If Oscars were awarded purely on the basis of who wants it the most, Bruce Dern would be a tough man to beat this year. The 77-year-old veteran’s first and last Oscar nomination came 35 years ago for “Coming Home,” and he’s seemingly revelling in the greatest amount of critical and media attention he’s had since then, or perhaps ever.
I’ve lost count of the number of interviews and profiles I’ve seen this past week alone on the “Nebraska” star, who has never had much of a reputation for playing the industry game. But getting that Oscar nomination for what may be his last big-screen lead in a project of this pedigree evidently means something to him, and he’s willing to do the necessary legwork to secure it. It remains to be seen how much the precursors will help him along next month, but he already has that Best Actor prize at Cannes to highlight on his campaign ads.
Now he has something else. We’re not talking Cannes levels of prestige, but the Palm Springs Film Festival has become a key pit stop on the Oscar track for many an acting hopeful — Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock have already been confirmed as honorees at the festival’s awards gala, and now Dern is joining them with a Career Achievement Award.
Fest chairman Harold Metzner’s statement begins: “Bruce Dern is truly a one-of-a-kind performer. His skill at capturing the essence of a character, no matter how complex or unorthodox, is unique and unparalleled.” He goes on to celebrate his work as “Bloody Mama,” “Coming Home” and “Nebraska,” though it could as easily mention his excellent Tom Buchanan in the 1974 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (which earned him a Golden Globe nod), Jack Nicholson’s “Drive, He Said,” Walter Hill’s “The Driver,” or his shouldering of Douglas Trumbull’s landmark sci-fi “Silent Running.” Times have obviously been leaner since then, but “Monster” and “Django Unchained” are among the more distinguished films he’s popped up in this century.
All of which is to say, ambivalent as I am about Dern’s “Nebraska” campaign — he gives a fine, suitably ornery performance, but the poignancy of his casting is required to fill in a lot of blanks — an award in recognition of his career, however blighted with B-movies (coming soon: “Coffin Baby!”) it may be, is easier to get behind. In accepting the award, he follows such recent recipients as Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Sally Field and Clint Eastwood. It will be presented on the Palm Springs awards gala on January 4.