I managed to fit in one screening at the Chicago Film Festival – and what a screening that turned out to be. Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern. A wonderful indie movie, directed by the amazing director/producer/screenwriter, Alexander Payne, [Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants] shot in black and white, Nebraska is a family dramedy that is funny, satirical and poignant and I dare you not to see a little of someone close to you, and even a bit of yourself, in one or all of these characters. Dern, playing the lead as the slightly bewildered and bewildering father, Woody Grant, is layered, flawed, likeable, infuriating and so acutely well cast alongside June Squibb [About Schmidt], hilarious and heart-breaking as his long-suffering wife. Will Forte [Saturday NIght Live] and Bob Odenkirk [Breaking Bad] play their two sons with the purest and truest comedy that mirrors relationships, fathers and sons, brothers and mothers, all over the planet. Dern says of Forte, that Payne made a brave and good choice casting him as Woody’s son, and he thinks that Will Forte did an incredible job on the film. I concur. There are some priceless moments that will leave you with an aching belly, I can’t say enough good things about this movie, so just go and see it!
Bruce was present throughout the screening, speaking both before and afterwards and so generous with his time (Not many of that ilk left these days – Legend!) as he received a well-deserved career achievement award, especially important to him as it was coming from the people of his hometown. He seemed genuinely grateful to be there, and said so in that distinctive drawl and with that instantly recognizable smile!
On the beginnings of his career, the seventy-seven year-old told an enthralled audience that “People in the movies were talking to me…I had to find a damn school! You had to go to New York, and you had to join the Actors Studio and you had to work for Mister [Elia] Kazan”. Dern began studying under the legendary filmmaker in 1958, and Kazan soon put him under contract, alongside the likes of Rip Torn and Geraldine Page, the latter, he considers to be the best actress in his career. His obvious talent ensured that Dern was cast in such iconic films as Marnie [He had a great respect for Hitchcock, recalling with fondness that the great director always knew the names of every person who worked in his movies and would thank them individually when the film wrapped] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The King of Marvin Gardens, Coming Home, The Great Gatsby, Hang ‘Em High and so many more.
Dern needed little prompt to keep talking, entertaining a very large crowd at the sold out premiere. He also recalled Kazan’s words of advice to him as a young and budding actor. “If you’re going to play Cowboy number three, be the best damn Cowboy number three you can be”, and told a poignant story of playing yet another one in the series Gunsmoke [The Jailor, 1966]. On hearing that Bette Davis would be playing his mother, he became upset, wondering why, with her amazing career behind her, she was doing this small part. ‘Who else would pay for my cigarettes?’ was her matter-of-fact response. Dern holds a great fondness for Davis too, having worked with her on Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
More recently, Dern has appeared in Monster and Django Unchained. He spoke of his belief that his character in Nebraska was his best role yet, and though it took ten years for Alexander Payne to get the film made, Dern wanted the role from the moment he read the script. He also paid tribute to his co-stars, and to the screenwriter, Bob Nelson, adding that all of the terrific lines in the film came straight off Nelson’s pages. Dern also paid humble tribute to those who came before him. “When we first came to Hollywood, we had the chance to work with legends,” he said of his generation of actors. “They were bigger than life. We’re not legends”.
I beg to differ, Mister Dern! Down-to-earth, humble and pragmatic, this inspiring actor’s simple philosophy for life and art is that YOU DARE TO RISK! That’ll do for me.