By Carl Kozlowski
Like far too many men in their 70s, Woody Grant spends most of his time remembering the past. But when he receives a mailer informing him that he may have already won a million dollars from a sweepstakes scam, Woody suddenly starts thinking about the future, determined to collect the bounty by traveling from his home in Montana to a prize center headquarters in Nebraska.
That madly determined journey forms the basis of “Nebraska,” the latest character-driven film about idiosyncratic Americans from director Alexander Payne. Building on a growing legacy of average people with unusual ambitions (“The Descendants,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “Election”), this black-and-white film presents a vision of small-town America and its colorful denizens that is par for the course in Payne’s series of sterling productions: funny and sad, haunting and hilarious, and guaranteed to be nominated for Oscars.
For actor Bruce Dern, Woody represents the best role that the veteran character actor has seen in decades — a part that earned him the top acting prize at this year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival as well as a good shot at an Academy Award.
“I’ve never played a movie starring role, and Woody is not a movie starring role, though he is certainly the lead character,” said Dern — who, at 77, bounced excitedly in his seat during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
“Woody actually is just another character in a long line of character roles, but he’s the most full-bodied and is the linchpin of the movie. That’s kind of new to me,” Dern said.
Dern was born in Chicago and possesses an impressive family lineage. While his father was a utility chief and attorney, Dern’s grandfather was a former Utah governor and U.S. Secretary of War. A great-uncle was famed poet Archibald MacLeish, and his godparents were two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Dern quickly broke into a thriving acting career on numerous TV shows before earning his big movie break in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller “Marnie.” It was through these early film and TV roles that Dern was able to learn from numerous veteran character actors, among them Charles Bickford, who taught him to always focus on his work rather than concern himself with stardom.
That attitude has paid off with a career in which Dern has never stopped working, racking up more than 145 film and TV credits. While he didn’t become a full-fledge movie icon, he nonetheless scored an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the 1978 film “Coming Home.”
Dern also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside his daughter, actress Laura Dern, and his first wife and Laura’s mother, actress Diane Ladd. In fact, they are the only father-mother-child combination of performers ever to be honored together on the entertainment landmark.
Although Laura Dern and Diane Ladd have worked together several times on film, Bruce Dern notes that he and his daughter have never played opposite each other. That was rectified in a unique way on “Nebraska.”
“I’ll tell you something that no one knows,” Dern said, laughing. “As I’m driving down the street in the truck near the end, there’s a blond girl walking on the other side of the street in that shot. Alexander came to me and said, ‘I’m going to put Laura in the shot. It’s not going to detract from the movie, but now you can never say you and Laura didn’t have a movie together.”
Dern notes that a sense of family permeates “Nebraska” and the rest of Payne’s body of work. When his character, Woody, refuses to give up his stubborn ambition to claim the million-dollar prize, his son David (portrayed by former “Saturday Night Live” actor Will Forte) decides to take a long weekend and drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city.
Most of the movie’s misadventures take place in Hawthorne, Neb., however, as Woody convinces David to detour into his childhood hometown and visit old friends and family members. But comical trouble really comes to a boil when Woody runs into his old nemesis, played by hard-boiled veteran actor Stacy Keach, and his wife and other son, who all follow Grant and his son to Hawthorne as well.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about a movie like ‘Nebraska’ is that it really shows families in the Midwest, that part of the country where they are more family units, where they pull for each other, and even if they don’t like what you’re doing, if you go down they have your back,” said Dern, who moved to Pasadena from Malibu a decade ago.
Likewise, “Everybody in this movie gets a false sense of entitlement and thinks they should get a piece of the pie. They’re saying to Woody, ‘We were there for you, now be there for us,’” he said.
Another major aspect of the movie lies in its depiction of how dismissively people treat the elderly, especially those suffering from some form of dementia.
One of the more memorable parts of the movie lies in its homestretch, when his son David decides to give his father a dramatic chance to reclaim his dignity through a series of simple yet beautiful actions.
“Because someone can’t get through a conversation with you, we’re too quick to lose respect for that disability. You give respect to the vet who’s missing a limb, but you don’t give respect to the grandfather in your house who isn’t thinking as quickly as he should,” Dern said. “In terms of nobility in movies, I’ve not been in one where someone did something nobler than what Woody’s son does here.”
With all the attention he’s currently receiving for the role, Dern is hoping that “Nebraska” will help spark a return to the character-driven movies of the 1970s. That era of films, including “The Last Picture Show,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” offered strong slice-of-life stories that spoke to viewers’ hearts and minds much more than the special-effects-driven fare that has dominated the marketplace in the past two decades, he contends.
“I hope it’ll help, and the reason why is this: The new people who run studios are much more family-oriented men and women than before. Because of that, they’re struck by films like this, and they’re willing to let there be an atmosphere where a Woody can evolve,” Dern said.
“I think it’s now the beginning of an era that had to eventually happen, to go back to making movies about people,” he continued. “Movies about people like Woody are getting the attention now.”