Bruce Dern, character actor who has been working in film for 53 years, received the Career Achievement Award on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at the 49th Chicago Film Festival. The 77-year-old Dern was also named Best Actor of the Year at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his role as Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s (“The Descendants,” “About Schmidt”) film Nebraska.
Nebraska, by the Omaha-born Payne, is the story of a cantankerous old man (Bruce Dern) who thinks he has won the lottery when he receives one of the notoriously ambiguous “Congratulations, you have won IF your number is the lucky number” letters from a Publishers’ Clearing House-type outfit known as CMP (Cornhusker Marketing & Promotion). Woody won’t quit trying to get to Lincoln (from Billings, Montana) to claim his “prize.”
Payne is famous for having director approval of most areas of his films, including cast, and Payne told Dern that he had always imagined him for the lead role. That did not stop the director from auditioning “every 70-year-old on Earth who could act,” said Dern. (Dern was born in 1936).
Payne has been quoted as saying, “There is an audience out there for literate films—slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made.” He also once said, “I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is an achievement. It should be the norm.” (IMDB website).
Woody Grant’s story, shot in black-and-white across four states, addresses an old man of whom his oldest son, Ross (Bob Oudenkirk), says, “The poor guy doesn’t know what’s going on half the time.” His younger son, David, played by Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte, responds, “The poor guy doesn’t need a nursing home. He just needs something to look forward to.”[Indeed, one definition of depression is not having anything to look forward to; it is easy to see how the elderly can fall into this state of mind.]
On the trip, son David learns that Woody came back from Korea with problems and that he once seriously considered divorcing his wife Katie (well played by June Squibb). Katie says, “He couldn’t say no to anyone, and it ruined him.” In revisiting his old home town, Woody, after touring the old home place, says, “It’s just a bunch of old wood and some weeds.” He meets his former business partner (well-played by Stacy Keach) and the townsfolk, upon learning of his “win,” practically line up to ask for monetary gifts.
Woody is a man of few words, as are his many brothers. His youngest son, David, realizing that Woody will not give up on his futile dream of claiming the million-dollar prize he thinks he has won, agrees to drive him to Lincoln-despite realizing that the letter Woody received is a scam. Says David (Will Forte), “It’s about how much longer he’s going to be around, at least semi-coherently.”
While they bond on the long drive, David asks his father, “Are you ever sorry you married Mom?” Woody responds, “All the time,” but adds, “I’d just end up with someone else who’d give me shit all the time.” When David chides Woody for his excessive drinking, Woody responds, “You’d drink, too, if you were married to your mother.”
On their stop at Mount Rushmore, (which Woody is not particularly thrilled by), he looks at the sculpture and notes, “It looks like somebody got bored and didn’t finish. Look: Washington’s the only one with any clothes. Lincoln doesn’t even have an ear.” It’s lines like these that ring humorously true, as do the faces we see in the film. (Payne is famous for using local people who actually are policemen or teachers (etc.) in his films).
After the screening, Dern spoke with the audience about his body of work and this particular film, noting, “I think it may be the best movie I’ve made in my career.” He said, “I came in to the business (from Kenilworth in Chicago) to show what happens to people in times of crisis. This is the fullest realization of that. It was ten years ago last week that I saw the material for the first time. I sent Alexander Payne a note that said, ‘I think I’m Woody.’ The next thing I know, he’s doing Sideways. Then, he’s making The Descendants.” Dern said, “The problems with getting the film made were that no one will make the movie in black-and-white and Payne wouldn’t do it without Bruce Dern. But Paramount knew it had to be made in black-and-white and became our ultimate partner.”
Dern described acting as “the chance to be public in private” and added, “My generation is the most competitive there is. If you think I’m retiring so that Jimmy Caan can get a part, you’re wrong.” He complained about today’s studios propensity to make money and make it fast, saying, “I came to Hollywood to make movies about people.”
In the character-driven days of 70s films, that is exactly what Dern got to do, in such roles as his Academy Award nominated turn as Captain Bob Hyde in 1978’s Coming Home, or as Freeman Lowell in 1972’s Silent Running. He soon earned a reputation as his generation’s Michael Shannon: an unpredictable and intense actor who played crazies (as in Black Sunday) with panache. However, the eighties and nineties did not yield the meaty roles Dern had enjoyed up to that point.
Dern told many stories of his days with famous Hollywood directors, including his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he worked in both Marnie and Hitchcock’s last film, The Family Plot. One humorous story involved the obese Hitchcock getting stuck in his chair and, in getting to his feet, taking the chair with him. He then said, to Dern, “Give me a hand here, Bruce.” Dern noted that Hitchcock was the fourth recipient of the Jarvik artificial heart and that he once went around the shooting stage and “thanked 68 people by name,” which amazed Dern. Hitchcock told Dern that he got the part because, “Mr. Pacino wanted a million dollars and (the legendarily frugal) Mr. Hitchcock doesn’t pay one million dollars.” Hitch added, “You’re here because we never know what you might want to do next, and it might be interesting.”
Although Dern came out of television roles in such classic series as “Route 66,” “Sea Hunt,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “The Outer Limits” and nearly any Western of the day you could name (“Gunsmoke,” Wagon Train,” The Virginians,” “Rawhide,” “Bonanza”) he internalized the then-prevalent feeling that movie actors didn’t do television because, as one producer told him, “As a producer, I never buy anything I get for free in my living room.” That didn’t keep Dern from recently taking a recurring role on “Big Love” that lasted for 5 years (2006-2011). He noted, Jane Fonda appearing in “A Doll’s House” helped break down that boundary.
Another great story Dern shared was that of Steven Spielberg, who was then the director of “Jaws,” coming to the set one day and Hitchcock noticing him and asking, “Is that the boy that made the fish movie?” When told that, yes, Spielberg was the director of Jaws, and simply wanted to express his great admiration for the legendary British director, Hitchcock said, “I can never talk to him. He makes me feel like such a whore.” This was because Hitchcock had accepted a large sum of money to be the voice of the Jaws ride at Disneyland. Hitchcock never did agree to meet with Spielberg.
Dern recited a Who’s Who list of famous directors with whom he had worked and said, “All those directors dare you to risk, and when you fall off, they pick you up in a butterfly net.” Payne, he said, dug deeper to pick his actors up when they fell. “I don’t know that he loves actors, but he respects us and we respect him,” said Dern, noting that, of 82 crew members, 45 had worked with Payne on his previous projects.
As Dern recounted, Payne spent a year scouting for faces. Then, he looked for locations and bought the bar for a day and then made sure the faces were there. “You have to be real,” said Dern. “We’re real people here for a while…Some directors make movies. He (Payne) makes films that people want to see.”
Dern realized, early on, that he needed to do three things to succeed as an actor: 1) I had to go to New York City (2) I had to go to the Actors’ Studio and (3) I had to study with Elia Kazan. Among others who were there when Dern studied with Kazan were Geraldine Page (whom he described as the best actress he ever saw), Lee Remick and Pat Hingle (Splendor in the Grass’ father).
Dern also praised the script for Nebraska, saying, “It’s all on the page.” The film, shot from Bob Nelson’s script, was begun exactly a year prior, on October 16, 2012. Dern expressed appreciation for the Career Achievement Award, saying it was “A bigger thrill than I know how to express,” and praising Michael Kutza (founder of the Chicago Film Festival) saying, “This man is a pioneer. He’s really got game. There’s a passion in this city that I didn’t know about when I lived here.” He also praised his castmates, who, he said, “all pulled their oar” expressing love for co-star Will Forte, who plays youngest son David, saying, “He had the courage to move in a different direction. He pulled it off. He’s as real as it gets. That takes more courage than anything I know.”
Praising Payne (whose hometown is Omaha, Nebraska and whose real Greek surname is Papadopoulos) as one of the two best directors he has worked with, Dern said, “On the set the first day, Alexander said, ‘You don’t see the work. Let us come to you. You’ll get to a level of comfort where you get to be a part of a family.” Payne then hugged the veteran actor and said, “Let’s go make magic.”
Of his over 80 film career, Dern said, with a laugh, “It ain’t an easy ride.”