This may turn out to be a history lesson rather than a review but Bruce Dern has a long movie history and he has also played in just about every television show most people currently in their 50s watched while growing up.
There is a lot of co-incidence too – say Three Degrees of Separation rather than the better-known Six – and it all came together because of an Alexander Payne movie called Nebraska (2013).
Dern is an old man and plays himself older as Woody Grant, an alcoholic, married, father of two grown men. Woody doesn’t seem to do much harm until he begins walking towards Lincoln, Nebraska from his home, two states away, in Billings, Montana. He walks because he believes he has won a million dollars, although it is obvious to everyone about him that this is just the old Readers Digest, Gold Coast Art Raffle scam of getting people to send their address back to the proponents and eventually end up with magazine subscriptions.
However, Woody is a stubborn old man and eventually son David (Will Forte) decides to escape his mundane life for a moment and take his father where he wants to go.
David learns more about his parents in the week he travels with his father than in his previous 30 years and the tale is set against a backdrop of rural emptiness, rugged beauty and the apparent wasteland that is bible belt USA. Shot in black and white it was reminiscent of The Last Picture Show (1971), Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece of small town life and the angst of teenagers reaching maturity. In more than 40 years all that seems to have changed in the small American towns is wind – West Texas was gusty, Nebraska becalmed. In Picture Show the town was dying, in Nebraska, Main Street USA had been given the last rites years before. Yet people still live there, except live should have inverted commas around it.
So how good was Dern? Damn good. He has been good before but so often played a psycho that it was hard to get an accurate bead on him. Most know of his significant body of work but name two films he has been in? Significantly, he was the cuckolded soldier in Coming Home (1978) with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and received an Oscar nomination for it but how many remember he was Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1974), opposite Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
He appeared, but never regularly, in Route 66, Naked City, Sea Hunt, Surfside 6, Ben Casey, The Detectives, Stoney Burke and 77 Sunset Strip on television but his first three films were steered by stellar company. In 1960, Dern’s first movie was Wild River, directed by Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire) before heading to TV. Four years after his debut, Dern turned up in Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock at the helm and his next film was Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, The Killing of Sister George). The respective leads in these films were Montgomery Clift, Sean Connery and Bette Davis – the man was always surrounded by legends.
Yet when interviewed recently, Dern declared Payne the best director he had worked with.
Payne knows a thing or two about a road movie, which essentially is Nebraska’s genre.
He made About Schmidt (2002), where Jack Nicholson travels across country in his RV after his wife’s death and Sideways (2004) where two friends go on a wine pilgrimage through California.
In About Schmidt, June Squibb makes a brief appearance as Schmidt’s wife but has a far greater turn as Woody’s wife, Kate, in Nebraska and, apart from friendship, Dern has a further connection with Nicholson, playing his brother in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972).
The Academy Award-nominated role in Coming Home reunited Dern with Fonda as the two played key roles in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) – in which Gig Young won a Best Supporting Oscar, playing outside his usual typecasting as a wise-cracking best friend of the lead in early 1960s rom-coms. The Oscar curse was harsher on Young, who later committed suicide (jumping to his death with his recently married wife, whose maiden name was Schmidt), but it also had its effect on Dern, who failed to flatter in the limited roles offered him during the1980s as he attempted to break his angry, psychotic typecast.
Another coincidence involves Forte and Bob Odenkirk, who plays Woody’s other son, Ross. Both are writers and cut their performing teeth on Saturday Night Live with Odenkirk more recently earning cult fandom playing cheesy lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (2008-13), a series which is in almost any thinking person’s top 10 of the best television ever made.
But back to Nebraska and its central message – the hopelessness of many in rural America.
Clues as to its origins may lie in the birth places of the writer, Bob Nelson (Yankton, South Dakota) and Payne (Omaha, Nebraska). These men grew up in these towns when they may still have had something going for them. They escaped to bigger and better things but understood the deeper nuances of those who remained.
Phedon Papamichael, like Payne of Greek descent, created some beautiful camera work and Mark Orton’s score added mightily to the effect.
All certainly created a vehicle for Dern and, as in the final scene, he drives it carefully but well.