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Bruce Dern's long run to 'Nebraska'

Christopher Borrelli

11:41 AM EST, November 11, 2013

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Bruce Dern runs. 

Almost every day. 

He has run most of his life. A track star at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka in the late 1950s, he tried out for the Olympic team in 1956 (but finished ninth in his division). On camera, though, Dern, now 77, is much more pokey. 

In "Nebraska," the new Alexander Payne movie for which Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring, he moves with a paradoxical mix of tentativeness and inertia, the loose jocularity of his 1970s oddballs replaced by an elderly man who appears determined to get somewhere and just as determined not to reveal the strain on him. Dern plays Woody Grant, a Midwestern octogenarian crank who insists on traveling from Montana to Nebraska to collect $1 million promised by a junk-mail sweepstakes. Woody will walk if no one will drive. No one will. 

His wife (played by southern Illinois native June Squibb) tells him he's nuts; his oldest son (played by Naperville's Bob Odenkirk) wants no part of it. But then his youngest (played by former "Saturday Night Live" star Will Forte) gives in, considering it an opportunity to bond. During the brief road trip there's a scene in which Dern ambles across the empty bedroom of an old farmhouse. It's a simple scene: The home was owned by Woody's parents, but Woody says little. He seems shellshocked, haunted. He crosses to an upstairs window, stares out and says if his parents knew he was there, he'd be whipped. But there's no one to whip him now. 

When Oscar season rolls around and Dern, in all likelihood, becomes a serious contender for a best actor Oscar for the first time in a career that has spanned six decades, it will be for nearly wordless moments like that, ripe with memory, regret and ache. And in more ways than one. Asked about the scene, Dern, back in Chicago recently for the first time in years, replied matter-of-factly: "That's about Glencoe." A surprisingly emotional guy considering his years as Hollywood's go-to lunatic, his voice broke: "That's about the North Shore."  His blue eyes misted. "The most honest parallel between my life and my career is that scene," he said. "My parents are in there. And so is the 18-month-old who Diane (Ladd, his second wife) and I lost in a swimming pool (drowning in the early 1960s). All of the hard stuff that's happened in my life, it's right in there. I would have had an American Family soap bar shoved down my throat if my parents had found me in their bedroom, and my mother would take a strap to me sometimes. But it's not the strap that hurt, it was the metal tip. My mother, she would hit me for the most meaningless things. Like, I didn't make my bed. 'Well,' I'd say, 'we have five people in this house who make beds!' It was privilege talking, I know. But we had several servants, and we were pigs because of that." 

As a child, Dern wore white gloves to dinner. He raised his hand before being acknowledged by his parents. He lived in Glencoe; his home was built by renowned architect Louis Sullivan. His bedroom overlooked Lake Michigan. He has a pedigree. The last time Dern spoke to his mother, in the early '70s (she died soon after), she was still trying to get him to move back to Chicago, he said. "I think I was being groomed to take over the store," he said. 

Meaning, the Carson Pirie Scott department store chain, which his great-grandfather co-founded. "We owned 51 percent," he continued, "so my mother, she said, 'Look, give up this foolishness. I'll put you through law school, you'll go to Carsons, maybe do little plays at the Goodman, get this acting thing out of your system.' I said I was doing movies. She said she couldn't bring anyone to see anything I had made." 

Though it was still relatively early in his career, Dern was established: With close friend Jack Nicholson, he made "Drive, He Said" (1971) and was shooting "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972). He had a sci-fi blockbuster in theaters, "Silent Running" (1972). By the end of the decade, he would be a best supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Coming Home" (1978). He would be reunited with his "Marnie" director Alfred Hitchcock for "Family Plot." But he made his reputation working with low-budget king Roger Corman. He lost his head in a movie. Ate a baby. Tried bombing the Super Bowl ("Black Sunday"). He had a knack for playing unhinged. 

And it stuck. 

Even his mother asked: Hadn't he shot John Wayne in the back and killed him? He had, in "The Cowboys" (1972). "I said, 'But it's a movie, mother.' And she said, 'Oh, Bruce, your grandfather will never understand.' " Indeed, talk to Dern long enough and you realize that his role as Tom Buchanan, North Shore son of privilege in the 1974 adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," one of the few times he was cast against type, was eerily spot on. 

"Dad's history is incredible," actress Laura Dern, his daughter with Ladd, said by phone. "When you come from that kind of money, there is a classism you are raised around and a pressure to continue the lineage. But he prided himself on going against it. He would not be a member of the club. And he had political lineage, business lineage, poetic lineage, and he becomes an actor! The ultimate rebellion! My mom is from small-town Mississippi, and that's phenomenal, but dad, to have stature waiting, then take the road less traveled? To say, 'You know what, I'm out.' It cost him. His parents never accepted acting. But it's beautiful, right?"    

Chances are, if you have thought at all about Bruce Dern in the past 30 years, everything you assumed you know is quite wrong. You know him as a quintessential supporting actor, which he is; discussing his big moment at Cannes, even Dern slips, referring to his win for "best supporting actor." But to watch him in "Nebraska" is to realize he's always been a leading man, one whose ability to reveal the natural quirks and vulnerabilities in hateful men arrived in Hollywood a few decades too early for Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze.    

"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)."

Yes, Dern, famed for his sketchy, wild-eyed characters, says he has never taken a drink in his life, or smoked a cigarette -- a reaction, he said, to watching his own parents drink and smoke too much at home.

He arrived at the Original Pancake House in the Gold Coast on a drizzly weekday morning. Sitting down, he said: "How did you know? Every year I get asked where I want to eat for my birthday, and every year I want to go to IHOP! My business partner, my wife (Andrea Beckett) and Laura all schlep along. I order a crepe, even though they always put berries and (expletive) on it, which is for Switzerland, frankly -- don't (expletive) tell me I need a berry, IHOP!" He turned to the waitress and nicely said how much he likes IHOP. "You're in Original Pancake House, honey," she replied. And Dern ran a hand across his face: "Now I feel like an (expletive)." He said all this very loudly. He ordered pancakes, which he coated with an inch of butter, then drowned in a deluge of syrup until only the very tops of the pancakes could be seen.    

"Bruce is no lunatic," said Squibb, who is 84. "I always thought of him as that wonderful actor who never got a chance. But that's not even as surprising as, once you know about his family, how much of his childhood he lost and the relationship he had with his proper parents -- kind of strained -- how less than proper he is."

Asked about his family, he took a bite of pancake and said, "Nobody ever wants to know that stuff." 

Asked again, he swallowed, sat up straight, and said: "My name is Bruce MacLeish Dern. I was born in Rush, what was Presbyterian Hospital then. The MacLeishes started the Carson Pirie Scott department store. I lived on Mary Street in Glencoe. Pass though these ravines, you come out right near it, on the lake side of Sheridan Road. Burke and Locke was the name of our home. My grandfather lived about a block away" -- though 12 acres separated the homes -- "and my great-uncle was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and playwright and librarian of Congress. And that's basically the MacLeishes. George Dern was my other grandfather. He was a two-time Utah governor and a Democrat who became the secretary of war for FDR." Dern's father, John Dern, was a prominent Chicago attorney whose business partner was Aldai Stevenson III, the former U.S. senator.    

Anyway, that's how you become connected. He called up an old picture of his childhood home on his phone and held it there a moment. It had gables, turrets, a long porch -- a kind of Southern plantation crossed with a Cape Cod gothic. He said he was sent to the prestigious Choate prep school in Connecticut because his parents didn't like the class of children he played with (or that he was gambling on the Cubs at 9 years old); he said he was caught cheating and thrown out, finishing his last two years of high school at New Trier. "Then, fast as I could, I got the hell out." 

He describes a chilly home life of social climbing and little imagination. When he told his family he was leaving to be an actor, "I became persona non grata. So I said, 'Archie is an artist!' And they said, 'Archie is a man of letters, and you are no artist.' They told me, 'Give up acting or don't bother staying in Chicago.' " 

He said he wanted to be an actor because he had spent a childhood trying to communicate. He attended the University of Pennsylvania to run track; he left after two years and was accepted into the famed Actors Studio in New York. His father died the same week he started classes, and within a few years ... "A door cracks open," Dern said. "Which means you have three minutes, so when this one casting director was on the phone while I was in his office, I got angry: 'You've taken two minutes of my life here, and, if you're looking for a piece, I can get you better than you'll find on the phone.' He told me to get the hell out. But in the outer office was Jack (Nicholson) and Harry (Dean Stanton), and the guy was so mad he threw us all out. Then he said: 'Wait. There's this TV show. They need three (expletives). You guys are perfect.' "    

By the '70s, Dern was known for what Nicholson later coined "Dernsies": off-kilter little twitches and improvisations."But the way I see it, dad was really a pioneer at showing empathy for a character's heavy flaws," Laura Dern said. "As a kid, he never talked to me about acting. Only history, Illinois politics, maps of the world. People would say, 'Your dad killed John Wayne!' Or 'I saw your dad's head roll down the stairs in a movie!' But it was only when I became an actor did I appreciate what he had been doing. He had taken in everything he grew up around and decided that he would play troubled characters. And it became his thing, of course. But he would play them without judgment. It's a reaction to his background, and it was brave."    

"Nebraska," not unlike the landscape on which it unfolds, contains few Dernsies. "Those only used to come -- the overacting, the pushing, the selling -- because maybe the dialogue was not as good as I had wanted," Dern said. Payne, however, is a two-time Academy Award winner for best adapted screenplay ("Sideways," "The Descendants") and was nominated for "Election." Though "Nebraska" was written by a relative unknown named Bob Nelson, early into its production Payne pulled Dern aside. Anticipating the scene-stealing instincts of his lead actor, he recalled saying: "I want you to do something you haven't done: Let me do my job. Don't show us anything. I am the director; trust me to find you in this picture."    

For Payne -- "I needed a guy you could believe as an old prairie dog" -- the part had been tricky to cast. "I just know that when casting a well-known actor, I encourage him or her to become the unique person being portrayed, relax into the part and not reach into any bag of tricks," he said. "Mr. Dern himself refers to certain things he has done in the past as 'Dernsies.' ... I adore Mr. Dern's previous performances, but in the moment of making this film, I wished to see only the character of Woody Grant. My wish was granted." 

The picture, which was shot in black and white (though charcoal and gray is more accurate), opens on Dern trudging along a highway, eyes bewildered, chest thrust forward, pushing ahead as though walking against a gale-force wind. His hair curls away in white waves, his awareness of his surroundings looks questionable; a fog of age has settled on Woody, whose watchfulness and persistence suggests more scarecrow than man. 

"Bruce has been around so long, he knows how a simple look registers on camera," Squibb said. Laura Dern said Payne -- who cast Dern as the title character in "Citizen Ruth," his 1996 feature debut -- had wanted her father to play Woody for many years. Perhaps fittingly, though, the role was offered initially to Gene Hackman, who, like Bruce Dern, was an alum of New York's Actors Studio. 

Indeed, Bruce Dern considers the role of Woody "basically (an Actors) Studio exercise. The first year I was there I did my scenes without dialogue because they didn't want to give me the responsibility of words. I was trained to just observe, watch, think. I suppose my generation of actors suffered because we thought it was all about behavior, grit and loudness. Everyone wanted to be Dean and Brando, who were Actors Studio members. So by the time I went there, everyone had bad habits, and teachers there didn't want that to happen to me. I became their Frankenstein." 

A cobbled-together actor of competing instincts, who could pull authentic, surprising moments from often thinly conceived villains and transients, Dern become better known for his loudness and unpredictability. 

Woody, though, brings Dern back to day one, class one. The role suggests the traditional, leading-man career Dern might have had. Tellingly, before "Nebraska" played Cannes, the film was shown to Nicholson, who directed Dern in "Drive, He Said," which earned Dern a best supporting actor award from the National Society of Film Critics.

"Later, while making 'Marvin Gardens,' Jack left a gold statue on my dresser," Dern recalled. "It read 'Your First Gold.' After 'Nebraska,' he turned in his seat and said, 'Dernsie, I'll get you your second gold.' " Which is why Nicholson is hosting the Los Angeles premiere of "Nebraska." As Dern said this, his eyes filled with tears again. Two women at a nearby table, eavesdropping, batted at their own eyes. 

Asked if he's looking forward to Oscar season, which promises to reunite him with another old friend, Robert Redford, who is getting strong notices for his own nearly wordless performance in the shipwreck adventure "All Is Lost," Dern sidestepped the question a bit, reaching for a familiar metaphor, but inserted a Dernsie:

"Look, I'm no way near the finish line yet. I don't know what the finish line looks like. Woody doesn't know what the finish line looks like. He's trying to get through the day. As am I, and so I run. I still run. I started running long distances years ago, because, as an actor, when you're not working, there's nothing to do. My career is like that. Running long distances, you catch people. ... You think, '(Expletive), I can catch up to that fatty.' And, 'Oh, I can definitely catch up to that girl.' So you start picking people off, which keeps you going 10 miles, provided God doesn't say, 'No, you're done.' It's like Wrigley Field, where you could play as long as you liked once, provided that you weren't playing at night: Find yourself at twilight and you're (expletive)."    

He let his mouth hang open, that familiar toothy smile large and expectant. Talking to him is like talking to an old friend leaving a party: He hovers at the threshold, lapsing into just one more story, unwilling to leave.    

"To answer your question," he said, returning to the Oscars ("Finally!" a publicist whispered to the ceiling, within earshot, jokingly), "to respond to what you're asking, to tell you the truth, I'm not dreaming of the Big One." Meaning, he's not dreaming of winning an Academy Award for best actor. 

"I just want to be invited to the dinner. I like the peas! I want to keep working. See" -- the publicist threw her head back in happy amazement, anticipating another epic digression -- "I was involved with this documentary, 'A Decade Under the Influence' (about the Golden Age of American cinema in the '60s and '70s), and as (Martin) Scorsese was coming out of the interview room, I was going in. And Marty says, 'You going to retire?' And I said, 'I'm going to retire now? So that Jimmy Caan can take all the parts I should be getting? Well, (expletive) that!' " 

Glencoe would be shocked. 

cborrelli@tribune.com