This Friday, moviegoers in select cities (and as Letterman likes to say, I certainly hope your city has been selected) will have the opportunity to see Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s wonderful comedy/drama about a father and a son and the moment when you decide to just let things go. But more than anything, it’s about the wonder that is Bruce Dern, the legendary character actor who worked his way out of the Roger Corman factory and became one of the key on-screen personnel in the “New Hollywood” movement of the 1970s. At 77, he gives the performance of a lifetime in Nebraska (he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes), and after seeing it, you may want to go back and check out some of the films that made him the legend he is (particularly if you live in New York, where BAM is hosting a retrospective of his work). Here’s a few starting points:
The Wild Angels
This 1966 Roger Corman film set off a whole cycle (ha ha) of low-budget biker movies, culminating with the iconic Easy Rider. That film shared the star of this one, Peter Fonda; Dern appears in the key supporting role of “The Loser,” whose death at the hands of the police is the picture’s inciting incident. From this early point, Dern’s utility was established: as the most valuable supporting player, conveying an outlaw spirit and complicated charm. Bonus: Dern co-stars with then-wife Diane Ladd, mother of his daughter Laura.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Dern landed a showcase role in a major (read: non-Corman) production with Sidney Pollack’s 1969 adaptation of Horace McCoy’s Depression-era novel about a dance marathon with a large cash prize. Dern is flat-out terrific as a farm worker competing with his pregnant wife (the always-wonderful Bonnie Bedelia).
Dern’s brief but slimy appearance in last year’s Django Unchained was something of a shout-out to one of his most lucrative specialties: the loathsome Western villain. He delivers the goods in films like The War Wagon and Hang ‘em High, but his most memorable oater turn comes in Mark Rydell’s outstanding 1972 John Wayne picture The Cowboys. Dern is a sneering, cold-blooded killer who heartlessly shoots “The Duke” in the back, a move which, legend has it, prompted the iconic (and loudly right-wing) star to warn Dern, “America will hate you for this.” Dern reportedly replied, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.”
Drive, He Said
Jack Nicholson was another refugee of the Corman school, doing odd jobs and quirky supporting roles for the B-movie king. He and Dern formed a lasting friendship in those days, so when Nicholson made his directorial debut with this 1971 campus drama, he got his buddy “Dernsy” to play the memorable supporting role of Coach Bullion. It’s a rich and complicated piece of work, in which the actor transcends the tropes of the hard-as-nails coach type to present a character of intelligence and sensitivity.
The King of Marvin Gardens
The next year, Nicholson and Dern teamed on-screen for Bob Rafelson’s offbeat drama, playing two brothers teaming up for a doomed real estate venture in Atlantic City. Their off-screen familiarity pays off big-time in creating this familial relationship, while each actor plays beautifully against type — Nicholson as the introverted, quiet one, Dern the extroverted con artist.
Dern may well have landed his most iconic role (until now, anyway) when 2001 special effects genius-turned-director Douglas Trumbull cast him — against his original conception of a much older protagonist — in this environmentally minded 1972 science fiction picture. Playing most of his scenes with robot co-stars, Dern brings an approachable, everyman face to this fantastic tale.
The Laughing Policeman
One of this cinephile’s favorite moments of the ‘70s was the brief period in which Walter Matthau was a leading man… in action movies. The Taking of Pelham 123 lives on thanks to its (far inferior) remake, and action aficionados are well aware of Charley Varrick, but in between came The Laughing Policeman, in which Matthau and Dern play loose-cannon San Francisco police detectives tracking a cop killer. The unlikely stars play off each other beautifully, and Dern’s smart, tough, and mostly cynical police inspector is a marvelous creation.
Dern got an Academy Award nomination (his only one to date) for his remarkable turn in Hal Ashby’s 1978 Vietnam War drama. He’s ostensibly the heavy, the military man whose wife (Jane Fonda) cheats on him with a sensitive, disabled vet (Jon Voight) while he’s off fighting the war. But Dern’s tortured, nuanced work in the film’s third act prevents that simple formulation from taking hold.
The ‘80s were a lean era for Mr. Dern, who mostly appeared in low-profile roles and didn’t work at all from 1982 to 1985. But his uproarious supporting turn in Joe Dante’s cult classic The ‘Burbs endeared him to a generation of young moviegoers, his ‘Nam-obsessed neighbor not only an inspired comic riff on his iconic Coming Home turn, but an unacknowledged forerunner to John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski.
Last Man Standing
Walter Hill’s reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (and, thus, Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars) was shrugged off by critics and audiences alike when it appeared, briefly, in theaters back in 1996. But it’s a sparse, blunt, and effective action picture, and our hero’s supporting turn as exactly the gleefully corrupt sheriff the border town of Jericho, Texas deserves is vintage Dern goodness in a decade where that commodity was in painfully short supply.