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In an alternate reality, Jack Nicholson never replaced Bruce Dern as stoned convict/lawyer George Hanson in “Easy Rider” and Dern went on to have the superstar career.
The public could’ve rocked and rolled with a heroic Bruce Dern, a present Bruce Dern, a lionized Bruce Dern…a wholly imaginary Bruce Dern to us in our reality.
It could’ve been Dern as one of those legendary characters of New Hollywood, an R.P. McMurphy, a Michael Corleone, a Bob Woodward. He could have been the tragic Jay Gatsby instead of his nemesis, Tom Buchanan. He could’ve never shot John Wayne in the back. He could’ve gotten shot in the back and some lesser-known actor would be “The Guy Who Shot Bruce Dern in the Back.”
He likely still would’ve starred in “Silent Running”, but maybe it wouldn’t have seemed as kitschy. Maybe America would’ve taken environmental issues more seriously in the intervening years. Maybe Reagan wouldn’t have been elected. Maybe 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. Maybe the dream of New Hollywood wouldn’t have imploded at “Heaven’s Gate”. Maybe “Star Wars” would’ve remained a dream and the word “blockbuster” never uttered. Maybe his stardom would have altered the course of American cinema, world history.
He certainly would’ve played less bad guys.
It’s all speculation, but let’s continue to investigate this alternate reality, because it’s peeking through right now, at this moment in time, like a Phillip K. Dick novel. And the stardom Dern never had is coming his way as a result of “Nebraska”, his first starring role in over thirty years.
With “Nebraska”, directed by Alexander Payne, moviegoers are treated to that alternate reality: where Dern has been a star, not just a character actor known for playing villains and eccentrics. Dern has finally arrived in a developed character befitting his tremendous acting talent. It’s a long time coming, a whole career coming. And as such, the film subtly exercises the potentialities of that alternate reality.
Dern plays Woody Grant, a weathered, stubborn old man who thinks he’s won a million dollars and needs to get to Nebraska to claim his money. At first, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) tries to dissuade his father from his quest, as the winning letter Woody received is obviously a come-on. Then he comes to feel his father needs this motivation so late in life, and David might need some in his, as his girlfriend just left him and he’s languishing in customer service. Woody lost his license years ago, so it’s up to David to drive.
The father and son journey into the middle of the country (and into their pasts) sends them to Woody’s hometown, and the place where David was born. Woody’s imaginary wealth raises issue with old friends and family.
Woody is a beautiful, accomplished, nuanced character that plays to Dern’s strengths, while giving him room to grow. His performance is roughly implicit of what Dern’s been looking at in the many thousand-yard-stares Dern has burned into celluloid over the years. And it’s eons more complex and enjoyable.
“I could do something with this that I hadn’t yet done, which is play someone who wasn’t aggressive, who wasn’t out there, who wasn’t doing nasty shit, trying to kill a legend or blow up the Super Bowl. It was a chance to not act, but just be.” Dern said about the role at Cannes where he took home the Best Actor Award.
And that’s why “Nebraska” matters. We get to see a screen presence, who’s been with us all along, get a chance to play to his strengths, a chance to really show us what he’s got, what we’ve glimpsed here and there for so many years.
Many actors of Dern’s generation have had revivals, like Dennis Hopper, but never got to come back with a career-encompassing performance, one that almost redeems the cinema for not giving us this Dern performance sooner, but understanding that this film and his performance wouldn’t have been as poetic had Dern not had the hard-won career he had.
As Woody and David journey into the past, the audience is constantly exposed to evidence of time’s irreversibility. Time stops for no one, especially Woody Grant and his son. As souls come together and break apart in the film, the bleak decaying atmosphere, most preeminently in the sequence where Woody and his immediate family explore the abandoned home where Woody grew up, acknowledges the great unknowing death on every soul’s horizon.
The horizons shown in the film (of which there are many) are still, but alive. The movement of the wind and vehicles, grass swaying, reminds the viewer that time is not all rot and entropy but a cycle of renewal and regeneration. The film, and Dern’s performance, are so dramatically (and comedically) accomplished because they eschew both tragedy and sentimentalism. They are like time; they just keep on going. Woody doesn’t successfully learn any sort of lesson because of one little trip back home. He continues to try learning with the lessons he’s been trying to learn all his life. It’s a more accurate portrayal of real conflict. People don’t change because of one cohesive, contained experience or set of experiences. They keep changing their whole lives, sometimes without anyone noticing, sometimes too late, sometimes too early, sometimes too much. And again, I suggest that this is all quite implicit of the realities of Dern’s life and career.
In his review, Richard Brody of The New Yorker made an excellent statement: “From the start, Payne presents a landscape that both thrums with life and is filled with the past — a past that, in the course of the movie, he pushes to the surface in the poignant person of Woody, whose memory is going and yet who is the living agent of memory.”
So maybe if Dern hadn’t been an outsider all these years, he couldn’t have played an earnest old loser like Woody. Maybe he might not have developed his affably rich storytelling skills. Anyone that’s met him knows no one tells a story like Dern. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone in with all his energy and would have become less memorable. Maybe his first few million dollar roles would’ve gone to his head and he would have killed himself in a car accident before he was forty. Maybe he wouldn’t have ran the entire Mission Trail. Maybe he would’ve gone mad, like he did so many times on film. Maybe if he hadn’t endured through the loss of a child and an unsupportive background, he wouldn’t have meant what he did for us. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so compellingly desperate.
I am glad I live in this universe. Bruce Dern for who he was and still is. And that gift of his acting talent he gives to the public over and over and over again. I know I’m not alone, either. “He is one of the finest, most entertaining examples of great, American acting”, Quentin Tarantino said while introducing a tribute reel to Dern at the premiere of “Nebraska” in Los Angeles. Tarantino shook his fist when he said “American,” the way a Bruce Dern character might’ve. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.