'Nebraska' is Bruce Dern's role of a lifetime

After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, a cantankerous father (Bruce Dern) thinks he's struck it rich in "Nebraska." Photo Credit: Handout

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The actor's actor Bruce Dern says he's proud of all the movies he's made. "Probably 'Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood' is not my favorite," he said of the infamous 1976 comedy. "But it was fun making it."

Dern's more-than-five-decade career has seen him through roles on such antediluvian TV series as "Surfside Six" and "Stoney Burke," Roger Corman biker movies, low-budget Westerns, cult classics ("King of Marvin Gardens") no-longer-unthinkable terrorist thrillers (in "Black Sunday," he played a deranged blimp pilot planning to bomb the Super Bowl).

 

A respected actor

For a long time, he was known, sort of, as The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: In "The Cowboys" (1972) he killed John Wayne, no mean feat. But what also had happened, with films like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), "The Great Gatsby" (1974) and his Oscar-nominated performance in "Coming Home" (1978) was people waking up to the great actor in Bruce Dern. Which meant more respect, if not more starring roles. Until now.

"Nebraska," directed by Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways") from an original screenplay by Bob Nelson, won Dern the best actor prize at Cannes this year, and it would seem to have him in contention for the best actor Oscar in 2014. In the film, which opens Friday, Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic with progressive dementia who gets a Publisher's Clearinghouse-style come-on in the mail, telling him he's won (maybe) a million dollars. He insists on walking to Lincoln, Neb., to collect -- he lives 750 miles away in Billings, Mont. Against the objections of his acidic wife, Kate (June Squibb), his son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive. What commences is a Midwestern odyssey, with jokes.

"The reward of 'Nebraska' and the part Alexander gave me is that it's a level I've not been at before," said Dern, 77. "And, like I say in the movie, it's getting late, I'm running out of time -- not that I'm running out of 'life' time, but out of roles for people my age, certainly ones that are like this role. Which is why it seemed to come along at a perfect point in my life."

The people of "Nebraska," which is shot in widescreen black and white, are less salt-of-the-earth than salt-and-vinegar: Kate is a tart-tongued hellion. Her scene at the family cemetery alone puts the lie to the "niceness" of the Midwest, something Omaha native Payne has been playing with for years (in "Election," for instance," and "Citizen Ruth," which starred Dern's daughter, Laura).

"I had someone very specific in mind," said screenwriter Bob (not the Long Island comedian) Nelson, whose script took 10 years to hit the screen. "She's just someone who has no filter and says whatever comes to her mind. It was like almost taking dictation."

Squibb, who is from southern Illinois and played Jack Nicholson's wife in Payne's "About Schmidt" (2002), said she loved her character. However ...

"I didn't think of it before, but when I saw the film, I said, 'Oh, my goodness, that's my mother,'" she said. "There's a lot of her in Kate Grant. She would be thrilled that a part of her is on-screen, but I don't know now how happy she'd be seeing what kind of woman she was."

 

Based on writer's dad

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But Kate is, to a great deal, the result of being married to Woody, who Nelson said was modeled largely on his Nebraska father. Dern makes him an endearing, frustrating and occasionally infuriating figure, a mix of issues that are partly his fault and partly not. Dern "understood the laconic nature of Woody," Payne said. He's ornery, but "with a real sweetness underneath."

Dern gives much credit to Payne and his collaborative style.

"I have worked for several directors; only three have I worked with," Dern said, referring to Elia Kazan, with whom he worked at the Actor's Studio in the '50s; Alfred Hitchcock, who directed him in "Marnie" (1964) and "Family Plot" (1976); and Payne.

"I was with Quentin, but only for three hours," he said of "Django Unchained" and Quentin Tarantino. "I was with Francis in 'Twixt,' but nobody got a chance to see the movie. I was also with Doug Trumbull," he said of the director and visual-effects guru ("2001," "Close Encounters"), "but I didn't understand what he was doing. I was a very young man and had to go back and forth between his movie and 'The Cowboys.' So, can you imagine doing that and two days later killing John Wayne?"

We all have careers that go one way or another, Dern said. "I knew when I got in the business that it was a marathon, and I don't think I'm finishing the marathon with this role -- I'm at mile 21; I still have five miles to go. One of the sad things about getting the role is the drop off of the people who could have done this, who didn't make it to 77 years old, who I started with in this business. That's sad."

At the same time, he said, "I was overjoyed that this man believed in me enough that he thought I could help make 'Nebraska' a better movie."

 

'Being private in public'

Bruce Dern has long been a much-respected performer, especially among actors who recognize his devotion to craft. "Learning how to act is the hardest thing in the world," he said in a recent interview. "Acting is not hard." The difficult thing a would-be performer needs to understand is that the art requires "being private in public." If you can't, or won't, Dern says, you may as well go home. The following are a few examples of Dern practicing what he preaches.

THE WILD ANGELS (1966) Roger Corman, with whom Dern was long associated, directed this seminal "outlaw biker" potboiler, portraying a character known as The Loser and playing opposite Peter Fonda, whose stardom deeply depressed Dern because Fonda "couldn't act."

THE COWBOYS (1972) John Wayne takes a gang of actual cowboys on a cattle drive in this 1972 shoot-'em-up that featured Dern as the psychotic "Long Hair" Watts, leader of a group of cattle rustlers and of the few characters to ever kill the Duke on-screen. "America will hate you for this," Wayne reportedly warned Dern. The younger actor's alleged reply: "Yeah, but they'll love me in Berkeley."

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) It's been observed more than once that Jack ("The Innocents") Clayton's adaptation of the Fitzgerald classic would have been a better movie -- or at least a more interesting one -- had Dern, rather than Robert Redford, played the title role. As it was, Dern portrayed the brutal Tom Buchanan -- husband to Gatsby's obsession, Daisy Buchanan -- and breathed some nasty life into an inert production.

COMING HOME (1978) Dern got an Oscar nomination for portraying the hawkish, cuckolded Marine officer Bob Hyde, who returns home to find that his wife (Jane Fonda) has had an affair with a disabled Vietnam vet (Jon Voight). The symbolism is pretty transparent in this Hal Ashby-directed drama, but the acting is first-rate.

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (1982) Dern won the Silver Bear as best actor at the 33rd annual Berlin Film Festival for playing George Sitkowski in Jason Miller's version of his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a coach and four players who reunite annually to relive the days of their victorious team of long ago. Robert Mitchum played the coach; Dern, Paul Sorvino, Martin Sheen and Stacey Keach (who is in "Nebraska") were the players.

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