Today the actor Bruce Dern turns 78. Long known as a master of emotive roles – your standard psycho, biker, drug addict, terrorist, all-around weirdo – he has proven over more than half a century that he can entertain. He might not be the American answer to Sir Laurence Olivier, but did Larry ever eat a baby like the Dernster did in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971)? No, I don’t believe he did.
As Dern recounted in his memoir, “I remember David Letterman asked me on his show years later, he said, ‘You’ve always played all these wackos and all these sickos and everybody’s nuts and everything. Don’t you get tired of that?’ And I said, ‘First of all, David, I don’t really look at them as guys like you say.’ ‘Well what else would you call them?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re really just guys that kind of live just beyond where the buses run.'” Let’s celebrate today by recapping some of Bruce Dern’s finest contributions to the strangest realms and farthest edges of American film history, those guys who live just beyond where the buses run.
Marnie and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (both 1964) – Dern is not long for this world in either of these flicks by Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich (respectively), but both films are quite good and not bad additions to one’s résumé.
The Great Gatsby (1974) – Bruce Dern’s wealthy Midwestern upbringing made him the perfect candidate for playing Tom Buchanan in this 70s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Dern can pull off the aristocratic nature of the character but also bring out the ugliness of Tom’s violent and racist side.
Family Plot (1976) – Dern reunited with Hitchcock to play the male hero (alongside leading lady Barbara Harris) in this fun spoof of Hitch’s own style. Dern makes for an affable protagonist and shows he has great comic chops.
Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) – If you’ve never experienced this star-studded homage to 1920s Hollywood and Rin Tin Tin, you really ought to buy the DVD and see it because it’s a one-of-a-kind movie. Dern plays a young director who helps Madeline Kahn on her way to stardom along with her pooch, Won Ton Ton. There are a lot of great safari-style costumes and neckerchiefs, as seen in the photo above.
Black Sunday (1977) – There might have been a number of actors who could have played a Vietnam vet turned pro-Palestinian terrorist whose plan is to fly an explosives-infested Goodyear blimp directly into the Super Bowl stadium, but could anyone really have done it as convincingly as Bruce Dern? Nope, I don’t think so. There’s a scene between Dern and Marthe Keller that I think is one of the finest bits of acting Dern ever did.
Nebraska (2013) – All due respect to Matthew McConaughey, the 2014 Academy Award for Best Actor should have been Bruce Dern’s to lose because there was so much more to his performance as Woody Grant than just acting. It is the culmination of all of Dern’s life experiences: his history in the American Midwest, his family history and his experiences in theater, film and television. It’s true that a lot of Nebraska’s impact may have to do with Alexander Payne’s direction, Bob Nelson’s screenplay, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography and Mark Orton’s score, but you need actors to add that extra special touch and that’s what you get with Bruce Dern.
On the other hand, maybe Bruce Dern’s career is a prize already.