Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In Character: Laura Dern

Laura Dern was born to act. The daughter of two accomplished thespians (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd), Dern was cast in her first movie at age 6 and has more or less been killing it ever since. An initial (and some might argue, continued) muse of David Lynch, Dern has made a name for herself in nearly every genre, allowing her to forever step out of the shadow of her parents. Choosing six roles to highlight certainly wasn’t easy here – she’s simply that good in everything, always.

Five Essential Roles
Blue Velvet (1986)
Sandy Williams
David Lynch is a master of juxtaposition, and Blue Velvet is the most obvious use of that technique in his entire filmography. There are two worlds within Blue Velvet: the calm, white picket fenced idyllic version of Middle America, and the darkness that lurks directly beneath it. If Dennis Hopper’s Frank Book nails the darkness, then the antithesis is Laura Dern’s Sandy Williams. Sandy is the girl next door. The daughter of local police detective who wears sundresses, drinks sodas in diners, dates the varsity athlete – Sandy shouldn’t fit into Lynch’s warped vision, but somehow, she makes it her own. Which is all made possible by Dern’s appropriately relaxed, confused, and intrigued performance.

Think about this: Dern was all of 18 years old when Blue Velvet was made. Now, think about the crop of 18 year olds we have appearing in movies today, and compare them to Dern’s captivating work in this film. My how times have changed.

Wild at Heart (1990)
Lula Fortune
I have no proof of this, but watching Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart back to back, it’s almost as if Dern begged Lynch for a chance to try something new. To step away from the ditzy blonde prototype (however effective she might have been), and go for something raw. And raw certainly is the word to describe Lula Fortune, a woman so engulfed in love, that she’ll do anything to keep that particular romance alive. If you’ve seen Wild at Heart, you know how batshit crazy it is, and you may appreciate the no-looking-back effort of everyone involved to pull it off. As Lula, Dern had to scream and shout and let it all out. She played angry, abused, hot and hot tempered with equal magnetism. A career-shifting role if there ever was one.

Rambling Rose (1991)
Rambling Rose is a great example of a mediocre film propelled by stellar performances. As a drifter who takes a job as a maid in Depression-era Georgia, Rose is a kind gal who appears harmless, but evolves as anything but. She’s manic, depressive, manipulative and overly sexualized, but, most importantly, completely unaware of her behavior. Sure, Rose doesn’t necessarily make the best decisions, but her intentions are always good. It’s that conflict within Rose that drives Dern’s work here. Playing off Robert Duvall and her own mother, Diane Ladd, only heightens Dern’s dexterity. Rambling Rose is a bit of an aimless, sentimental mess, so it speaks highly of that trio of performances that the film is ultimately rewarding.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
Terry Linden
After churning out a handful of fantastic performances early in her career, it’s almost as if post-Jurassic Park, Dern elected to step into the background. Don’t get me wrong, I love her work in the decade following Jurassic Park, but she didn’t really blow me away again until the domestic drama indie, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore was released amidst a plague of misfortunes – crappy distribution, forgettable marketing and ill-timed with the similarly themed Closer released just three months later. But despite some bad luck, We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a film that deserves to be discovered. The movie tells the story of two married couples (Mark Ruffalo/Laura Dern and Naomi Watts/Peter Krause), and how husbands and wives are swapped and disregarded during a few months of universal adultery. As Terry, Dern fills the vindictive role. The resentful wife who drinks too much, screams too loud and is motivated by years of guilt and neglect. Literally from scene one, you know Terry is a forced to be reckoned with. Seek this film out if you can, it really is something.

Enlightened (2011-present)
Amy Jellicoe
I hadn’t seen HBO’s Enlightened before researching this post. I was going to write it off and throw another Dern role up here, but damn am I glad I checked it out. I watched the entire first season last weekend, and I feel safe in calling it Dern’s career sawn song. That’s not to say she doesn’t have anything left, but Amy Jellicoe is a meaty character equipped with brazen charm and hellacious anger, the type of role that, quite frankly, is difficult for women Dern’s age to come by. It’s one of the best roles Dern has ever played, and the fact that she worked so hard to make it possible, only adds to my appreciation.

The show, created, written, produced and starring Dern, chronicles the ongoing battle of a woman with herself. After suffering a public mental breakdown at work, Amy retreats to Hawaii to get her life together. But when she returns to the hustle bustle of LA, she quickly realizes that her newly acquired holistic life philosophies may occasionally be ignored. Witty, cunning and heavy at the right times, Enlightened is a great dramedy that boasts the best qualities of one of our finest actresses. (I also need to quickly note of how well Dern and her mother work together. They co-star in four of the six projects I discuss in this post, including Enlightened, and they make for, perhaps, the finest on-screen mother/daughter pair I’ve ever seen.)

The Best of the Best
Inland Empire (2006)
Nikki Grace/Sue Blue
This is simply inarguable. Not only is Laura Dern’s dual role in Inland Empire the best of her career, but it is, in my humble opinion, one of the best, most fearless film performances of all time. And this is a tricky game, because if you’ve seen David Lynch’s fever dream of a film, you know that much of its three hour running time does not make sense. Hell, Dern and her Inland Empire costar, Justin Theroux, have admitted they have no idea what the film is about. But that doesn’t really matter. In order to enjoy the world of David Lynch, disbelief must be suspended. You have to be open and accept the mood, and find solace in the fact that reality is a rabbit hole.

My point is, like Lynch’s films or not, it’s impossible to deny the power of Dern’s work here. What starts off as a rather straightforward film about an actress landing her huge comeback role, inexplicably shifts to something so much more. Something only the mind of David Lynch can fully decipher. As Nikki/Sue, Dern was pushed to do everything. She had to play it straight, play it open, and play it convincingly, for every frame of every second. Dern herself may not have known what her director was doing, but damn if it didn’t generate haunting results. For fans of Dern’s that are unaware of Inland Empire, I highly recommend tracking the film down. The movie itself might not make sense, but when the acting is this unprecedented, it’s hard to go wrong.

Other Notable Roles
In Jurassic Park
Mask (1985)
Smooth Talk (1985)
Afterburn (1992)
Jurassic Park (1993)
A Perfect Woman (1993)
Citizen Ruth (1996)
October Sky (1999)
Dr. T & the Women (2000)
I Am Sam (2001)
Happy Endings (2005)
Recount (2008)
Everything Must Go (2011)
The Master (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Ralph Fiennes
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
Delroy Lindo
William H. Macy
Margo Martindale
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
Peter Stormare
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. Totally agree with you on Inland Empire. It's a crime that no one mentions her performance in that film among the best of the best. I'm not one for being into actors, but Dern is a powerhouse and in that film she is incredible.

    Nice to see some Dern love on my blog feed, though. Great article, too!

    1. Thanks man! Really glad to hear you're a Dern fan. I truly think she's one of the finest actresses out there. Has been for a while now. So fearless in Inland Empire.

    2. Definitely a Dern lover! Inland Empire is one of my favs, too, and it is always great to meet someone who appreciates it. And agreed, she needs to be in more stuff! (Will have to check out Enlightened, though.) Been meaning to do that for quite some time, so thanks for reminding me!

    3. No problem! It really is a good show, and if you're a Dern fan, it is essential viewing.

  2. Beautifully written! She is so fantastic in Lynch's films, I loved her work in the three you mentioned.

    I recently saw Recount and she was amazing there, very memorable work.

    1. Thanks! I actually had her role in Recount up there, but then I decided to watch Enlightened and whoa, she's a powerhouse on that show. Glad you're a Dern fan!

  3. I don't know why she's a bigger star than she should be. Maybe it's because she's not into stardom and is more concerned about craft. The woman is truly one of the best working today. Inland Empire is her crowning achievement. One role I love watching from her is Citizen Ruth. She's just fucking hilarious in that movie including that scene where she actually insults her mother!

    1. I think you're right - her chief concern is the quality of the work as opposed to how famous she is, which I respect.

      I really wanted to include Citizen Ruth, I love her to death in that. Very tough to narrow her roles down.

  4. She really can play any role. As much as I love Tilda Swinton, I was originally rooting for Dern to get the part in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Her performance in Inland Empire is bar none one of the best of all time. She deserves more recognition.

    1. Wait, was she up for the lead in WNTTAK? Damn, that would've made for a very different movie. Wow, would love to have seen that. Dern DEFINITELY deserves more acclaim. Glad you're a fan!

    2. IIRC, Tilda Swinton's role in We Need to Talk About Kevin is supposed to be an Armenian-American woman. Neither she nor Laura Dern should have even been up for the part.

    3. Was the character Armenian-American in the book? That's interesting. It's a tough thing: how closely should a film stick to its source material? Is there any room for difference and/or expansion? Not sure how I feel about that.

  5. I love your description of Blue Velvet -- you really nailed it. I saw that movie, in college, when it first came out. It was one of my first forays into -- or lack of a better term -- edgier movies. Definitely unforgettable, even 20+ years later. Nobody could do crazy-ass villains quite like Dennis Hopper.

    1. Thanks! It is a very very edgy movie. David Lynch really did change things, you know? Hopper is such a beast in that flick, my god.

    2. I worked in a movie theater when I was in college, and we showed Blue Velvet when it had just been released. I remember people walking out of the theater mid-movie with "WTF" looks on their faces. I saw it with the guy who was my boyfriend at the time -- he swore never to lay eyes on another David Lynch movie as long as he lived. But I thought it was fascinating. of course I did.

    3. Of course you did! That movie really was a milestone for mainstream American films. The fact that he was able to make it his own way... it speaks very highly to the studio behind it. A real gamechanger.

  6. I've no idea why, but for some stupid reason I was worried Inland Empire wouldn't be your pick for Best of the Best, but I'm so glad it is. That film keeps shooting up higher on my list of favourite films, and has recently cracked the top ten. Endlessly rewarding and fascinating as fuck.

    1. Hell yeah man, had to hail that as her best. I know how much of a fan you are of that movie... such a warped mindfuck.

  7. Every time I see her, I think of Jurassic Park. She's a great actress, but I'll never be able to shake that role from her.

    1. That's probably her most well known performance, so fair enough! Speilberg has said she got that role much in part to the strength of her Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart performances. I love hearing that everything is connected.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  8. I'm woefully deficient in Dern's work. I do have a copy of We Don't Live Here Anymore though, so maybe I'll give it a shot. Inland Empire, Rambling Rose and Wild at Heart are also on my watchlist.

    1. I highly recommend WDLHA. An honest and rather devastating portrayal of the current state of the middle class American marriage. Really something else.

  9. Great, great post! I think that Laura Dern is one of the finest character actresses working today and I couldn't agree more with you, Alex, in that "Inland Empire" is her best work yet. Such a tremendous performance and creepy as hell. If it hasn't been evident by now from my previous comments, I adore Naomi Watts as an actress and I think of her performance in "Mulholland Drive" as the best performance ever in a David Lynch film, but I believe that it's really sad that Laura Dern's outstanding performance "Inland Empire", as well as the film itself, is so criminally overlooked. Compared to Naomi Watts' work in "Mulholland Drive", I'd choose Watts, but it's a shame Dern's haunting work in "Inland Empire" never got the credit it deserves. I love how passionate you are about her work there. I love it so much that you call her work here as "one of the best, most fearless film performances of all time". Love it, man. I agree so much with you. Her performance in "Citizen Ruth" would be my second favorite performance of hers. She was phenomenal in this film. How funny it is that even with limited screen time in films like "The Master" and "I am Sam", she can make wonders. Amazing actress, just amazing. Should have at least two Oscars by now.

    1. Nice man! She's so damn good in Inland Empire. It really is a flawless performance. This is actually one of those In Character posts that I should done Six Essential Roles for, because she is quite splendid in Citizen Ruth. I suppose I just love her in, well, everything. And yeah, tough call between her and Watts - they're both so good and haunting in those films.

  10. Laura Dern is a great actress. You really could see her talent just by comparing how drastically different her three different characters are in her work with David Lynch, but there's all the other options as well. I do remember she was really good in October Sky.

    I recently saw her playing the role of Hazel's mother in The Fault in Our Stars. I thought she was really good in that.

    1. Yeah man, she's one of the all time greats. Looking back at this post now, I'd definitely have Citizen Ruth as one of her best. Probably swapped with... well, shit, I don't know... We Don’t Live Here Anymore, I guess. Tough call.

      I thought she was the best part about The Fault in Our Stars. That goodbye flashback was devastating.

  11. I just watched Inland Empire. I didn't really understand a lot of what was happening, but if there is one thing that I took away from the movie, it is that Laura Dern is a force of nature. Wow, she blew me away. So, so gutsy and just... so out there! I loved it.

    It's also great that she is FINALLY getting some great roles again, not that she stopped getting them. She just wasn't around as much as before I guess, you know? She was the best part of The Fault in Our Stars, and I cannot wait to see her in Wild!

    1. For a while there she was kind of under the radar. But she has such a loyal fan base, which is great. I'm excited that she's getting great roles as well.

      And as for Inland Empire... yeah, not exactly one that's easy to "get." Hell, I don't have a clue what's going on for much of it, but I do still really dig it. And Dern is totally a force in that one. Wow.