favors flash (Sean Penn in Milk) over subtlety (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler).
The most heartening thing about this year's Best Actor race, however, is that it prominently features two names that most thought would never be in an Oscar race again. In addition to Dern, a lot of talk has been swirling around Robert Redford's solo performance in JC Chandor's All is Lost. This performance is even further out of field than Dern's because Redford, despite a Best Actor nomination 40 years ago for The Sting and a directing Oscar for 1980's Ordinary People, never really ranks among actors that people talk about with great reverence. Redford is certainly an ambassador for the profession and his Sundance Film Festival has had an undeniable impact on the world of independent filmmaking, but he's not exactly someone that people mention as being a great actor. He's a great movie star, that much is not up for debate, but his acting abilities have never really been all that revered or talked about.
However here are Redford and Dern, both 77 years of age, and both in the middle of their first Oscar race in decades (which, as my friend Meagan astutely pointed out, is a revival of their Gatsby/Tom Buchanan rivalry). History says that neither man is likely to win, but it's important that we not forget about actors like Dern and Redford because as long as they're alive and making movies, they can surprise us and work their way back into the Oscar race at any moment. I hate to say we shouldn't write off any actor until they're dead, but it's true (and James Gandolfini's buzz in this year's Supporting Actor race shows that maybe even death isn't enough to discount an actor's chances at awards season glory). If nothing else, I'm happy that people are talking about Bruce Dern again, and maybe seeking out his early work because he is a fantastic actor that demands your attention.
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