Archive for the ‘Bruce Dern’ Tag

The Trip (1967)   Leave a comment

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Made during the height of the psychadelic 60s, THE TRIP tells the story of a man taking his first acid trip. Peter Fonda plays the married director of television commercials who decides to try LSD. Guiding him through his psychological journey is Bruce Dern.  Dern looks professorial with his civilized beard, corduroy blazer, and turtleneck. His demeanor differs immensely in his film too.  He’s worlds away from his usual snarling criminal, but no less convincing. Dern will stay sober and remain with Fonda ensuring that if he gets too high or has a bad reaction to the drug, Dern can calm him down. Roger Corman based this film on his own experiences with LSD.  He went on a controlled trip himself and his experiences and that of screenwriter Jack Nicholson make up the bulk of the film.

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“This antelope just wants her babies, man.”

I watched The Trip with director Roger Corman’s audio commentary.  He paints a fascinating picture of maverick filmmaking and the 60s counterculture. Filmed at Big Sur, the Sunset Strip, and beach homes owned by those immersed in that culture, the film looks authentic. Corman says they barely changed the decor of the houses and paid a great deal of attention to detail when dressing the sets. For example, in one scene we can see the book HOWL by Allen Ginsberg sitting on a shelf. He filmed in a real nightclub and laudromat and for one long shot of Peter Fonda walking along the Sunset Strip at night, the cameraman sat in a wheelchair behind Fonda and Corman pushed him down the street.

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“Please look at me.”

To be honest, the film itself, which also stars Dennis Hopper and Susan Strasberg pales in comparison with the stories Corman tells about it in his commentary and the effects he uses to tell it. The cinematographer, Arch R. Dalzell used light, color and psychedelic paint in some cool new ways. During a love scene between Fonda, Strasberg, and Salli Sachse, Dalzell projected wild colors and designs onto the stars’ naked bodies. It looks fantastic.

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I enjoyed watching this film, but the commentary made it for me. Corman liked making it very much and speaks fondly of the entire experience. He also gives us some great background stories. During one scene, Dennis Hopper tells a story while a joint is passed around a circle of people. Corman says he was so intent on getting the shot that he barely heard the story. When it was over, others on set laughed because they had never heard the word man so many times. Apparently Hopper was riffing a bit. Bruce Dern, that symbol of the counterculture, never took drugs. He was a marathon runner who tried out for the Olympic team and has always led a very healthy life. You can even see him in a scene in which a joint is passed just handing it to the next guy. If you watch THE TRIP, bring a buddy and opt for the audio commentary. Roger Corman won’t let you down, man.

Bruce The Trip #4

The Laughing Policeman (1973)   Leave a comment

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An unknown man wielding an automatic weapon massacres the passengers on a city bus. San Francisco detectives Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Val Avery must use their expertise and the crime scene evidence to find the killer. Complicating the investigation is the fact that one of the victims is Walter Matthau’s partner. The detectives, led by Matthau hit strip clubs, stoolies, and drug dealers in search of the elusive spree killer. Along the way they butt heads with their lieutenant, the always impressive Anthony Zerbe, and the criminal low-lifes they see every day. The film focuses on Matthau and his new partner, Dern, who has a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. From the beginning the two clash as Matthau refuses to communicate and Dern, new to the unit, wants to jump into the fray.

We see the differences in the styles of the two men as the story progresses. Matthau’s ranking officer leads and instructs naturally while Dern’s aggressive nature puts him at odds with the rest of the squad. They find common ground in their desire to close the case and even though they have different reasons for doing so, it works. Dern wants to solve the murders to prove himself to his new partner and squad and check another case off the list. Matthau has a gut feeling these murders relate to an old unsolved case and feels guilty because his obsession with it may have led his partner to risk his life to solve it. Never close to his partner, Matthau’s feelings made me think of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade toward Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Since they’re cops and this is the 70s, Matthau and Dern disobey orders and follow their own instincts. While the case serves as the central point of the film, it’s the people we want to watch. Chock full of talented character actors, The Laughing Policeman has that cool 70s vibe that says these actors look like they do because of DNA, not teeth whitening and plastic surgery. Along with those I’ve mentioned the cast includes Cathy Lee Crosby, Albert Paulsen, Joanna Cassidy, Clifton James, and Gregory Sierra. The seedy joints and their back room denizens give the film a realistic look and the acting let’s you relax and ease into the story.

Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village) directed The Laughing Policeman by standing back and letting his stellar cast go to work. As American as the story seems, it comes from the Swedish novel Den skrattande polisen by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The Laughing Policeman made me smile. It starred Bruce Dern and Walter Matthau, had a compelling story, complex characters, and some great lines. At one point Bruce Dern comments on a suspect’s influence by saying “…probably got enough juice to get a sodomy beef reduced to following too close.”

How can you not like a movie like that?

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The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)   Leave a comment

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David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) writes fiction loosely based on his life and reads it on his late night Philadelphia radio show. He lives with his elderly grandfather and goes through the motions of living. After an emergency call from his brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City and gets sucked into Jason’s world of lowlifes and get rich quick schemes.

The decaying boardwalk and scuzzy locales of Atlantic City in the 1970s serve as a perfect backdrop for the desperate wheeling and dealing Jason, his lady friend, Sally (Ellen Burstyn), and her daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) have to do to get by. Jason works for local mobster, Scatman Crothers, but dreams of an empire of his own on a Hawaiian island. His charisma and charm have gotten him this far, but his bravado and lack of business acumen threaten to derail Jason’s plans. He’s also playing fast and loose with the two ladies in his life which almost never ends well.

As he did in Five Easy Pieces, director Bob Rafelson paints a sad picture of frustration, loneliness, and promise unfulfilled. Nicholson underplays his role as the smarter, sensible brother and Burstyn shows great range as the aging beauty queen who knows she’s past it, but tries to muddle through anyway. It’s Dern who transfixes though and you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s all energy and spontaneity and you want to believe in his dreams, realistic or not. For a film without a lot of action or even crackling dialogue, The King of Marvin Gardens held my interest if only to see what these odd characters would do and how these terrific actors would show it.

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The Driver (1978)   Leave a comment

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Ryan O’Neal drives a mean getaway car.

His talent for helping robbers and eluding the police creates a following on both sides of the law. Gangs want him to drive for them, while the LAPD, especially detective Bruce Dern, wants him to do time. In Walter Hill’s (The Long Riders, The Warriors) spare crime film, we see O’Neal, The Driver, as a professional who lives by a code of ethics. He chooses who to work with based on this code, then delivers. Dern, billed as The Detective, is his polar opposite. Arrogant and sleazy, Dern wil do anything to bust The Driver. To catch O’Neal, Dern proposes a deal with the leader of a second rate gang. In exchange for dropping the charges on a botched robbery, Dern wants the gang to rob a bank, hire O’Neal to drive, and then set him up to get busted. Unfortunately, the gang Dern chooses has a violent streak and as the bodies pile up we’re left wondering who the real bad guy is.

The Driver boasts some great car chases and Hill has fun panning from O’Neal’s deadpan expression back to his passengers’ panic stricken faces as he careens through the busy streets of Los Angeles. Stark and emotionless, The Driver shows an honorable man retaining that honor despite pressure to give in. It would be great paired with Michael Mann’s spare crime film, Thief. Both films pit loner crooks against the system and both feature good bad guys who break the law, but still have a moral compass.

The two female characters also fight temptation and threats to turn stoolie. Both Ronee Blakley, The Connection, who brokers The Driver’s gigs, and Isabelle Adjani, The Player, who refuses to identify The Driver in a line-up, are morally superior to Dern’s dishonest cop.

I like The Driver. It reminds me of good modern architecture. It has clean, simple lines but doesn’t look sterile.

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Bruce Dern: The Guy You Love to Hate   Leave a comment

 

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Marnie sees red and panics. As she struggles to remember the events of a long repressed night from her childhood, we see Marnie as a child awakened from a deep sleep and sent to the sofa to sleep while her mother uses the bed for ‘business’. A storm rages outside and thunder frightens the sleeping child. Mom’s client, a sailor, tries to comfort Marnie but the child resists him. She wants her mommy who enters and pushes the man away from her girl. A fight breaks out and Mom falls, hurting herself. In an attempt to help her mother, Marnie grabs a poker from the fireplace and beats Bruce Dern to death. Marnie (1964)

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Dressed in a tuxedo for a society party, Bruce Dern waits in a solarium for a tryst with his beloved, Bette Davis. The meeting doesn’t go as planned. Seconds later we see his face full of fear as an axe wielded by a mysterious stranger descends and his head rolls across the floor. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

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Dying violently with very little screen time may seem like an inauspicious start to a film career, but it added to the CV of a prolific actor who has played killers, scumbags, and downright nasty guys. Bruce Dern started in television in the 1950s and continues to work today. To be fair, he also plays some non-psychopathic roles, though Bruce Dern, as a rule, is known for playing heavies. Tall and lanky, with a toothy grin that goes from friendly to malevolent in an instant, Dern plays nasty like no one else. In the western Hang ‘Em High (1968), his murderer/cattle rustler taunts Clint Eastwood and jumps him when he’s not looking. In Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), he and fellow Hell’s Angel Peter Fonda, clad in Swastikas and other Nazi insignia threaten veteran Dick Miller with a pair of plyers. In his most infamous role, Long Hair in The Cowboys, Bruce Dern shoots John Wayne in the back, killing him. When they discussed that scene John Wayne told Dern, “America will hate you for this.” Dern replied, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.”

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Dern cemented his counter culture reputation after a series of films he did with Roger Corman and others during the 1960s. He even strayed from his nasty persona in a few. In The Trip (1967), Dern plays a benevolent soul guiding Peter Fonda through his first acid trip.  His calm, thoughtful demeanor and compassionate tone are a far cry from the snarling villain he usually played. I watched The Trip recently and listened to director Roger Corman’s audio commentary on the film. He said of all the cast members, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern was the only one who never touched drugs. A marathon runner who almost qualified for the Olympics, Dern lived a healthy life. During one scene in which partiers pass a joint, Dern is the only one not smoking.

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Jack Nicholson, a close friend, said Dern was one of the best of a breed of actors coming into his own in the 1970s.  Films like The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Silent Running (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), and The Driver (1978) allowed Dern to show his range. In King of Marvin Gardens, as the ne’er do well with a dozen get-rich-quick schemes, Dern is all charisma and charm and you get caught up in his enthusiasm even when you sense his plans will never come to fruition. In Silent Running, as astronaut Freeman Lowell, Dern gives a nuanced performance. You know his actions are wrong, but his motives and the way he relates to little Huey, Dewey, and Louie charm you into rooting for him. As Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Dern’s callous aristocrat uses people and tosses them aside without a thought. I cannot think of the book or film without picturing Bruce Dern in that role. The spare The Driver lets Dern show his malevolent side again when, as The Detective, he orchestrates a robbery to frame Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver and seems unaffected by the ensuing violence.

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It might surprise you to learn that Bruce Dern’s background is closer to the patrician Tom Buchanan (The Great Gatsby 1974) than the scuzzy gang member Loser (The Wild Angels 1966). Bruce MacLeish Dern, born in Winnetka, Illinois in 1936 went to the prestigious New Trier High School in Illinois before attending the University of Pennsylvania. He left Penn after a couple years for The Actors’ Studio and a career in acting. Dern’s grandfather served as Governor of Utah and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. His other grandfather established the department store Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. and the poet Archibald MacLeish is a maternal relation. Dern’s godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Throughout his career, Dern has done scores of television shows including Route 66, Thriller, The Outer Limits, the Kraft Suspense Theatre, Branded, Bonanza, Big Valley, Rawhide, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, The FBI, and more recent appearances on Big Love, and CSI:NY. He even hosted his own series from 1996-2001 called The Lost Drive-In during which he sat in a vintage car and talked about drive-in movies, old cars, and that era in general, then showed a film which might have played in one. It was a fun show and Dern came off as well-versed and natural. I was sorry to see it end.

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With a career spanning almost 60 years, 164 films, and countless television appearances, Bruce Dern remains a working actor. He, his daughter Laura Dern, and ex-wife Diane Ladd received their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and imdb lists nearly a dozen projects in production for this versatile actor. In May of 2013, Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Nebraska. Even more recently, Dern played a small, but nasty part in Django Unchained and a larger role, General Sandy Smithers, in Quentin Tarantino’s western Agatha Christie/Sam Peckinpah hybrid, The Hateful Eight.

I even had a brush with Bruce. In 2014, I appeared briefly on HuffPost Live to ask him a question during an interview. He said he liked my glasses.

Nebraska #7

I wrote this piece for the What a Character Blog-a-thon in November 2013.  Run by @IrishJayhawk66 @Paula_Guthat @CitizenScreen the blog-a-thon highlighted supporting actors who make movies worth watching.  Fun stuff!

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Nebraska (2013)   Leave a comment

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Elderly, not quite with it Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter from a marketing firm claiming he has won a million dollars and must present the letter in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Unfortunately, he lives hundreds of miles away in Billings, Montana and can no longer drive. So, the rest of the film is Dern trying to get to Lincoln, right? I’ll let you find out.

I will say that Nebraska looks beautiful. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography makes Nebraska, Montana, and South Dakota look like an Ansel Adams photograph that moves. The combination of those breathtaking visuals and Mark Orton’s spare music brought to mind scenes from Badlands and Fargo.

Bruce Dern won the best actor award at Cannes for Nebraska. After seeing this film, I’m not surprised. In Dern’s Woody Grant we see character, not caricature and, like all good character actors, Dern immerses himself in the role. I didn’t see Bruce Dern playing Woody Grant. I saw Woody Grant. He’s also surrounded by a talented cast of other character actors including Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, and June Squibb. Forte surprises with his subtle performance. Odenkirk, who’s in everything these days, works in another fine supporting role. Keach has a fun part and runs with it. June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate dominates her every scene. If she doesn’t get a supporting actress nod, I’ll eat my hat. Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, and a crew of solid character actors inhabit the world director Alexander Payne creates. Spare dialogue and desolate scenery combine to create the full picture of a man along with the people and places that make up his life. Nebraska is a wonderful film.

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