Bright Lights Film Journal

Racing with Bruce Dern: A Memoir

“The first time I saw him – in his grungy sweats, slouching around the dim, indoor, eleven-laps-to-the mile track – he already had the snarky, shambling look that would become so familiar to filmgoers, and the vexed, contrary air of a pariah eager for the public eye.”

For his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Bruce Dern has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Actor of 2013. It is Dern’s second Oscar nomination (he was a runner-up for Best Supporting Actor in 1978) but his first for Best Actor. The honor is a surprising and implausible victory for a seventy-seven-year-old journeyman actor long known for supporting roles that have been mostly minor and have usually conformed to a narrow and predictable type.

Bruce Dern in an early publicity shot

Typecasting has provided the complex plotline of Dern’s long career. It has kept him in steady work over the span of a half-century, and sustained him through a star-crossed and star-deprived run of eighty films and counting, but at the same time it has sabotaged him, imprisoning him in a seemingly endless loop of repetitive, marginal, forgettable roles. The type that entrapped him – which emerged in his first film – was based to a striking degree on his own apparent personality, or at least on the persona he had when I knew him. The great majority of his roles have borne a strong resemblance to the Dern I knew in high school, in 1954, when we were runners on the New Trier track team.

The first time I saw him – in his grungy sweats, slouching around the dim, indoor, eleven-laps-to-the mile track – he already had the snarky, shambling look that would become so familiar to filmgoers, and the vexed, contrary air of a pariah eager for the public eye. His contradictions caught your attention. He had a stagy sense of self but looked uncomfortable in his skin; he was a star in the world of high school athletics but didn’t look or act like one.

New Trier Township High School in the 1950s

A sophomore that year, I was the Junior Varsity’s mainstay at the half-mile; Dern, a senior, was the varsity star in the same event. I was in awe of him, and fascinated by him, not only because he was the reigning champion at my own distance, but because I recognized him as a dark doppelganger. A self-defined poet, I believed that inwardly I was an intensely artistic and rebellious soul, a Van Gogh or Rimbaud in the making, but outwardly, in fact, I was as blandly mainstream as Perry Como, and I tended to be withdrawn, the better to keep out of trouble. Dern by contrast seemed relentlessly different, aggressively out of step, and, whether he was being obstreperous or entertaining, he always called attention to himself. He seemed as cantankerous as the characters he would one day play. At a time when outlandish behavior was not widely approved (this was not the l960s or 1970s but the Eisenhower years, the Gray Flannel era), he could be irrepressibly weird and shamelessly provocative, quick with sneers and sardonic wisecracks, ready with infantile but inventive obscenities.

He was a misfit. Six feet tall, he looked taller because he was so thin, and yet he slouched, as if posture was something only a square would care about. His frame was spindly at the top, thanks to his sloped shoulders and narrow chest, but from the waist down he looked powerful, thanks to disproportionately long legs and ropy thighs.

He was the best half-miler in our league and one of the best in the state, despite a style that was sui generis and a bit of a mess, like most things about him. He leaned forward as he ran, pumping his arms exaggeratedly, letting his head loll while his anxious face flickered through a repertoire of pained grimaces and wild-eyed looks.

Dern in ‘The Zanti Misfits’ episode of The Outer Limits, 1963

At a time when most of us had crew-cuts or DA’s, Dern had hair that was shapeless, thin, stringy, and sprouting in mad-professor fashion except where tangled and matted. He had a long, gaunt face and a narrow, feral smile that would strike casting directors as just right for dead-end drifters or menacing hooligans, and a high nasal voice perfectly pitched for a psycho’s cackle.

But the Dern I knew at New Trier was more outré than frightening, more of an enfant terrible than a demon. Once when I was coming along behind him in the school cafeteria, as we pushed our trays down the line he harassed the ladies behind the counter by comparing the food to bodily emissions, an affront they had done nothing to deserve – but that was Dern.

Or one version of Dern. His antics might have been a mask, crafted for audience mpact. But if the snarky, snarling Dern was only an act, it was act that would get badly out of control and threaten to consume his career.

I took him at face value, however, and judged him to be authentic: a rebel whose outsider credentials were in good order. Track was therefore the perfect sport for him, especially distance running, which has a rich vein of natural angst that makes it ideal for brooding nonconformists and troubled spirits. Those of us who ran the most punishing distances saw ourselves as beyond the pale, a periphery from which we looked back wistfully but condescendingly on normal lives. Born to suffer, we suffered from the pain of training, and from neglect: no one save the odd guilty parent or dragooned classmate ever came to watch us.

Such obscurity we accepted with stoic resignation, knowing that while football and basketball players were showered in glory, while even swimmers attracted audiences and wrestlers had fans, we were doomed to compete unseen, to run in silence. That was all right. We had chosen a sport that required martyrdom, and the choice made us rueful but proud.

I saw Dern as the embodiment of our contradictions, the enactor of our troubled emotions, and I took him as a hero, if a subversive one – an antihero. The conventional heroes of our team were the hurdler Dick Fisk, who skimmed across the barriers like a jaguar while his head stayed dead-level and his gaze lasered straight ahead; the sprinter John Hoban, who burst through the hundred-yard dash as if rocket-propelled; the majestic Palmer Pyle, all-star football lineman and champion heavyweight wrestler, who descended among us in the spring to throw the discus. They were the true heroes, the real stars, the precursors of Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford and John Voight, cast in the leads while Dern was relegated to the margins.

But he was compelling. Dern might not get the girl or get out alive, but he meant to get your attention, and he did. Before a race, while the rest of us fretted quietly and kept to ourselves, Dern turned the mechanics of warming up into a theatrical torment, twisting his long frame into the baroque contortions of a Bernini sculpture, groaning all the while. And after the race he was our nonpareil at puking. For distance runners, post-race nausea was so inevitable that we accepted it as a badge of honor, a sign of our sterner calling. You never saw sprinters being sick. What did they have to be sick about?

The Dying Gaul

We all got sick, but Dern was the maestro of the genre. I saw him give his finest post-race performance on a dazzling spring afternoon at the Suburban League Championships. After winning the half-mile, he walked to the center of the field, fell to his hands and knees, and crawled in a circle, retching loudly. When his dry heaves subsided, he lay on his side, resting on his elbow, and gazed disconsolately on the festive scene where pole-vaulters’ lances tilted skyward and javelins sailed through the air. I recalled his pose when I saw the Roman statue of the Dying Gaul in the Palatine Museum: a naked warrior collapsing on his side, taking a last, tragic look at the world.

There was no one like him, as he knew – and he wanted you to know it too. I can still see him as he was that afternoon – as clearly as if a crane-mounted camera zoomed down and kept zooming through the high-jumpers and long-jumpers, discus-hurlers and shot-putters, until it isolated his image.

The only time I ran against Dern head-to-head was at an indoor meet on a bleak winter night. We had taken a long and tedious bus ride to a school at the outskirts of our league, the other team offered no competition, the atmosphere was desultory. So the coaches decided to drum up some interest. Let’s change things, they thought, let’s pull Hahn out of the JV half-mile, run him in the varsity with Dern. See how he does.

Dern was startled to see me.

“You’re running with us?”

“That’s what they told me.”

He shrugged, the gun cracked, and we were off. Dern bolted into the lead and I was at his heels as we headed into the first turn. We ran in tandem, around and around until the last lap. Usually when runners begin the final lap of a race, the starter fires his gun as a signal, but that night he saved his ammunition and settled for shouting “LAST LAP” as we ran by. Then I had my epiphany. I realized I could pass Dern.

We were trained in the method of passing: first you readied yourself as you approached a curve and then you accelerated through it, overtaking the prey as you came around the curve, pulling ahead as you sped down the straightaway. I could do it, I was sure. I could take Dern by surprise, I could win – but what would he think? That I had snookered him when he was unsuspecting, shown him up in public? And what if I became known as the sophomore who beat Bruce Dern? (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? The guy who gunned down John Wayne?) And if so, would I then have a new role to play? Be an honorary grown-up? Hang out with Fisk and Hoban and Pyle?

It was all beyond my ambition. I stayed where I was, right behind him, listening to our ragged breathing and the crunch of our spikes on the cinders, until Dern broke the string and we stopped. He turned to me with a look of annoyed incredulity.

“What the fuck!”

He supposed the footsteps behind him had been those of an opponent, threatening to pass him and forcing him to run the race – which he had expected to be uneventful – in a state of anxiety. He never supposed they were the footsteps of a pipsqueak from the JV.

Dern in The Cowboys (1972)

“That was you? You scared the shit out of me, you little prick.”

Next fall he was gone. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, a choice typical for New Trier graduates, who regarded going east, preferably to an Ivy League school, as the right note, although it clashed with my sense of Dern as maverick. I didn’t know at the time how well it fit with his background, a family tree numbering Archibald MacLeish and Adlai Stevenson among its branches. If Dern needed a cause for his rebellion, perhaps his family had amply provided it – or perhaps his patrician lineage was a clue to a Dern I didn’t know.

Penn, in any case, was a brief detour through propriety. He dropped out, signed up for the Actors Studio, and jump-started his film career by playing a thug who beat up Montgomery Clift in Kazan’s Wild River (1960). The typecasting began just as quickly.

Through the 1960s, Dern appeared frequently in film and on television, becoming known for supporting roles in a thin range, mostly troubled and agitated, often deranged or drug-addled goons – at best weirdos, at worst killers. Aside from Hitchcock’s Marnie and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Hang ‘Em High, his films from that decade are mostly forgotten, his roles in them minor, and much the same. He was trapped in type.

Dern, Julie Anne Robertson, and Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Escape from the trap came in the 1970s when Jack Nicholson directed him in Drive, He Said, a springboard to Dern’s lead in Silent Running and to his role opposite Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens. These breakthroughs led to choicer parts: Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (with Robert Redford), the Superbowl terrorist in Black Sunday (a summation of his deranged bad guys, but the lead, in a big-studio, big-budget picture), and then – his ascent to true respectability – the aggrieved husband in the famous Vietnam film Coming Home. Dern’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

There was no reason to fear that Coming Home would be his highest peak, and that beyond its summit, the arc of his career would sink back to its 1960s level and stay there, flat-lined, but that is exactly what happened. He regressed to typecast fate. Having climbed within sight of stardom, he saw it receding again, more elusive than ever.

Coming Home poster

David Thomson, in the third edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, took the theatrical poster for Coming Home as a trope for Dern’s career. Embracing in the poster’s foreground are the lovers, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight; watching from the background is the husband, a “suspicious Bruce Dern, his eyes lime pits of paranoia and resentment.” After Coming Home, Thomson wrote (doggedly pursuing his metaphor), “the plot took hold – the plot Dern’s eyes had always believed – the plot to shaft him. His career began to decline and the line has not stopped.”

Dern in Monster

Thomson delivered this verdict in 1993. Dern has had twenty years since then to prove Thomson wrong, and he has not spent them waiting by the phone but, rather, racking up another twenty film credits (along with countless guest spots in TV series). When you scan the list, you may say, yes, I remember him – he was in Monster, a wino who befriends Charlize Theron, and he was somebody, I’m not sure who, in Django Unchained – but you will be struck by how many of his films you have not seen, how many you haven’t heard of.

It was the 1960s all over again for Dern. He remained a familiar face for filmgoers, if an aging one, and was still respected in the industry as a reliable pro, but he was again consigned to minor roles – he was back to playing assorted cretins. There is little in this record to counter Thomson’s image of Dern, stranded in the background, neglected and sulking.

It all changed, finally, at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. A half-century after beating up Montgomery Clift, Dern received Cannes’ Best Actor prize for his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The awards and nominations have been flowing in ever since, setting the stage for his Oscar nomination.

Dern with Stacy Keach in Nebraska

When Payne read the script for Nebraska, nine years ago, Dern was the first actor he thought of, not surprisingly, since its protagonist, Woody, a cranky old coot, is an age-appropriate version of a standard Dern type. (Get me a Bruce Dern type! What about Bruce Dern?) But Payne went on to consider another fifty actors, including De Niro and Nicholson, and his first choice would probably have been Gene Hackman, except that Hackman had retired. Asked why he picked Dern in the end, Payne said, “Well, he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he’s a cool actor. . . . and he’s a helluva nice guy as well.”

A helluva nice guy? Photographed at Cannes, decked out in tuxedo and black tie, Dern looks too good to be true, too spruce and presentable, his freshly washed white hair flowing back from a brow that looks almost noble, above a filled-out face that is ruddily tanned, like a star’s. Is that Dern?

My most indelible image of him dates from a warm, muggy evening in May 1954. The occasion is the annual New Trier track team banquet. A graduating senior, Dern sits at a table in front; I am sitting in back with the other sophomores.

The banquet is where varsity athletes receive their “letter,” a green N made of thickly embossed felt, suitable for sewing on a sweater. After the letters are handed out, a number of special awards are presented, among them the Toilet Seat Award, given to the most foul-mouthed member of the team. Dern is called up to receive the award – an actual toilet seat.

He leans down obligingly as the seat is lowered over his head and draped around his sloping shoulders. He stands, smiling, while the team captain tells a story, recalling the bus ride back from the state championship meet in Champaign, where New Trier had done poorly. The team had been glum, the mood in the darkened bus, grim. Dern had taken it on himself to cheer up his teammates, and by the time they got home, he had restored their good humor.

Were there always two Derns, the churlish punk and the amiable consoler? The best evidence for Payne’s helluva nice guy, paradoxically, lies in the nasty characters Dern played – that is, not in the characters as such, but in the fact of his being able to play them, continually, for fifty years. A bankable star can get away with mayhem, but no supporting player gets to make eighty films by being a jerk on the set.

The Dern I knew in high school was a creature of my impressions and imagination, and aside from our one mano-a-mano race – on that bleak, boring, and otherwise forgettable winter evening – they were impressions received from a respectful distance. I was a mere sophomore while Dern was a senior, one of the giants in the earth, looking larger than life, as if projected on a high, wide screen.

And now, here he is again – here at last, at the age of seventy-seven, the star he has always wanted to be.

Dern has compared this last-gasp comeback to hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and two strikes, but I prefer to think of it as an amazing finish in the half-mile. In my metaphor, Dern has been running behind the field until the last lap. Now he makes his move, accelerating through the curve, bursting down the backstretch, taking the lead. He breaks the tape and lifts his arms.

The grandstand – in a stroke of magical realism – is full of fans. When they see Dern at the finish line, they recognize him – they know this man. Hey, look, that’s Bruce Dern! But they have been accustomed to seeing him back in the pack, an also-ran jostling for position, his face haggard with strain, etched with disappointment.

As the fans start to recognize him, they cheer more loudly. Dern looks mildly surprised and somewhat bemused, but not ill at ease. He has always been comfortable as the center of attention, even if rarely at center stage.

When David Thomson drew his critical portrait of Dern in 1993, he wrote that Dern “can be fearsome, loathsome, or pitiful, but he is neither calm nor commanding.” Whether Dern at this late date could be commanding is a fair question (I can imagine him playing Lear with a certain gravitas, at least in the final scene – he’s the right age for that role too), but in my finish-line image of him, he looks calm, at least, so let’s give him that. Beaming at the crowd, accepting the applause, he looks approachable, amenable. Flamboyant, yes – a bit flashy, as befits a natural show-off – but apparently a nice guy. And a winner. A star at last.