Rob Edelman: Bruce Dern

Feb 3, 2014

Sometimes, an actor who once upon a time earned a certain celebrity but has long since disappeared from the limelight makes a triumphant return to center stage.  Such is the case right now with Bruce Dern. These days, Dern is back in full force playing a grizzled, alcoholic senior citizen in Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA. Dern's letter-perfect performance earned him a top acting prize at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. He now is winning best actor awards from film critics' groups, and the question of the moment is: Will he walk off with the Best Actor Academy Award?

Dern's career encompasses the last half-century of mainstream-- and not so mainstream-- entertainment. His initial credits include guest appearances in early-1960s TV series. He also played a sailor in Alfred Hitchcock's MARNIE; a character nicknamed "Loser," a Hell's Angel, in THE WILD ANGELS; villains in a host of Westerns-- in one of them, THE COWBOYS, he even guns down John Wayne; and Tom Buchanan in the 1974 version of THE GREAT GATSBY. In 1978, Dern deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination playing a patriotic U.S. Marine who is traumatized by his Vietnam War experience in COMING HOME.

My own favorite Bruce Dern film, however, dates from 1975. It is titled SMILE. In my Leonard Maltin Movie Guide write-up, I call it a "hilarious, perceptive satire centering around the behind-the-scenes activity at a California 'Young American Miss' beauty pageant..." Upon its release, SMILE was lauded for effectively lampooning the vapidity and hypocrisy of so many aspects of American life. Adding to the acclaim was Dern's performance. He is spot-on as "Big Bob" Freelander, a clueless, self-deluded car salesman who is one of the pageant's organizers.

However, in recent years-- no, in recent decades-- it seems as if Bruce Dern had vanished from movie screens. This is not quite so. He has been appearing onscreen, but his films have neither been A-list nor high-profile. For example, a couple years ago, he appeared to no great effect playing a creepy small-town sheriff in TWIXT, a slight, little-seen horror film directed by another once-esteemed but now overlooked screen luminary: Francis Coppola.

These days, Bruce Dern is not viewed in the same light as a number of his contemporaries, including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, and his close friend Jack Nicholson. But Dern never was a star of their magnitude. More often than not, he was a solid supporting player. On too many occasions, he was typecast as a generic psychotic heavy. But Dern was capable of more than merely snarling at the hero. He added an appropriate edginess to his performances and this, more than anything else, drew audiences to him.

But as I say, in recent years Bruce Dern has been a forgotten personality, a candidate for one of those "Whatever became of..." magazine features.  But no more. Not with his stunning success in NEBRASKA... 

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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