“I’m not saying this is a great performance, but I would say that it’s a complete performance. From beginning to end, I think the character is there.”
The quote is from Bruce Dern in an 11.27 interview with TheWrap‘s Steve Pond. Speaking, of course, about his inhabiting of the sullen, irascible, partly-out-to-lunch Woody in Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska. This is, no shit, one of the most eloquent and affecting things any actor has ever said about his or her performance. It’s such a good quote that it made me wonder if Dern had sat down and thought it through and refined it until the words were just right. Or is he just getting really good at campaigning? I honestly think this quote is as affecting as anything Dern delivers on-screen in Nebraska, and perhaps even more so.
And then it hit me. I was sitting in a cafe in Tijuana when it finally sank in. Of course!
Until today I had it wrong about Dern. Since seeing Nebraska for the first time seven months ago in Cannes I’ve been addressing Dern’s performance, which I’ve always respected for being genuine and, as Dern says, “complete” but which is mainly, I feel, about sullen, snarly behavior. When I was saying last August and September that Dern would be smarter to go for Best Supporting Actor, I was again thinking about the performance.
Well, how very short-sighted! For until this morning I hadn’t realized that the whole “Bruce Dern for Best Actor” campaign is not about the performance. Rather, the performance (i.e., the fact that it’s good enough to get him into the conversation) is about enabling the campaign.
Dern’s Woody performance is fine but the Dern campaign is fucking brilliant. The narrative, I mean. “You all know Dern and you agree that he’s authentic as hell in his snarly old geezer mode,” the campaign is basically saying, “but what we’re asking you to vote for is the idea of a last-act redemption. The saga of a quirky actor who’s been plugging along as a supporting player all his life, and then finally, approaching the end, lucks out with a distinctive role in an austere American art film by a major-league director, and as a result wins the Best Actor prize at Cannes and finally gets treated like the first-class leading man that Mr. Quirk has always seen himself as.
“We’re asking you, in short, to vote for the idea of luck and serendipity happening to anyone at any time. Admire the performance but vote for the man, or more precisely for the good fortune that has put a big fat glow on this man’s life and career at the age of 77.”
Dern puts it pretty well in Pond’s piece: “You do it for as long as I have, and you figure that, well, the train hasn’t left but goddammit, it’s hard to get on. You know what I’m sayin’? When all the seats are sold, you figure, well, I’ve got to go back with all the hobos in the boxcar. And I go back there, and there’s a lot of guys I started out with.”
We’re all hobos on this train, all bozos on this bus. But even the oldest, grimiest hobo might bust out a cool move or be dealt a winning hand. And if you want to extend the hobo metaphor you could call the Dern campaign a variation on Frank Capra‘s Pocketful of Miracles (’61) with Dern as Apple Annie and the Academy getting to play Glenn Ford‘s benevolent gangster character, Dave the Dude.
“Dern is now in the first-class car on the train,” Pond says near the end of the piece. The implication, of course, is that voting against Dern might throw him back to the hobo car, and who wants to do that? Hasn’t the man suffered enough? Has he not been paying dues since the early ’60s?