TELLURIDE, Colo. – Nearly half a century ago, Marilyn Monroe confided in a young Bruce Dern an opinion of the actor passed to her by Actors Studio founder Elia Kazan, or “Gadge” as they all knew him. “He’s not going to be a leading man,” the famed director said, “because he’ll be into his 60s before anyone knows what he’s capable of.”
The reasoning went that Dern was destined to be a character actor. He didn’t subscribe to his buddy Jack Nicholson’s ribbing “it’s just acting, asshole” sentiment, but rather he preferred to inhabit a character, to be a character. He bought into Lee Strasberg’s method acting approach, and indeed, went on to have a lengthy career as a dependable fixture in any number of films. But he’s always been “third cowboy from the right,” as Dern has put it, and with Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which is set for a North American premiere later today at the Telluride Film Festival, he finally had an opportunity to embrace a leading man character for all it was worth.
However, when you start talking about awards season, a performance like Dern’s begins to bump up against cynical math. There are those who will assert that with a supporting campaign, he might have a great shot at both an Oscar nomination and even a win, or at least a better shot than in the more typically competitive lead race. Christoph Waltz’s performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” which won the same Best Actor Cannes honor in 2009 that Dern won a few months ago, is often pointed to as an example of this trajectory.
But as the elderly Woody Grant in “Nebraska,” Dern gives a lead performance because “Nebraska” is, every bit of it, about Woody Grant. We start the film with Woody. We learn just about everything there is to know about Woody. And while Will Forte is great as Woody’s son, David, and has more to do on screen, we really know precious little about him. Every moment of the film is either about or informed by Dern’s presence and performance. I’m usually on the other side of this argument, but in this case, I just have a different takeaway: This is Bruce Dern’s movie.
And Paramount agrees. The studio has decided to campaign the actor as a lead, news of which I broke via Hollywood Elsewhere last week. It’s the right call, eschewing the cynical math in favor of a more significant boost for a guy who, let’s face it, deserves to have that kind of support. Others may peddle somewhat facile logic to the contrary, and it’s an arguable point. But it’s logic that fails to realize how the performance is landing with everyone from Sylvia Miles to Nicholson himself. Actors, particularly of a certain age, are eager to see Dern finally get this kind of recognition, and the well-wishers kept piling up as Dern’s daughter Laura and “Nebraska” star Stacy Keach held separate LA-area screenings and soirees in his honor over the last week.
Indeed, sit in a room with Dern and he’ll talk to you for as long as you’ll listen about his theater days, being blown away by Strasberg’s approach to immersive drama, old Hollywood and more. He’ll tell you he believes he’s worked with six geniuses in his time — Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Douglas Trumbull, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and now Alexander Payne — and he’ll freely admit that “that might piss some people off,” because, after all, he’s leaving some major talents off that list; here’s a guy who has worked with everyone from John Frankenheimer to Hal Ashby. He’ll shoot you straight and regale you, looking you in the eye and remembering every decades-old detail, right down to the weather.
No, those things aren’t about the actual performance, which does its own heavy lifting. (I heard one two-time nominee from the old days lean in to Dern at a recent New York event for the film and let him know unequivocally, “You have my nomination.”) But those things are about the charisma it takes to charm your way through the circuit, and if that charmer is a legend like Bruce Dern, you’re so much more than half-way there. So forget the punditry. When you observe industry response to the film, you quickly understand that a lead campaign is not only the right call, but in step with what people who actually have a vote are saying.
The movie itself? It surprised me a bit. I thought it was fantastic. Like most Payne films, it rings a lot of genuine notes while never losing its sense of humor. It’s about a man who’s lived a modest life and wants for something bigger in his autumn. It’s a little obtuse to start but it finds its stride and tells a meaningful story without a lot of fuss. And it struck me as less a Payne film than some amalgamation of the Coens and Payne, with a touch of something more empathetic. Because this is one of the only movies from Payne, whose work I tend to appreciate, that doesn’t appear to be sitting in judgment of its central characters. It’s not sending them up, really. It’s more careful than that.
It also features a brilliant supporting performance from June Squibb that could just as easily be in the hunt for awards consideration. She’s fiery in the right measure and lights up the screen. And frankly, the film could even figure into the Best Picture race. But, like the rest of Paramount’s slate, it will depend on how things shake out for the studio, which sports three very different films from very different filmmakers who have all been embraced by the Academy in the past. It’s a pretty exciting trio, but I really wouldn’t underestimate “Nebraska” in the grand scheme of things; it may be a small film but it has a big heart and people will want to stick up for it, as they will Mr. Dern, who has traveled a long and legendary road to this moment in the spotlight.
“Nebraska” opens in limited release on Nov. 22.