BIFF honoree Bruce Dern working as hard as ever at 80
When Bruce Dern is presented the Berkshire International Film Festival's Achievement in Film Award Saturday night, the event will also double as an 80th birthday celebration for the veteran actor.
"I kind of wanted to keep the 80th birthday under wraps," grumbles Dern.
Dern may fear that his age will offer an excuse for film-makers not to offer him work, but he doesn't appear to have anything to worry about. Directors Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino have given him juicy roles in recent years, and he is not lacking for work. Dern plainly loves acting but he also loves showing up doubters.
"Fifty-eight years I've been in this business," says Dern of a career begun on the New York stage before he moved to television and movies. "But when I did 'Nebraska,' the reaction from some people was, 'Who knew?'"
During the course of a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Dern is disarmingly frank, outrageously funny and given to colorful expletives to emphasize his points. His tales of Hollywood should be crowd-pleasers, 7 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.
Dern's TV and film resume is astonishing, beginning with appearances in a wide variety of television series from the 1960s, including seemingly every Western from "Gunsmoke" to "Rawhide" to "Bonanza." The actor's aura of wild-eyed menace made him an ideal black hat in Westerns (he's from a patrician family in Chicago but has always resembled a rangy frontiersman), but he began showing his considerable range as a rebellious astronaut in 1972's "Silent Running."
That film was directed by New Marlborough-based special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who will join Dern on the Mahaiwe stage as the actor shares his thoughts on his career. At 4 p.m. Saturday, "Silent Running," in which Dern's astronaut is told to destroy the last of Earth's botany, which is kept in a greenhouse on the spacecraft he pilots, will screen at the Mahaiwe.
With its theme of environmental protection and its unique special effects, "Silent Running" was ahead of its time. "Trumbull is a wizard," declares Dern. "The spaceships in the movie were hanging from flypaper in his garage." Not much has changed with Trumbull, who has always emphasized tangible effects over computer-generated ones.
Dern volunteers that he worked with "six geniuses" in his career. Three of them are legendary directors Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola, with Dern going back to his Actor's Studio days with Kazan. Payne, Tarantino and Trumbull round out the lost.
"He (Trumbull) should have won an Academy Award for '2001' but he didn't even get invited to the ceremony," Dern fairly shouts over the phone. "(Stanley) Kubrick took the award himself." As special effects supervisor on "2001: A Space Odyssey," Trumbull was responsible for the ground-breaking effects on the movie, which Kubrick directed.
"Then the girl died when he was making 'Brainstorm,'" continues Dern in reference to Trumbull's second Hollywood feature, in which scientists learn how to replicate the brain experiences of others and must fend off a government that sees military uses. "There was pretty amazing stuff in that movie."
The "girl" was actress Natalie Wood, who went missing from her yacht and was found to have drowned. Financially struggling MGM wanted to abandon the film, which the director said was nearly finished, and after a two-year struggle to get it released, a disgusted Trumbull left Hollywood for the Berkshires.
In 1978, six years after "Silent Running," Dern won a best supporting actor nomination for "Coming Home." In the film, Dern's Marine officer returns from Vietnam suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to find that his wife (Jane Fonda) is having an affair with a disabled Vietnam veteran (Jon Voight). Dern was always going to be a Hollywood go-to guy for sociopaths, psychos and evil-doers, but "Coming Home" revealed his considerable acting chops.
Dern's second Oscar nomination, this one for Best Actor, came from 2013's "Nebraska," in which Dern's aging and embittered Woody joins his estranged won (Will Forte) on a doomed mission to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Dern raves about Payne, observing that "He told me, 'Never show us anything, let us find it.' That is when I knew I had a partner." "Nebraska" will be screened at the Mahaiwe Saturday night following the conversation between Dern and Trumbull.
Returning to his six geniuses, Dern said one common thread is that "not one member of the cast or crew on their pictures ever looked as if they felt out of place, or felt they couldn't approach the director." When he arrived on the set of "Nebraska," Dern recalled that Payne told him that 61 of the 80-plus people on the set had worked with the director on previous projects.
"You sir, can dare to take a risk, because we have your back," Dern was told by Payne, which the actor said freed him to take chances with his character.
Dern has similar high praise for Tarantino, who directed him in 2012's "Django Unchained" and last year in "The Hateful Eight," in which Dern's hateful character was the racist Confederate general Sandy Smithers. Along with the professional sets both Payne and Tarantino ran and Dern admired, both directors were comfortable with the actor's "Dernsies."
"Dernsies" are the choice, insightful or otherwise memorable lines Dern has a long-held reputation for coming up with for his character during filming. Dern said they go back to Kazan and 1960's "Wild River" and both Payne and Tarantino welcomed them.
According to Dern, when an unnamed cast member of "The Hateful Eight" asked why only Dern was allowed to ad lib, the famously fussy Tarantino replied, "I think I'm a pretty good writer, but I can't write the stuff that comes out of his mouth."
Dern continues to be busy, with "The Lears," a modern day retelling of Shakespeare's "King Lear," ready for release. Over the phone, the actor volunteered the information that all the men on his mother's (MacLeish) side of the family lived to within one year of 100, over or under, including his great-uncle, poet Archibald MacLeish, who died a month shy of the century mark.
So if there are any Dern skeptics remaining, the actor still has the time, energy and enthusiasm to win them over.
Who: 2016 achievement in film honoree — actor Bruce Dern
What: award presentation; conversation with filmmaker Douglas Trumbull; screening of "Nebraska"
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
Tickets: $30; free to $300 and $500 Passholders only
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