Monday, December 9, 2013

IFI Head of Programming Michael Hayden discusses the career of Bruce Dern to coincide with a focus on his work and his new film, Nebraska

In The Wild Angels (1966), Roger Corman’s brash precursor to Easy Rider, Bruce Dern plays a character called Loser, a rebellious biker in a gang of swastika sporting Hells Angels. He’s dead inside the first 30 minutes of the film, a victim of The Man, of course. When Loser’s funeral becomes an anarchic happening inside a church, his corpse is dragged out of its coffin and passed around the party like a leather jacketed rag doll, fags and booze put in its mouth. It is some credit to Dern that he can command a screen he shares with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra while playing dead meat.

(The Driver)

Much of the press that has greeted Dern’s great performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska has focussed on how underrated he has been as an actor, and it’s true that the only significant recognition he has had prior to the Best Actor award at Cannes this year, a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Coming Home in 1979, seems meagre reward for a career as enduring and distinctive as his. It’s likely this has something to do with the roles that he’s most famous for, characters characterised as “wackos and sickos” by David Letterman in an interview, more poetically described by Dern himself as guys who “live just beyond where the buses run”, though neither description does justice to the variety of his roles he has taken. He has been cowboys, cops and criminals, soldiers and swindlers, straight men and fall guys. Dern appeared in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), though it was in TV and with Roger Corman’s low budget gems where he really cut his chops, emerging from the Corman stable alongside the likes of Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson into a cynical 1970s Hollywood and a generation of filmmakers who were far from happy with the status quo. He worked with Nicholson on Drive, He Said (1971) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and is particularly brilliant as the bunco artist failing to convince his brother to come in on a dodgy deal in the later of these two BBS productions. Silent Running (1972) became a platform for cult hero worship rather than further leading roles, and he became defined as a character actor, playing opposite the genuine movie stars of the period; Nicholson, Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974), Ryan O’Neal in The Driver (1978). Coming Home and the Oscar nomination were expected to be another stepping stone to bigger roles, and while these never materialised, he never stopped working, and by the 1990s, a younger generation of filmmakers were casting him with due reverence. His performance in James Foley’s underrated Jim Thompson adaptation After Dark, My Sweet (1990) is pitch perfect, sleazy and outsmarted, a character less clever than he thinks he is; playing an alcoholic vet willing to give serial killer Aileen Wuornos (as portrayed by Charlize Theron) the time of day in Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003), he emerges from the film as its one unambiguously sympathetic character; and he’s along for the ride in Quentin Tarantino’s slavery romp Django Unchained (2012).

(The King of Marvin Gardens)

Tarantino recently referred to Dern as a “national treasure”, and his appearance in two of the year’s key releases, as well as all the seasonal awards buzz around Nebraska, give that claim credibility. Notoriously, Dern was the only actor to have killed John Wayne on screen, shooting Wayne in the back in The Cowboys (1972). After that film, Dern received death threats. It seems that enough time has passed and now Hollywood can forgive him for messing with The Duke.


Michael Hayden
IFI Head of Programming

A focus on Bruce Dern's career runs at the IFI from December 14th to 22nd. His latest film, Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne) is currently showing.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Bruce Dern talking about show business., about acting. I live in the Dallas, Texas area. There is a yearly horror convention in Dallas called Texas Frightmare.I believe the convention promoters are trying o get Bruce Dern to do a lecture and sign autographs at the next convention.I'll sign up to listen to and meet this wonderful seasoned actor anytime!