During the closing credits of Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, shown at the Museum of Modern Art earlier tonight (even though it’s now a new day – it’s currently after 2 in the morning in New York), in the darkness which was brightened only by parallel rows of floor lights, Bruce Dern walked down the aisle and waited at the foot of the stage steps for his Q&A session. The glow from the movie screen illuminated Dern, who stood in profile, so that he looked strikingly like the image from the film’s poster (though with hair combed rather than in flyaway wisps). It was a wonderful moment, one I shall remember.
MoMA screened Nebraska as part of its annual film series called “The Contenders,” which shows new films that the program’s coordinators feel will “stand the test of time.” Nebraska is indeed such a film. Beyond being a film about a son trying to reconnect with his aging (and ailing) father, it is about what life in Nebraska really is like for many of its inhabitants nowadays. To quote the Q&A moderator, Josh Siegel, the film is very much about the nation’s “second Great Depression,” a perfect way to describe the desolation which has befallen so many in the American heartland thanks to the current economy. In the Q&A, Dern discussed the sad reality that many Midwesterners have become “tenant farmers” on their own land. To that end, Phedon Papamichael’s stark cinematography recalls the look of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a study of tenant farmers dealing with many hardships during the Great Depression. I was also reminded of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), both for the photography and for the story set during the Great Depression. Both Paper Moon and Nebraska have a lot of terrific humor balanced with the darker scenarios.
One of my favorite moments in Nebraska is when Will Forte and Bruce Dern are driving to the title state and a number of motorcyclists zoom by. I don’t know if it’s something which was originally in Bob Nelson’s screenplay, but in any case it feels like a lovely nod to the earlier days of Dern’s career in biker-centric films like The Wild Angels, The Cycle Savages and The Rebel Rousers. Dialogue in the film, no matter how small the line, is just as laden with symbolism. There is a scene when Forte wakes Dern during their journey on the road and Dern says, almost a bit defensively, “I’m here.” Dern, the real man, is saying that about his career as well. He’s still with us, he’s working as hard as ever and he loves the recognition. He relishes finally getting his day in the sun.
When Bruce Dern first walked up onto the stage for the Q&A, he thanked the audience for sticking around after the film. He seemed pleased as punch, especially since his only other experiences with being asked to do Q&As before this year was when he had been “the third banana [in a film] and the other two bananas weren’t available.” Dern ended up answering only three questions from the audience, possibly due to time constraints but also because each answer was so lengthy. It is obvious that he is a storyteller who could talk your ear off for hours (in a good way). His memory has served him well.
The first of the three questions was my favorite simply because it was so weird. A man with a heavy accent (I thought perhaps Spanish) asked, “You know Paul Newman’s fantasy?” Pause. “Paul Newman’s fantasy.” To paraphrase the response: “To be honest, I don’t really know what that means.” The guy was trying to ask something about older actors getting the chance to win Oscars and campaign for themselves during award season. Dern is clearly happy with all the enthusiasm surrounding the film and the fact that he won the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review yesterday, besides the Best Actor award he won at Cannes back in May. Dern noted that he doesn’t really know much about campaigning for Oscars, but that’s why he’s doing appearances at events like this one and other screenings at BAM and the New York Film Festival. Getting the word out is the most important thing. Besides, he said, “I never even saw an Oscar ’til I was 45, and that was in a store window.”
Bruce Dern talked about Nebraska being the best set he’d ever been on for “lack of ego.” Alexander Payne is the kind of director who watches actors rather than watching a monitor and he won’t print a scene until he “believes” the performance he’s seeing. Dern loved that Payne and casting director John Jackson chose many nonprofessional actors for scenes in the various towns, local people who had interesting faces. Dern has a lot of affection for Payne, whom he refers to as “this generation’s Kazan.” He pointed out that he has known Payne for quite some time, since Laura Dern (Bruce’s daughter) starred in Citizen Ruth (1996), which was Payne’s first film. (Dern’s phrasing was amusing; the way he said it was something like, “my kid made a movie with him.”)
When the Q&A was over, Josh Siegel thanked Dern and said, “you’re what my grandmother would call a mensch.” As Dern walked off the stage, he grinned and shouted out another “thanks for staying!” to the audience. As I walked out of the theater, I turned and saw a sizable crowd gathered at the stage, taking photos with Dern. I’d bet you dollars to donuts that he stayed for as many as he could.