Bruce Dern: Breaking from the Pack

by Glenn Lovell

The best actors, metaphorically speaking, are long-distance runners. They possess stamina, staying power. They start out in juicy character parts, surge to the front in starring roles in their 30s, then finish out the race in critically acclaimed supporting turns. Melvyn Douglas was such an actor; Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson also fit that description.

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Dern

Bruce Dern, however, may have run the smartest race of all. The 77-year-old actor, who in recent years seemed to be fading in the homestretch, is now having the last laugh. He expanded his chest, made a lunge for the tape, and came in first at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Best Actor prize for his performance in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.”

Not surprisingly, Dern, a decent half-miler in college, has always been a runner. It’s an addiction, he says. Even today he can be seen chugging along Malibu trails. Locals call him “Crazy Bruce.” He twitted, “I’ve been running thousands of miles and am so bored with people who shout, ‘Watch your heart,’ and then drive on.”

The half-mile is the perfect metaphor for Dern’s long career. The runners clump together during the first lap, and then, if one runner has the heart, he pulls away from the pack.

Consider Dern’s body of work. He made his screen debut (well, mostly the back of his head) in 1960 in Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” and died famously in Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and Robert Aldrich’s “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” After six years of AIP quickies (“Wild Angeles,” “Psych-Out,” “The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant”), he, at long last, was given more sympathetic roles: a marathon dancer in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” a basketball coach in “Drive, He Said,” and Tom Buchanan, the rich playboy in the 1974 “Great Gatsby.”

In 1972, he returned to villainy, memorably. He shot Duke Wayne in the back in “The Cowboys.” Asked how it felt to off the screen icon, he chortled, “They may have booed me in Orange County, but they cheered me in Berkeley.”

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Betrayed in “Coming Home”?

The same year he had his first bona fide lead, as the astronaut-botanist in “Silent Running.” This led to leads in Hitchcock’s last film, “Family Plot,” John Frankenheimer’s “Black Sunday,” Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home,” and, personal favorites, Bob Rafelson’s “King of Marvin Gardens” and Michael Ritchie’s “Smile.” I met Dern for the first time during the Chicago junket for “Coming Home,” which co-starred Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Fonda and Voight took shots at their co-star because he defended his character, a Marine captain who feels betrayed by wife and country and eventually loses it. Dern wanted the character to go out in a blaze of glory (as he does in the script). Ashby shot a more melancholic ending, an ocean suicide a la “A Star is Born.” All three actors were nominated for Oscars. Fonda and Voight won; Dern didn’t.

Dern’s stint at the top lasted about four years. He was never considered bankable, especially after appearing in such bombs as “Middle Age Crazy” and “Tattoo.” He rode out the ’80s and ’90s in character parts, the best being the obsessed runner in “On the Edge” and the conniving Uncle Bud in “After Dark, My Sweet.” These roles should have netted him second and third Oscar nominations. They didn’t because nobody saw the films. Consigned mostly to crotchety neighbor roles and glorified cameos in recent years ‒ he’s in “Monster” and “Django Unchained” ‒ Dern joked that he was best known for being Laura Dern’s father. He’s the motormouth sheriff who moonlights as a writer in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Twixt.” It’s one of his cagiest performances. The film, now on VOD, went unnoticed.

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Resurrected in “Nebraska”

And then, miraculously, along came “Nebraska,” starring Dern as the grizzled, at times vacant Woody Grant, who hits the road with his son (SNL’s Will Forte) to cash in what he thinks is a winning sweepstakes number. Dern calls the film (opening Friday) “the best role I’ve ever had” and his best buddy movie since teaming with Nicholson in “Marvin Gardens.”

Will it make him another late-in-life Oscar-winner, like Alan Arkin and Jack Palance? That would be nice, but Dern isn’t slowing down for the laurel. He’s in it for the long haul. He won’t stop acting, or running. Some days you feel the burn, some days you cramp up. His next release: “Coffin Baby” (aka as “Toolbox Murders 2”).

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