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Just Short of Forever

By Beverly Walker

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Bruce Dern: Still Present

The Wild Angels Drive, He Said
Coming Home Silent Running
King of Marvin Gardens
King of Marvin Gardens Smile
Family Plot Middle Age Crazy
That Championship Season Harry Tracy, Desperado

It’s no wonder that Bruce Dern didn’t allow himself to ruminate on the character of Woody Grant until he had a contract. Ten years had come and gone since he first read—and loved—Bob Nelson’s script, Nebraska, and he’d long ago learned not to count his chickens before they hatched. That’s what 54 years in the movie business can do, if you last that long, and Dern is a survivor par excellence. A near-legend for his portraits of the deranged and demonic, he was deeply unhappy by the end of the Seventies about being typecast for so long, and in despair that he might never play “a whole human being.”

Though convinced that the studio would never okay him, Dern nonetheless showed up for another meeting with Alexander Payne in May 2012. He agreed to do an informal screen test, reading a couple of scenes in front of a camera. Payne said he wanted Dern to be in his movie right away and telephoned him within 48 hours to say: “The part is yours. It has always been yours.” Three months of silence ensued before Dern heard another word. He later learned that the delay was caused by Payne’s insistence that the movie be in black and white. The studio had approved Bruce Dern as Nebraska’s star.

When shooting was finished, he felt good about his work. “I did it straight, no ‘Dernsies,’” he told me by phone. “Dernsies” are his unscripted embellishments that spice up a scene—a term coined by Jack Nicholson. But he never imagined that his transcendent portrayal of a stubborn old coot nearing life’s end would have such an impact. When his name was announced as winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes, he was on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic, homeward bound, soon to celebrate his 77th birthday.

Dern’s distinctive persona was evident from the start, in Sixties genre pictures such as The Wild Angels (66) and The Trip (67), but he really came into his own during the Seventies. A sports aficionado from childhood, he played a gung-ho basketball coach in Drive, He Said (71) and was honored by the National Society of Film Critics for the year’s best supporting performance—his first official award. Dern made 17 features during the Seventies, closing the decade propitiously with an Oscar nomination for Coming Home (78). In between were star/co-star turns in Silent Running (72), The King of Marvin Gardens (72), Smile (75), and Family Plot (76), his second film after Marnie (64) for Alfred Hitchcock. He is superb as a wacky cop out to bust Ryan O’Neal in The Driver (77).

But most of those films were not commercially successful, which affected his being cast in A-list pictures. He is excellent in Middle Age Crazy (80), That Championship Season (82), and Harry Tracy, Desperado (82), among other decent movies that also weren’t hits. Dern has always worked, but the roles offered were increasingly eccentric or bizarre. Tidbits from both The Cowboys (72) and Black Sunday (77) have been replayed endlessly during Nebraska’s publicity blitz, a sure sign his “nut jobs” won’t go away.

Trained at the Actors Studio from 1957 to 1960, Dern utilizes techniques codified by Stanislavsky, as interpreted by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and honed over decades by himself. He is intense, focused, and uninhibited in front of a camera. “If you can’t be publicly private, you shouldn’t be an actor,” he said. In creating Woody he tapped into painful memories of growing up in Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan. His family was wealthy, distinguished, and powerful, but his resistance to the path they set out for him made for a childhood full of conflict. “You can’t go home again . . . and yet you must go home again,” he said.

When did you decide to be an actor?

It started like lightning. I quit college in my sophomore year, having just seen The Fallen Idol. It’s about a little boy in a wealthy family who witnesses the family butler stab his wife. His parents won’t be back for 36 hours. I was traumatized by the movie because the little boy’s fear was close to how I’d often felt at home. I was affected by Green Dolphin Street [a 1947 film also about a wealthy family]; Montgomery Clift in I Confess; and Friendly Persuasion. What affected me so strongly was that the people’s behavior was on record. In my household, I always had to prove that I did what I said I did. I decided to be an actor so my behavior would be on record.

I began to study with Gordon Phillips, a member of the Actors Studio who was affiliated with the Hedgerow Theatre. Three things soon became apparent: I’d move to New York, become a member of the Actors Studio, and work for Elia Kazan. And I did all three in 60 days!

My audition—with Gordon—was a scene from Waiting for Godot. I was accepted that very night along with Ron Leibman and Inga Swenson. Since I’d never really acted, Gadge and Lee treated me like a guinea pig—a guy with no “bad habits” whom they could train from the inside out. For an entire year I was a silent partner, doing exercise scenes with people like Anne Bancroft without speaking a single word.

In January of 1959, I was cast in Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, the Studio’s first Broadway production. I had six lines and was only on stage for 52 seconds but got a favorable mention in Walter Kerr’s review. But they wouldn’t allow me to have a curtain call because my character dies within the play. I was heartbroken but Lee said that was how they did it at the Moscow Art Theatre.

I was under contract to Kazan for a year, paid $85 per week whether I worked or not. When I got a part, I made more, but he kept it. Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, and Lee Remick were also under contract to Kazan. Gadge gave me the part of a bartender in Sweet Bird of Youth [the 1959 Broadway production starring Paul Newman, Page, and Torn]. I only had two lines more than in Shadow but I was on stage for 40 minutes. I also understudied Rip Torn and played the part for two weeks when he left to do Pork Chop Hill. I went to Tennessee to make Wild River. Gadge wouldn’t give me billing and I never worked with him again.

Why?

I wanted to be in Splendor in the Grass but he said no. “I’m using country boys with good breeding, who come from money, which is exactly who you are except you are not a country boy. You come from ‘old money’ and a more established family than the guys I’m using, and any of them could play the lead if I wasn’t using Warren Beatty, whereas you could not because you’re not an obvious leading man.”

He said: “It’s a long ride, Bruce, a very long ride. When you go out to Hollywood, you’ll play parts no bigger than the ones you played here, mostly in Westerns. You’ll always be the third cowboy from the right but you’ll be the most unique goddamn cowboy who ever lived because you’ll make shit happen when the camera’s on you. But I don’t want that in Splendor—an individual in a group of frat brothers. No one’s going to see you as an individual until your late sixties.”

That sounds like a curse.

That’s kind of how I took it. It went straight to my heart. A few months later, he again advised me to go to Hollywood. “We’ve had you for 30 months and you get what we’re trying to do. You understand the drill and you work totally from the inside out. Just understand that it’s gonna take you just short of forever.”

Something else was eating at him, to be so cruel. Is it possible he resented your privileged background?

Maybe. He got to know some of my family because of his relationship with Uncle Archie. [Kazan directed Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., on Broadway. MacLeish was Dern’s maternal uncle.] He may have thought I had a leg up. A lot of people got into the Studio because their families had money, but mine never gave them a dime.

Nebraska

Nebraska

To hell with Kazan. Let’s talk about a different Greek-American—Alexander Payne—and Nebraska.

June [Squibb], Will [Forte], and I arrived in Omaha five days early and went straight to Alexander’s house. We were alone with him except for his assistant, Anna. We read through the script, took a break, and then read again—just our own scenes.

For the next three days, Alexander drove us to various locations, some two hours away. He was like a kid. The closeness of the car enhanced our camaraderie and we never read or rehearsed again. I don’t like rehearsing. I don’t read well and I don’t like to sit on my instincts, which you do when you’re sitting around a table. Alexander saw that immediately. He said to me, in the presence of Phedon [Papamichael], his cinematographer: “Let us do our jobs. Don’t show us anything, let us find it.” Then I knew I’d found a partner, teammate, coach. I’ve never been good at brevity, and I might’ve tossed in a few Dernsies if Alexander hadn’t been right there!

He carries a monitor in his hand and sits very close to the actors—within three feet—for every scene. He’s almost invasive with his camera and rarely does more than three takes. Any adjustments he requests are small, as if he has an invisible screwdriver and uses it to fine-tune the performance. One time in the car, he asked me to twist my body into the weirdest position I could. I did and he shot it. It’s in the film. My wife Andrea hates that shot because I look like I’m dead.

Alexander is totally inclusive. Everybody working on the movie gets a script, knows what it’s about, and is welcome to watch the scenes. If they happen to wander by, they know what scene it is and, maybe, get a little kick.

Twixt

Twixt

Francis Coppola is like that, too.

I loved the experience on Twixt with Francis. He’s the first person before Alexander who really understood how good I could be, and I’m very self-serving in that comment. When Francis got a kick out of what I was doing, he would tell me why he got a kick, to see if he could get more of that in a scene. I’d never had a director talk to me like that—almost like a psychologist who might say “it could be a little more this or that if...” When Alexander casts, he takes you as you are.

After Nicholson saw the picture, the first thing he asked was how you created Woody’s walk.

I just put pebbles in my shoes, especially on the right foot.

Once I had the job and a start date, the first thing I asked myself was: “What are the ingredients in Bruce that are also in Woody?” And what came to mind was this: “Woody is a fair man.” I remembered my Uncle Herbert Goodrich who was a judge on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. I lived in his home while I went to college and he gave me a lesson in the judicial process that I never forgot—about fairness.

Woody is fair and gets hurt when people aren’t fair back. He’s puzzled, though not necessarily disturbed [by it] at this point in his life. Woody’s not a guy who gets up and reads the paper every morning. He’s not on a calendar; he’s living it out. If he doesn’t get the truck, he’ll go home—and he says: “We don’t have to go; we’ll go home.” He gets it; he gets that nobody believes his dream but he’s tired of chasing it with no help. He expects his son to take him on the trip. What else does he have to do?

There were three components I had to ponder in building the character: (1) his physicality; (2) his mental state—what’s going on inside Woody and how he got that way; and (3) his detachment, which was the most difficult.  The physicality was the easiest because of all the injuries I’ve endured while running, including a torn quadricep. I can still run but I have enormous difficulty when I stand up or take stairs. So I said to myself: “Just be Bruce. Bruce is broken down.” I love his line in the car: “I’m here.” It’s like saying “present” when your name is called in school. Woody’s broken down but he’s still out there.

The hardest part of building Woody was his detachment. People in Woody’s situation—with dementia—are irritated by people’s questions. It’s like: “Don’t bug me, I’m not Mr. Memory.” Woody spends a lot of time every day looking for a place to nap. He wanders around in his mind but not to specific places. He’s drifting but not to anywhere specifically. It’s like that last line in Gatsby: “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Woody is just marking time. There’s no goal in sight, no end in sight. Woody, at this time in his life, is an innocent. I don’t know that he was innocent when he was young.

There are dangers in the material—traps. He can suddenly become fairly lucid but about the most childish things. When they go to Mt. Rushmore, a place he has obviously visited previously, he says: “It’s not finished; it’s just a bunch of rocks.” He’s not trying to piss off his son. That’s his honest answer. When asked a question, he answers it honestly, as he sees it, at that moment. Woody Grant is the most moment-to-moment character I’ve ever played.

In building the character, I thought: “There’s nobody in my family who gives a shit about me—or gives a shit about themselves except my wife, who still thinks she’s the Madonna piece of ass from her senior high school, where there wasn’t a guy in the class who didn’t feel her up.”

Were you influenced by what other characters say about him?

Yes. There was a lot of work I didn’t have to do myself because everybody talks about Woody. One of the magical things that makes the role work as well as it does, and helps the movie, is that people talk about a man you see in front of you, but from another era of his life. His ex-girlfriend, the newspaper editor, says: “Everything was this way until he came back from Korea, but he was always very kind.” In the graveyard, his wife exclaims “Here’s Woody’s cousin, Delmer. He was a drunk!” [Laughs] This tells you they all were drunks, including Woody, and the ex-girlfriend confirms it: “It starts early around here. There’s really not much else to do.” It’s tapestry. Woody is part of the tapestry, and the eight guys sitting around watching the game are, too. Alexander had the courage to see it—and shoot it.

Nebraska

June Squibb believes Kate truly loves Woody. Does Woody love Kate?

Woody’s one of those men who adhere to life’s rituals—getting married, having kids. He’s not the type of guy who’s going to sit in a booth and talk about what he did in high school or why he didn’t go to college and so on. Kate was an open-range kind of gal who made herself available. So for Woody, it was easy. He spends as little time with his wife as he can. As for love, he tells his son it never came up.

You and Stacy Keach, who plays Ed Pegram in Nebraska, have known each other for a long time.

Yes, and we didn’t have to talk about how to do our scenes. We were together in That Championship Season, where we sat at the feet of Robert Mitchum for seven weeks. We also had some hairy experiences together at the time of the Malibu fire, trying to get to our homes, to our wives. Stacy’s home was burning—he arrived about two weeks into filming and we shot our scenes chronologically.

When Woody encounters Ed in the bar, he regards him positively. It has never occurred to him that he might’ve been taken advantage of. But when Ed starts talking about things that happened long ago, he’s breaking a covenant. And the way I handled the scene was to imagine how I would feel if Stacy Keach himself suddenly brought up things that we shared and bonded over 30 years ago. Except for the scenes at the homestead, these are probably the deepest moments of thought Woody has in the movie. Yes, he’s embarrassed; yes, he’s ashamed. When you do a movie like Nebraska, you better goddamn well leave a piece of yourself on the screen.

Bruce

The scenes in Woody’s old home must’ve been tough.

The scene in my parents’ room was the most personal and hardest scene I’ve had to do in my career because I let it all out there. I got the chance to be Woody and to also be Bruce Dern, talking to his mother and father. That was my point of reference. When I stand outside the barn, I’m remembering the actual room I grew up in. It was way the hell away from everyone else, out on the porch overlooking the lake. Yes, it had a magnificent view but there wasn’t enough heat. This from people who accomplished things with their lives. It wasn’t all necessarily good but they were political powers—two fantastic lawyers, a department-store owner, a poet. Everybody did stuff except me, so I was sent to camp every year for five years.

You weren’t supposed to be “doing stuff.” You were a kid.

It wasn’t about my age, it was about the drill. My brother did exactly what they wanted and I did not. The only time they supported me was when I was a speed skater, from 5 to 12, for the Catholic Youth Organization, even though I wasn’t Catholic. The families came to the frozen lake and had a picnic in their Town & Country station wagons, watching all the little Brucies skate around on silver skates. That’s the only time they ever came to watch me. When I got into track, they didn’t come because people of other races and ethnic groups were involved. One time I had a fight with my mother about that and she said skating was more “romantic.” She remembered how she and my father skated together hand in hand when they were young.

We had nine people living in the house, five Derns and four servants. When I was bored at the dinner table, I’d take my plate into the kitchen and eat with Lennox, our chauffeur who was a black man. I liked to talk to him about baseball and what I was doing in school because he was interested. One time, when Grandfather MacLeish was there, Mother told me I’d “crossed a line” by leaving the dinner table to eat with Lennox. I said I felt sorry for Lennox. Grandfather said: “Why? He gets a half-day off on Thursday and all day Sunday. Just don’t do it again, Bruce. Ever.”

Nebraska Bruce Dern house

You referenced all this family history in your scenes?

It was coursing through me as Woody for the whole movie. At the homestead, Will asks if I ever wanted to farm like my dad. That would be like asking me if I ever wanted to be a lawyer, like my real-life dad, or run a department store like my mother’s family. Woody utters the magic words: “I don’t remember.” There’s a line deleted from that scene that I miss: “You can’t do it over again.” Nobody can relive their life. 

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