Marathon Man: Bruce Dern
Bruce Dern is one of Hollywood's true eccentrics. Despite being one of the movie world's legendary hard men, he never drank, never smoked dope, never did coke, never smoked a cigarette. Apart from losing the Nineties to a Vicodin addiction after a shoulder injury, his main vice, Erik Hedegaard finds, was running and maybe women. Now, at the end of his career, with the great roles having eluded him, Dern is finally getting the credit he deserves; for his extraordinary performance in 'Nebraska'
At a post office in Santa Monica, Bruce Dern sticks a key into PO box number 1581 and cracks open the door. You never know what you'll find. Dern has rented the box since 1963, and drives here 50 miles every weekday from his home in Pasadena. Early on, he thought he might find the box filled with fan mail but, when his acting career never took off the way it did for buddies Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford, he kept the box anyway -- a matter of habit, obstinacy and hopeful thinking. Today, he thrusts his hand inside, noodles it around, goes even deeper, pulls out a single envelope and holds it up. "Oh, I got a note," he says, brightly. Well, it's some kind of credit-card offer. He blinks at it, folds it in half and carries it with him as he shuffles toward the front door.
He's 77 years old. He's got a new movie, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, with him playing an addled old coot, who thinks he's won $1m in a publisher's clearing house-type sweepstakes and gets his son to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to pick up his winnings. As Woody Grant, Dern is gruff, silent, angry, distant, lost -- and he's never been better. His performance won him the best-actor prize at Cannes. He's being talked up for a Best Actor Oscar. Meanwhile, there's still no fan mail in his mailbox. Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.
Outside, he gets in his Toyota, doesn't bother with the seat belt, never does, and slides into the California traffic with aplomb. It's a sunny day. He's feeling pretty good. What's happening to him with Nebraska has been a long, long, long time coming.
Something about him has always repelled stardom. He's the greatest movie star ever who never actually became a movie star. It's the damnedest thing. In the late 1950s, he studied at the Actors Studio in New York, was a favourite of both Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg; moved to Hollywood in 1961; did Roger Corman movies like Bloody Mama and The Trip (written by Nicholson); biker movies like The Cycle Savages; TV Westerns like The Big Valley. Nicholson's career took off, Redford's, too, and anything still seemed possible. Dern was up for The Godfather, for Jaws, for Cuckoo's Nest. He had big directors in his corner: John Frankenheimer, Alfred Hitchcock. All he needed was something to hit. Instead, it went more like it did in 1972, when he got hired to shoot heroic John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys.
Dern shakes his head at the memory and says, "It was 8.30 in the morning when we did the scene, Wayne was already shitfaced on Wild Turkey, a bottle and a half. I could smell it on him, and he leans into me and says, 'Ohhh, how they're gonna hate you for this.'" And they did. Audiences could never forgive him. Even today, strangers will say to him, "You killed my buddy!"
Dern shrugs and drives, long, bony fingers wrapped over the wheel, eyes straight ahead.
He had some pretty big chances, too: The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, with Nicholson; The Great Gatsby, 1974, with Redford; Coming Home, 1978, playing a Vietnam vet, which earned him an Oscar nomination. But, while he certainly got name recognition, that was about all.
"Well," he says, "I was more panicked by that than depressed. And then, in 1979, I finally got what the industry calls a vehicle movie, Middle Age Crazy, with Ann-Margret." He pauses, time slips by. The movie tanked, he doesn't need to say it. But speaking of Ann-Margret, he's got a good story about shooting a love scene with her.
Hooking a right turn onto San Vicente, he says, "So I got in bed with her and she just said, 'What the hell's the matter with you?' Now, what do you think? I have to lay on top of her and fake my butt going up and down in rhythm to doing it. So I said, 'If I take my shorts off, I'm liable to get an erection and be rude. And, if I don't take my shorts off, I'm saying you don't turn me on.' And her husband, Roger, is watching the whole thing. So, what do you do?" He doesn't say. Instead, he smiles. "She is one of the great dames of all time."
He's got a million stories like that. They tumble out of him -- tales about Marilyn Monroe, Frankenheimer, Hitchcock and General Lew Wallace, who, if you don't know, sent Pat Garrett to bring out Billy the Kid from New Mexico dead or alive, and wrote the book Ben-Hur. He's a warehouse of arcane, off-kilter, old-Hollywood trivia.
"Suzanne Pleshette," he says at one point. "Her uncle was Norman Pleshette, one of the biggest gynaecologists in New York." How does a fact like that get lodged in your head?
In part, probably for the same reason that he chose to take his daughter, actress Laura Dern, where he did on a father-daughter road trip. "I'd just turned 18," she recalls, laughing, "and I said, 'You pick. Wherever you want to go.' And so he took me on a tour of California's ghost towns and state penitentiaries.
"And that, you know, kind of sums up Bruce. Growing up with him was wild."
It stands to reason, then, that almost all his career, he's excelled at playing fringe-element outsiders -- psychotics, freaks, dopers and stoners, mad scientists, sadists, imbeciles, bullies, beauty-contest entrepreneurs and gone-bad blimp pilots looking to terrorise the Super Bowl.
He's tall and lean, and has large, white teeth and a narrow, sharp-angled face. "I never got the big role, and I never understood it," he says. "I do know one thing. I've waited all my career to have a role that was forceful, where I could leave myself alone and not act, and simply be a human being." He's thinking about Nebraska now. "I just had to be Woody," he says.
And, according to director, Payne, Dern was absolutely the right man for the job. "The good thing about Bruce is he'll do anything," Payne says. "He doesn't need to preen in any kind of superficial-ego way. One time, I needed a shot of him in a car, where the guy is all passed out. The only thing I could think to say to him was, 'Would you please form yourself into a pathetic, crumbled heap?' And he did it brilliantly. It was superpathetic."
Dern slows down now, runs a hand through his spavined thicket of milk-white hair. He points out the median strip on San Vicente where the runners run. "It's 6.2 miles up and back," he says. Here's another thing about Dern: he lost the entire decade of the Nineties to a Vicodin addiction.
"I injured my shoulder and was up to 27 extra-strength pills a day," he says. "It got out of hand." But, other than that, in all the history of Hollywood, there's never been an actor less given to Hollywood excess.
"Let's see," he says. "Never drank, never smoked dope, never did coke, never smoked a cigarette." On the other hand, he's out-of-his-mind kooky for running. "I've run about 105,000 miles, so that's four times around the world," he says. "It's long-distance stuff -- I mean, really long, all day, every day. I ran to all the missions in California, which is 914 miles. You do a mission a day and keep on going. You become a metronome. I've probably run 300 marathons. I've done all kinda crazy running shit."
He didn't start off as a runner. This was in moneyland, Winnetka, Illinois, where his grandfather was the former governor of Utah; great-uncle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish; father, a prominent Chicago attorney; mother, mistress of their 20-bedroom house; big drinkers; big smokers; good friends with presidential aspirant, Adlai Stevenson, and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt; blue bloods.
The boy was a blue blood, too, of course, which you can still hear in the reedy confines of his voice, some kind of entitlement. But he was a nobody in the family, not even a second thought, until, at the age of eight, he took up competitive speed skating on Illinois's ice and won. "It was the only time that anybody in my family really gave a shit about Brucey," he says, "because Brucey had a talent to move quicker than most." At the age of 11, he turned to running, and he's been running ever since.
He was a smartass kid. Got kicked out of Sunday school for drawing Jesus, Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt as four figures in an airplane, and when asked who the fourth person was, replied, "That's Pontius, he's the pilot." Got kicked out of Choate boarding school for cheating and, before leaving, had to apologise to the student body, part of which went, "If you have to cheat, then always sit to the right of the left-handed kid because he exposes his paper when he writes," earning him an ovation from his peers. Dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after the track coach told him he had to cut his Elvis-size mutton chops or else. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer. You can imagine how they felt when he became an actor.
He came to know everybody in Hollywood, but, like all successful long-distance runners, he never ran with the crowd, which probably didn't help his career.
"Throughout my childhood with him," says Laura Dern, "I could count his really close friends on one hand, and I was one of those people." He's said he never understood why he never got the big role, but there it is: he kept himself too distant for his own good, which is how he can sometimes come off in the movies, too: brilliant but chilly, almost too clinical and remote to truly connect with. And, yet, running also showed him how to remain (relatively) sane in the face of his disappointments and not give up.
"My dad knows how to pace himself," says Laura, "and while the heartbreaks aren't lessened, there's an evenness to his longing that allows him, like a runner, to sit with them quietly and move on to the next thing. It's helped him succeed in never becoming a bitter man. And this has all been created by the stamina of being in it for the long ride."
He first met Payne in 2004, introduced by Laura. Payne sent him the Nebraska script that same year. Dern read it, loved it, didn't hear from Payne again until 2012. "If I was Stevie Wonder and I couldn't see, I'd have done this fucking movie," he says. "I can feel this movie. Alexander said to me, 'In this movie, don't show us anything. Let us find it,' and that's what he got. It's just a real person living.
"After the Cannes screening, I saw Richard Dreyfuss with tears streaming down his face. You walk down the street, and people come up and shake your hand. I never had this happen, except for when I killed John Wayne and then they just go like this, 'You fucking bastard.' Other than that, I never . . ." He trails off. He's always trailing off. He comes back. He's got his quirks and peccadilloes. He can't eat cake unless it has buttercream frosting. He doesn't park in California's underground garages, for fear of earthquakes -- "and any one's a big one for me." He's been gambling on sports since he was nine years old, starting with Cub Scout baseball. In the early days, did he ever chase skirts with Nicholson?
"No," he says. "You know what? I ran so many fucking miles during that time. I was married to Diane [Ladd] and she was a great dame, but we lost a child -- she drowned in a swimming pool -- and that was rough. We never dealt with it and divorced.
"As pornography got more, well, let's say, relevant in my life -- in other words, it became more open to obtain -- well, that led me into an area of . . . I was around girls, but they were more girls for hire, because I am just not good at sitting at a bar and talking to a girl about where she went to high school.
"There's something about girls that have a brain and are nasty, where they're willing to take it to the limit, so to speak. But, for most of my time in LA, I've been married. Now my third wife, Andrea, is not on the shady side, but she has a wonderful shady-side game."
Later on, after lunch, Dern's shuffling along Hollywood Boulevard -- the crowds pay him no mind. He's just another old duffer, old-duffering along in his baggy, khaki fishing-type vest, its pockets stuffed with Lord knows what. He looks down. There's his daughter Laura's name, his ex-wife Diane Ladd's name and his own name, embedded in terrazzo-and-brass stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "Pretty cool," he says, turning away.
Star notwithstanding, his single biggest payday came in 1981 -- $500,000 (€366,000) for a sexed-up thriller called Tattoo. He's been here, what, 54 years, never drinking, never smoking, never carousing until all hours with Jack, always being the kind of guy who'd take his daughter on a state-wide penitentiary tour, always the runner, always standing just a little bit apart, never the guy with a $25m (€18m) payday, never really caring, but probably caring even so. For Nebraska, he earned $65,000 (€47,500), the same as everyone else at his level on the film, the SAG scale rate. "I mean, Alexander Payne took it, too, so we were all fucked," he says. He shakes his head, smiling.
"Now, maybe if somebody's seen Nebraska, they might think, 'Gosh, let's give Bruce Dern a role where he could make 70!'"
And they very well might. But, even more important, maybe now everyone will forgive him for who he killed back in 1972.