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March 27, 2014

'Nebraska' helps give Dern his due

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Bruce Dern has been a character actor for over half a century yet hadn’t really gotten the acclaim he deserves. Perhaps it’s because he looked and sounded like the perfect villain. I remember seeing him guest star on reruns of the 1960s western “The Big Valley” several times and he always played the bad guy. The low point had to be when he shot John Wayne in the back in “The Cowboys.” A fine actor deserves to be remembered for something better.

The turnaround looked like it might happen in 1978 when he made “Coming Home” with Jane Fonda and John Voight, a movie about Vietnam and the effects it had on the soldiers. Dern played Fonda’s army officer husband who was shaken by his war experience after being gung-ho before he went. He wasn’t a heroic figure but he clearly was a sympathetic one. Still, Dern slipped off the radar afterwards despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Jump ahead about 35 years and Dern is suddenly in the news again. His latest film, “Nebraska,” has become a big hit and the actor has become a Best Actor nominee at the ripe old age of 77. Age has apparently mellowed his “bad guy” image and now he’s getting the recognition he probably should have gotten long ago.

“Nebraska” is a slow-paced but beautiful film about family and relationships. Dern’s character, Woody Grant, is congenial and slightly off his rocker. He has received one of those bogus notices in the mail stating he has won $1 million that sounds legit except for the fine print. He is so dead set on traveling from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his “winnings” that his son finally decides to drive him there.

On the way Woody falls and suffers a gash to his head. In order to rest up for a couple of days he and his son end up at Woody’s sister’s place in the town he grew up in Nebraska. His wife and other son end up joining them there for an impromptu family reunion. The story takes on added tension when Dern’s family, friends, and former business partner think he’s just won a million dollars.

The difficult economic times come across quite clearly in the way the movie was shot. The barrenness and bleakness of the Great Plains stand out as people of the small town try to make ends meet. Sunshine, bright colors, and “amber waves of grain” are not part of the equation. The aura provides a “beautiful” undertone to the movie.

The reunion has all the aspects you would expect to see in a dysfunctional family but the coming together of Woody’s immediate family is uplifting. The dynamic between Woody and his son David is the most heartwarming but it is his wife Kate who ultimately proves that family is thicker than water. Actress June Squibb, who portrays Kate, steals the show and received an Oscar nomination as well.

What’s most pleasurable about “Nebraska” is that it’s an old-style film that could have been made at any time in the past. In the current era of futuristic, action-packed, earth-destroying special effects it’s refreshing to see a simple, straightforward character-based movie. Dern finally gets to play the “hero” and we are all rewarded for it.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.