Name an actor who never got his due: Bruce Dern. He got typecast playing villains and mentally damaged characters for much of his career.
Early in his acting career, Dern made his way through many supporting television and film roles, often in Westerns. Wisecracking and folksy, but menacing, he brought a different game as a heavy. He was not your central casting bad guy, which explains why he worked so much, but so began the typecasting that would plague his career.
Dern was part of the group of actors emerging in the 1960s that played rebellious and often anti-heroes. Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert Blake, Harry Dean Stanton and Dern were the core of this group. Although the occasional big studio feature, mostly these actors worked in B films and television. Roger Corman and American International Pictures made a lot of films for the booming drive-in theater pipeline. These actors took advantage of the freedom found in motorcycle films, horror, Westerns and the youth market in general.
Dern’s first featured role was in The Wild Angels (1966), directed by Corman. A motorcycle film starring Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, the film was a huge hit and led to many more motorcycle-themed films, and made Fonda a counter-culture star.
In 1967, Dern made another film with Fonda and Corman, The Trip, about the Fonda character’s LSD experience. The same year, Dern had parts in The War Wagon, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Waterhole No. 3 and Will Penny. Dern began playing villains in high profile films, but would also go back to low-budget films for scarier, more psychologically damaged characters.
Dern would have featured roles in films like Psych Out, The Cycle Savages, Bloody Mama, The Rebel Rousers and Thumb Tripping. He continued with supporting roles in big films like Castle Keep, Hang’ Em High, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Number One. Dern turned in a fine comedic performance in James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff, a film with many fine character actors. Dern held his own while lampooning his usual villain role. Dern even landed a starring role in a low-budget film, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.
Over the next few years, Dern would star or co-star in a variety of high profile films, as he was entering an important phase of his career. The Laughing Policeman was a murder-mystery, which gave Dern a chance to play a prejudiced cop with a bushy mustache. I like the film, but do not understand the notion of Dern’s character. Why make him so unlikeable?
Even Dern’s mainstream films usually give him off-beat characters to play. Dern returned to Westerns for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Posse, although neither really advanced his career. The Great Gatsby (1974) was his biggest film to date, a co-starring role with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston. The film made money but received very mixed reviews and faded from public view.
Dern received a great role in a forgotten, but wonderfully satirical film, Smile, directed by Michael Ritchie. Dern also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, which was a comedy-mystery. Dern plays one of his most “normal” characters, a bit of dimwit who becomes involved with jewel thieves. Dern was every effective and underplays the foibles of his character. The film received generally good reviews but did not become a huge hit.
Next, Dern landed the lead in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, an unfunny spoof of Hollywood films. The film was a disaster and did more harm than help to Dern’s career as a lead actor.
In 1977, Dern co-starred in the big budget Black Sunday, as a Goodyear blimp pilot who is involved in a plot to crash the bomb-carrying blimp into the Super Bowl crowd. Dern plays a psychologically damage ex-Vietnam POW, who is manipulated by a terrorist group. This film would shift Dern back into the genre of damaged characters, something he fought to break away from. In 1978, Dern co-starred in Coming Home, where he plays a Marine officer who returns from Vietnam very damaged and unable to communicate with his wife, who has begun an affair with another Vietnam Vet. Dern’s character has a slow boil as his PTSD takes hold of him and eventually lead him to commit suicide. Dern’s performance is aching and sad, but not generic or over the top.
Dern’s next several films gave his starring roles, but none were very successful. The Driver, Middle Age Crazy, Tattoo and Harry Tracy are not memorable films, and began the 1980s with Dern moving back into featured roles. Most the films he appeared in were exaggerated characters, drawing on Dern’s high-energy acting qualities. The ‘Burbs, Down Periscope, Mulholland Falls and Last Man Standing are the most interesting of these films in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 2000s, Dern worked regularly in a variety of films as he was now in his 70s. The film that brought him back in the public eye was Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne. Dern’s role was praised and he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, though he did not win. He was presented with other acting awards for his textured, and both sad and funny role as an elderly man intent on collecting a bogus sweepstake prize. Suddenly, Dern was back in demand, although he had never gone away.
Dern’s acting schedule increased from one or two films a year to as many as seven. Frequently cast by Quentin Tarantino, he appeared as George Spahn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Dern replaced Burt Reynolds who passed away before shooting began.
“He can do a lot without doing much,” said filmmaker Joe Dante, who directed Dern in several films, including The ‘Burbs (1989) with Tom Hanks. “Which is never the most noticeable quality. But when I first saw him, which is when a lot of people first noticed him, in the 1960s, he had this acting style that no one else had. He could channel the ticks of real people. His vocal mannerisms were natural and unique. He always seemed more in the moment than anyone else. It’s remarkable to think that a guy who has never drank, smoked or taken drugs could capture the psychedelia of the ’60s in a movie like The Trip (1967).”
Dern’s advice to his daughter, actor Laura Dern. “Go on the edge of the cliff and walk on the edge with the roles you play. Take other roles people won’t take. The ability to act is really simple. To learn to do it is not hard, but doing it is very hard.”