Bruce Dern is as grand and flawless as character actors get. According to IMDb, the man has 144 film and television credits to his name, and in tracing through them, it’s clear there isn’t a weak effort in sight. Whether he pops up briefly for one scene in a film, or steals an entire television show with his recurring character, or fills nearly every frame of a contemporary black and white Oscar contender, when Dern is on, he’s on like the best of them.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Bruce Dern’s character enters the competition with his wife, who is very pregnant, and very in need of $1,500. Just watching these two loop around the tiny track over and over and over, we gather quickly that things will not turn out well for them. Yet they keep going. Around. And around. And around. Trust me, if you haven’t seen They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, it will utterly floor you.
The Cowboys (1972)
Black Sunday (1977)
John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday is a staple of unhinged, American ‘70s cinematic bliss, certainly. But it’s also an excellent portrayal of a man gone mad, willing to do anything to be remembered.
Coming Home (1978)
Big Love (2006-2011)
I think my favorite Frank episode was the first episode of Season 4, in which Frank tried to kill his on-screen wife (played by the ever-so-talented Grace Zabriskie) while giving her a loving embrace. When that didn’t work out, he simply tried to kill her again. The way Dern manages to make such awful creeps so charming is truly a wonderful feat.
The Best of the Best
Woody Grant wants his million dollars. After receiving a piece of junk mail claiming that he’s won a large sum of money, Woody sets off from his Montana home to collect his winnings in Nebraska. Despite Woody’s family constantly trying to convince him that it’s a scam, Woody persists, walking on foot if he has to.
The entire time I watched Nebraska, I wondered if Woody was for real. I wondered if he knew the money was a scam, but he journeyed anyway, as a means of giving his life purpose. Or, perhaps, Woody really thought the money was real. Director Alexander Payne does a great job of keeping this fact ambiguous for as long as he can, thanks much in part to Dern’s contained and flawless work.
Perhaps I’ve talked out of turn in detailing Dern’s performance in Nebraska. While I do still predict that Woody will remain Dern’s finest achievement as an actor, I’m sure Bruce Dern still has great performances left in him. And I simply can’t wait to discover them.
Other Essential Roles
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)
Hang ‘Em High (1968)
Silent Running (1972)
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
The Great Gatsby (1974)
Family Plot (1976)
The Driver (1978)
Harry Tracy: Dead or Alive (1982)
Middle Age Crazy (1980)
The ‘Burbs (1989)
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
Last Man Standing (1996)
All the Pretty Horses (2000)
Down in the Valley (2005)
The Lightkeepers (2009)
Django Unchained (2012)