Last week I had another Bruce Dern sighting. I was re-watching the 2003 film Monster, in which a de-glamorized Charlize Theron plays serial killer Aileen Wuornos. There was Dern, as a kindly Vietnam vet who doesn’t realize his gal-pal is capable of murder. As always, he was wholly convincing.
Bruce Dern has racked up 144 acting credits since he started out in live TV in 1960. He’s been directed by Elia Kazan (Wild River), Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot), and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained). He earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1978’s Coming Home. And this year he’s reveling in his Best Actor nod for Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s well-observed indie about a cantankerous old man with quixotic dreams.
It couldn’t have happened to a more interesting guy. In contrast to Nebraska’s taciturn Woody Grant, Bruce Dern is a compulsive talker. A few years back, he and I spoke about film in the Sixties. Of course we touched on Roger Corman, who directed Bruce in The Wild Angels, The Trip, and Bloody Mama. Bruce still regrets that Roger stuck to formula, and “never really chose to direct a bigger budgeted movie with a great story.” Instead, Roger’s directing career was “a continuation of the Sam Katzman drill. He became the master of it, but he’s better than what he did.”
Reminiscing about his Hells Angels role for Corman, Bruce segued into a philosophical discussion of why he adores playing bad guy roles: “When I began acting, I realized that in American historical western culture, bad guys were more celebrated in one way or another than good guys or anybody else. And the bad guys had to be celebrated, because they had game. They had social skills. They were not just mf-ers. They could play cards. They could ride. They could obviously shoot. They could obviously womanize. They could gamble. They could do a multitude of things.”
Despite his appreciation for bad guys (he shot John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys), Bruce also has high regard for the man on the white horse. Such a man was his godfather, Adlai Stevenson, who twice was the Democratic nominee for president. Bruce once asked Stevenson (his father’s law partner and best friend) how he had changed as a candidate from 1952 to 1956. Taking both his hands, Stevenson said, “Bruce, in 1952 I came in on what I thought was a fairly white horse.” Then Stevenson’s eyes filled with tears, as he continued, “In 1956, that horse was a lot greyer, and I realized I can’t do this anymore. . . . As long as you live, you can vote however you want, wherever you want, but don’t vote for that office unless you see somebody on a white horse.” Bruce sums up this surprising conversation by noting, “I’ve never voted for president in my life. Can you blame me?”
My friend and fellow writer Diana Caldwell had her own Bruce Dern encounter not long ago. She was in a Brentwood stationery store, contemplating some fancy script covers, when a tall, guy with greying hair and a raspy voice engaged her in chat. Thirty minutes flew by as he emphasized how proud he was of his actress-daughter Laura, and encouraged Diana to submit material to the writing staff of his show, Big Love. Diana insists it was no pick-up attempt: just a friendly chap who enjoyed connecting with others in the biz. At this year’s Telluride Festival, she barely missed the chance to say hello. Here’s hoping that, post-Oscars, Bruce Dern remains his approachable self.