It’s amazing the things I can learn while doing this project. Did you know that Bruce Dern’s grandfather was George Dern, a former governor of Utah and FDR’s first Secretary of War? Because I surely didn’t know that, nor that he used to be babysat by Eleanor Roosevelt. Or that Marilyn Monroe told him that it was being said he wouldn’t be a success until he was sixty? Or that he and Diane Ladd had a daughter who drowned in a swimming pool before Laura Dern was born? He also claims not to drink coffee or alcohol due to his passion for marathons and to have never done drugs outside the movies. Which definitely puts him apart from some of his costars of the sixties.
The earliest role of his that I’ve seen is in Marnie, where he’s only seen in flashback. He menaces the young girl who will grow up to become Tippi Hedren. But where I really spent time with him was as Joe Danby of Support Your Local Sheriff. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it. A lot. I tell people occasionally that they just make me feel tired all over, which is an insult to Joe in the movie. Oh, I’ve seen other movies of his, and one of these days, I will see Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood just for the fascination of the cast, but even when I was in the theatre watching Nebraska, there was a hint of Joe Danby in my head.
Not through any fault of Dern’s. He was excellent as Woody Grant—and he’s right that it’s Woody’s story, but I’m not actually convinced it was a lead role for all that. Kind of the sort of role that usually has James McAvoy following them around, where it’s a movie about someone watching a more interesting person doing things. Still, at his age, you take pride in what you’re doing, and better to get a lead nomination than a supporting one. Though it’ll definitely be interesting to see him as Joe Kennedy, when Chappaquiddick comes out.
One thing you can say about Bruce Dern is that he’s done an interesting variety of roles. He’s one of the only people to have killed John Wayne in a movie. (John Wayne told him America would hate him for it, and his response was that they’d love him in Berkeley.) He’s one of two people to have worked with both Hitchcock and Tarantino. There can’t be many who have worked with both Bette Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, either. Route 66 and CSI: NY. The man’s had quite a career to him, is what I’m saying.
He’s always unmistakably Bruce Dern, even if you’re quietly seeing Joe Danby in your head. He rode the “counter culture” movie craze of the ’60s to a steady career as a character actor. He’s worked with a ton of different directors over the years, including some of the best and some not very good ones. And, I note, a fair number of actors who directed once or twice or repeatedly. He dismisses Peter Fonda as never having learned to act. I won’t comment on that one way or another, but it’s definitely true that Bruce Dern did learn.
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