Monday, November 18, 2013

A Bruce Dern Primer.

"There is a human time bomb ticking away in Hollywood. He is called Bruce Dern. One of these days he is going to light up the sky. How, nobody knows. At 39, with a suitcase of rave clippings, Dern is poised to become a star. Trouble is, he has been in that position for a couple of years, ever since he scored a personal hit as the bellicose Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. But the brass ring has never seemed to get any nearer. "--from the August 11, 1975 issue of TIME.

Read more: Show Business: Will Bruce Dern Become a Star? - TIME,9171,917691,00.html#ixzz2l1VsZDtl

Bruce Dern, in my childhood and teenage years, was often considered a go-to actor for viciously intelligent villain/psychopath roles, particularly in biker films andWesterns.  He had a memorable role in Burt Kennedy's SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (1969), as the  mean-but-dumb son of outlaw Walter Brennan--in effect a send-up of parts Dern played on series like GUNSMOKE.

This period of Dern's career was capped by the role of the sadistic rustler known as Longhair, who  killed John Wayne's rancher Wil Andersen in Mark Rydell's THE COWBOYS (1972).

After that, Dern could be seen in more "normal"  performances such as the college basketball coach in Jack Nicholson's DRIVE, HE SAID, the Atlantic City wannabe-tycoon in Bob Rafelson's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS--and (four decades before Robert Redford in ALL IS LOST) carrying the majority of Douglas Trumbull's sci-fi/ecology elegy SILENT RUNNING by himself.  All three films appeared in theaters in 1972.

By 1975, Dern had two personal-bests with  his Tom Buchanan in Jack Clayton's THE GREAT GATSBY (more nuanced than Joel Edgerton's rich-jock portrayal in Baz Luhrmann's recent remake) and the car-salesman/civic booster in Michael Ritchie's unjustly-overlooked beauty-pageant comedy/drama SMILE.

I recall the TIME magazine article from 1975 carrying a quote like this: "Bruce needs to make love to a woman on the screen."

Afterwards, Dern's career contained mainstream choices which seemed sound on paper: the 1920s  imitation Mel Brooks of Michael Winner's  WON TON TON: THE DOG THAT SAVED HOLLYWOOD, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller/light comedy FAMILY PLOT, the post-10 adultery-with-younger-woman MIDDLE AGE CRAZY (better than its current obscurity suggests), returns to psychopathic villainy BLACK SUNDAY and TATTOO (in the latter, Dern made extensive love to Maud Adams on the screen).  None of these films were the commercial blockbusters imagined by their makers.

From this period, the two films that survive in today's consciousness are Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (Dern was superb as the psychologically scarred Vietnam vet husband of Jane Fonda) and Walter Hill's robber-and-cop cult classic THE DRIVER, with Dern as the latter to Ryan O'Neal's title character.

Post-TATTOO: I can remember Dern in a personal-to-him role as a professional runner in Rob Nilsson's ON THE EDGE (1986), as part of the ensemble in Jason Miller's film version of his play
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON and (his last great role before Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA) the crime boss in James Foley's AFTER DARK MY SWEET (1990).

Perhaps Bruce Dern wasn't accepted by mainstream America as a Movie Star because he committed to playing Outsiders and Troublemakers without signaling to the public "Hey, I'm just a Star playing a  part.  I'm not really that way."

To me, Dern's always been a star and one of our national acting treasures.  Here's hoping NEBRASKA is the beginning of a series of late-career gems.

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