Bruce Dern runs.
Almost every day.
He has run most of his life. A track star at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka in the late 1950s, he tried out for the Olympic team in 1956 (but finished ninth in his division). On camera, though, Dern, now 77, is much more pokey.
In "Nebraska," the new Alexander Payne movie for which Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring, he moves with a paradoxical mix of tentativeness and inertia, the loose jocularity of his 1970s oddballs replaced by an elderly man who appears determined to get somewhere and just as determined not to reveal the strain on him. Dern plays Woody Grant, a Midwestern octogenarian crank who insists on traveling from Montana to Nebraska to collect $1 million promised by a junk-mail sweepstakes. Woody will walk if no one will drive. No one will.
His wife (played by southern Illinois native June Squibb) tells him he's nuts; his oldest son (played by Naperville's Bob Odenkirk) wants no part of it. But then his youngest (played by former "Saturday Night Live" star Will Forte) gives in, considering it an opportunity to bond. During the brief road trip there's a scene in which Dern ambles across the empty bedroom of an old farmhouse. It's a simple scene: The home was owned by Woody's parents, but Woody says little. He seems shellshocked, haunted. He crosses to an upstairs window, stares out and says if his parents knew he was there, he'd be whipped. But there's no one to whip him now.
When Oscar season rolls around and Dern, in all likelihood, becomes a serious contender for a best actor Oscar for the first time in a career that has spanned six decades, it will be for nearly wordless moments like that, ripe with memory, regret and ache. And in more ways than one. Asked about the scene, Dern, back in Chicago recently for the first time in years, replied matter-of-factly: "That's about Glencoe." A surprisingly emotional guy considering his years as Hollywood's go-to lunatic, his voice broke: "That's about the North Shore." His blue eyes misted. "The most honest parallel between my life and my career is that scene," he said. "My parents are in there. And so is the 18-month-old who Diane (Ladd, his second wife) and I lost in a swimming pool (drowning in the early 1960s). All of the hard stuff that's happened in my life, it's right in there. I would have had an American Family soap bar shoved down my throat if my parents had found me in their bedroom, and my mother would take a strap to me sometimes. But it's not the strap that hurt, it was the metal tip. My mother, she would hit me for the most meaningless things. Like, I didn't make my bed. 'Well,' I'd say, 'we have five people in this house who make beds!' It was privilege talking, I know. But we had several servants, and we were pigs because of that."
As a child, Dern wore white gloves to dinner. He raised his hand before being acknowledged by his parents. He lived in Glencoe; his home was built by renowned architect Louis Sullivan. His bedroom overlooked Lake Michigan. He has a pedigree. The last time Dern spoke to his mother, in the early '70s (she died soon after), she was still trying to get him to move back to Chicago, he said. "I think I was being groomed to take over the store," he said.
Meaning, the Carson Pirie Scott department store chain, which his great-grandfather co-founded. "We owned 51 percent," he continued, "so my mother, she said, 'Look, give up this foolishness. I'll put you through law school, you'll go to Carsons, maybe do little plays at the Goodman, get this acting thing out of your system.' I said I was doing movies. She said she couldn't bring anyone to see anything I had made."
Though it was still relatively early in his career, Dern was established: With close friend Jack Nicholson, he made "Drive, He Said" (1971) and was shooting "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972). He had a sci-fi blockbuster in theaters, "Silent Running" (1972). By the end of the decade, he would be a best supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Coming Home" (1978). He would be reunited with his "Marnie" director Alfred Hitchcock for "Family Plot." But he made his reputation working with low-budget king Roger Corman. He lost his head in a movie. Ate a baby. Tried bombing the Super Bowl ("Black Sunday"). He had a knack for playing unhinged.
And it stuck.
Even his mother asked: Hadn't he shot John Wayne in the back and killed him? He had, in "The Cowboys" (1972). "I said, 'But it's a movie, mother.' And she said, 'Oh, Bruce, your grandfather will never understand.' " Indeed, talk to Dern long enough and you realize that his role as Tom Buchanan, North Shore son of privilege in the 1974 adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," one of the few times he was cast against type, was eerily spot on.
"Dad's history is incredible," actress Laura Dern, his daughter with Ladd, said by phone. "When you come from that kind of money, there is a classism you are raised around and a pressure to continue the lineage. But he prided himself on going against it. He would not be a member of the club. And he had political lineage, business lineage, poetic lineage, and he becomes an actor! The ultimate rebellion! My mom is from small-town Mississippi, and that's phenomenal, but dad, to have stature waiting, then take the road less traveled? To say, 'You know what, I'm out.' It cost him. His parents never accepted acting. But it's beautiful, right?"
Chances are, if you have thought at all about Bruce Dern in the past 30 years, everything you assumed you know is quite wrong. You know him as a quintessential supporting actor, which he is; discussing his big moment at Cannes, even Dern slips, referring to his win for "best supporting actor." But to watch him in "Nebraska" is to realize he's always been a leading man, one whose ability to reveal the natural quirks and vulnerabilities in hateful men arrived in Hollywood a few decades too early for Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze.
"He can do a lot without doing much," said filmmaker Joe Dante, who directed Dern in several films, including "The 'Burbs" (1989) with Tom Hanks. "Which is never the most noticeable quality. But when I first saw him, which is when a lot of people first noticed him, in the 1960s, he had this acting style that no one else had. He could channel the ticks of real people. His vocal mannerisms were natural and unique. He always seemed more in the moment than anyone else. It's remarkable to think that a guy who has never drank, smoked or taken drugs could capture the psychedelia of the '60s in a movie like 'The Trip' (1967)."
Yes, Dern, famed for his sketchy, wild-eyed characters, says he has never taken a drink in his life, or smoked a cigarette -- a reaction, he said, to watching his own parents drink and smoke too much at home.
He arrived at the Original Pancake House in the Gold Coast on a drizzly weekday morning. Sitting down, he said: "How did you know? Every year I get asked where I want to eat for my birthday, and every year I want to go to IHOP! My business partner, my wife (Andrea Beckett) and Laura all schlep along. I order a crepe, even though they always put berries and (expletive) on it, which is for Switzerland, frankly -- don't (expletive) tell me I need a berry, IHOP!" He turned to the waitress and nicely said how much he likes IHOP. "You're in Original Pancake House, honey," she replied. And Dern ran a hand across his face: "Now I feel like an (expletive)." He said all this very loudly. He ordered pancakes, which he coated with an inch of butter, then drowned in a deluge of syrup until only the very tops of the pancakes could be seen.
"Bruce is no lunatic," said Squibb, who is 84. "I always thought of him as that wonderful actor who never got a chance. But that's not even as surprising as, once you know about his family, how much of his childhood he lost and the relationship he had with his proper parents -- kind of strained -- how less than proper he is."
Asked about his family, he took a bite of pancake and said, "Nobody ever wants to know that stuff."
Asked again, he swallowed, sat up straight, and said: "My name is Bruce MacLeish Dern. I was born in Rush, what was Presbyterian Hospital then. The MacLeishes started the Carson Pirie Scott department store. I lived on Mary Street in Glencoe. Pass though these ravines, you come out right near it, on the lake side of Sheridan Road. Burke and Locke was the name of our home. My grandfather lived about a block away" -- though 12 acres separated the homes -- "and my great-uncle was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and playwright and librarian of Congress. And that's basically the MacLeishes. George Dern was my other grandfather. He was a two-time Utah governor and a Democrat who became the secretary of war for FDR." Dern's father, John Dern, was a prominent Chicago attorney whose business partner was Aldai Stevenson III, the former U.S. senator.
Anyway, that's how you become connected. He called up an old picture of his childhood home on his phone and held it there a moment. It had gables, turrets, a long porch -- a kind of Southern plantation crossed with a Cape Cod gothic. He said he was sent to the prestigious Choate prep school in Connecticut because his parents didn't like the class of children he played with (or that he was gambling on the Cubs at 9 years old); he said he was caught cheating and thrown out, finishing his last two years of high school at New Trier. "Then, fast as I could, I got the hell out."