As Bruce Dern left the stage at the Arlington Theatre after receiving the SBIFF’s Modern Master Award, a film fan from Austin, Texas, said, “He should be in the Dos Equis commercial. That is the most interesting man in the world.”
As pleased as Dern was to be recognized for his Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska, the real pleasure of Saturday night’s tribute belonged to the audience that was regaled by tales from an acting career that has spanned more than five decades. Film critic Leonard Maltin was on the money when he introduced Dern as “a great raconteur.”
Dern came west from the Actor’s Studio in New York with scant hopes of becoming a leading man. “I had a face like a baby’s forceps,” he said. “They told me, ‘You’ll always be the third cowboy on the right.’” He was prepared to put in the work. “A marathon doesn’t start for 16 miles,” said Dern, a dedicated distance runner in his younger days.
On the movie sets, he ran in the company of Hollywood legends. Dern’s impersonation of Bette Davis, as she smoked Chesterfields and delivered a wicked put-down of rival actress Joan Crawford, drew resounding laughter from the audience.
He had a reputation as an evil-doer — the wacko who takes a blimp to blow up the Super Bowl in Black Sunday (“They’ll never make that movie again,” he said) — and, most infamously, the gunslinger who kills the swaggering John Wayne in The Cowboys.
“[Wayne] was an enormous guy,” Dern recalled. “He comes up to me and says, ‘Oooh, are they going to hate you for this.’ I said, ‘Maybe, but in Berkeley I’m a [bleeping] hero.’’’ He added, “I could have said ‘in Isla Vista.’”
Thirty-six years ago, Dern received his only other Academy Award nomination, for supporting actor as a troubled Vietnam veteran in Coming Home. The film ends dramatically with him swimming out into the ocean. “Big, emotional things — that’s what makes movies great,” he said.
Dern’s emotions as a confused septuagenarian are delicately nuanced in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. He said the director’s instruction was: “Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.” Angela McEwan, who plays Dern’s former girlfriend in the movie, was in the audience Saturday night. “The greatest shot I’ve ever seen in my entire career,” Dern declared, was the 30-second sequence when McEwan wistfully watches him ride through town in his new truck.
Diane Lane presented the Modern Master Award, much to Dern’s delight. “I’ve never seen a girl in my life as hot as Diane Lane,” he said. “This dame has never aged.” He said he’s looking forward to the actress receiving a role “where everybody’s going to see how transcendent she is” — sort of like his own part in Nebraska.