HOLLYWOOD – The “Nebraska” tour made a stop at AFI Fest last night as Alexander Payne’s film enjoyed its Los Angeles premiere ahead of opening in limited release this Friday. Tethered to the event was a tribute to acting legend Bruce Dern, who finds himself in the hunt for his first-ever Best Actor Oscar nomination after winning a prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in May.
Quentin Tarantino introduced the opening clip package with the gusto you would expect of the filmmaker, who directed Dern briefly in last year’s “Django Unchained.” He commented on Dern’s work ethic, mostly, noting that “when you look at Bruce Dern’s filmography, that’s a filmography that exemplifies hard work. He worked with the best directors in the business, and he worked with the worst.”
Indeed, Dern’s career path has been one full of scratching and clawing for a place at the table. While his friend Jack Nicholson was starring in classics like “Five Easy Pieces,” Dern was headlining “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” and guesting on “Land of the Giants,” this after landing a role in Sidney Pollack’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” in 1969. It’s been a back and forth road for Dern, and a long one to “Nebraska,” to be sure.
Dern spoke with moderator Leonard Maltin about the determination Elia Kazan instilled in him in the early days working at the Actors Studio in New York and the warning that it would be an uphill climb for a guy like Dern, who might not have had the movie star appeal of a Paul Newman but had as much grit as the next guy, if not more. So he made a habit of trying to be noticed. He spent a whole career looking for a way to draw the attention of the viewer, the director, whomever, anyone who would sit up and take a gander at the line-less bartender in the scene, or the third cowboy from the right.
Tarantino called them “Dernsies” in the intro, and the clip reel was full of them, from Dern’s shouting breakdown with Jane Fonda in “Coming Home” to comic relief alongside Tom Hanks in “The Burbs.” Dern “is full of raw vitality,” Tarantino said, “grabbing your attention, never letting you go, spontaneous, always looking for a moment, always looking for an opportunity to do something, not content to be palsy-walsy with the other actors; he’s trying to beat them!”
But in the discussion with Maltin, filled with regaling stories from the old days of the 1960s or the new Hollywood explosion of the 1970s, it became clear that Dern didn’t get into the business to give “Dernsies.” He wanted to inhabit a character, to sink into his skin. Yet as a supporting player for most of his career with an interesting lead here and there, he found himself, again, “performing,” trying to make something pop.
So when he landed the role of Woody Grant in Payne’s new film, he found a meaningful partner on the first day of shooting. “He and Phedon [Papamichael], the cameraman, said to me, ‘Bruce, I want you to do something probably no one has ever asked of you,'” Dern recalled. “‘Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.'”
It meant everything to Dern that, after a legacy of “Dernsies,” he could really dig in with the tools of subtlety that he always wanted to use. At least, that was the vibe he was sending off from the stage of the Chinese Theater last night. And it’s been life-changing for him. Regardless of the Cannes prize, and come what may with critics awards or further kudos on the circuit, “I won the minute I got the God damned part,” Dern said.
“Nebraska” opens in limited release Friday Nov. 15.