By Pam Grady
In a career that began before she was old enough to drive, Laura Dern has played a dazzling array of women. The first impression she made, not quite even an ingenue, was in a party scene in Foxes (1980) as a girl in thick glasses trying to appear worldly as she discusses birth control. Over the next three decades, she would play radically different young women in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), a drug-addled wastrel in Citizen Ruth (1996), a lethal dental hygienist in the blackly comedic film noir Novocaine (2001), and the deeply flawed heroine trying to take her life back in her series Enlightened (2011-2013).
Two recent roles, one for which she was nominated for an Oscar and another for which she won a Prime-Time Emmy and a Golden Globe, demonstrate Dern’s extraordinary range. In both Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (2014) and the TV show Big Little Lies (2017), Dern plays a mom, but the difference between these two women could fill an ocean. Dern nails the particular shadings of both perfectly: Bobbi, the cheerfully supportive earth mother living under the shadow of her former marriage to an abusive man and coping with cancer in Wild, in contrast to Big Little Lies’ Renata, a Type-A business executive whose maternal instincts are far more ferocious. Taken together, the roles are master classes in acting.
In his memoir, Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have (2007), Dern’s father, actor Bruce Dern recalls that he was making the Western Will Penny (1967) when his wife, actress Diane Ladd, gave birth to their daughter. Within days, the infant was ensconced in a motel room’s bureau drawer, a makeshift crib, in Bishop, CA, where her father was working on the movie.
With those parents and that introduction to location moviemaking, it was perhaps inevitable that Laura Dern would follow her parents into acting. In fact, her first credits are uncredited roles in two of her mother’s movies. At seven, she was directed by Martin Scorsese’s in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) in a scene where she had to polish off an ice cream cone. Impressed that she had the fortitude to withstand 19 takes and 19 ice cream cones (without throwing up), the director told Ladd that her daughter was meant to be an actress. By her early teens, she was fulfilling that promise with her role in Foxes and another small role in rock impresario Lou Adler’s cult musical Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982).
Dern worked steadily through the early 1980s, making TV movies and films like Teachers (1984) and Mask (1985), where she played the blind girlfriend of the deformed Rocky (Eric Stoltz). Then in 1985, she got her big break in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk. Shot largely in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the drama starred Dern as a 15-year-old yearning for something more than her dissatisfying home life and hanging out at the mall, and thinking she’s found it in an older guy (Treat Williams) whose seductive manner blinds her to the danger he represents. Roger Ebert praised Dern as a chameleon who appeared a child one moment and an adult the next. The role earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
Blue Velvet marked the beginning of Dern’s collaboration with Lynch, one that has yielded three films and a TV series to date. As Sandy in that first film, she is a ray of sunshine cutting through the darkness that envelops clean-cut college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachan) as the mystery of a severed ear leads him into a criminal and sadomasochistic underworld.
Four years later, in Wild at Heart, Lynch’s loose adaptation of Berkeley writer Barry Gifford’s novel, she played the frankly erotic Lula Fortune, a damaged woman in thrall to her lover Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and on the run from her angry, demented mother (Dern’s own mom Diane Ladd). “Nothing she has done before prepares us for the lusty vividness she brings to Lula. Dern is a raunchy, radiant wonder,” observed Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.
Dern herself agreed in an interview in the New York Times. “[Lula’s] incredible. For me, she was the first opportunity I’d had to play not only a very sexual person, but also someone who also was, in her own way, incredibly comfortable with herself. She has no fear of anyone else’s judgment. It’s just wonderful to be inside someone like that.”
As the titular character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose (1991), Dern would once again play another young woman in thrall to her sexuality. Rose’s free and easy way with men creates chaos wherever she goes, but that doesn’t stop the Hillyers (Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd) from taking her in in this Depression-era comedy drama. A little dim and seeming younger than her 19 years, Rose is a child in a sensual woman’s body. The role earned Dern her first Oscar nomination. Ladd was also nominated for her supporting role, the first time a mother and daughter were nominated for the same film.
Dern took a deep dive into the world of the Hollywood blockbuster with the role of Ellie in Jurassic Park (1993), a character she would reprise in the franchise’s 2001 second sequel Jurassic Park III, but more often her projects were independent and she became more active on television. She won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Emmy for her role as an Air Force widow determined to discover the truth behind her husband’s fatal plane crash in Afterburn (1992). She also took part in one of television’s historical moments when she played the woman who lures Ellen DeGeneres’s character out of the closet on a 1997 episode of Ellen (1994-1998), a performance for which Dern received another Emmy nomination.
A starring role in Alexander Payne’s debut feature, the satiric Citizen Ruth, further burnished Dern’s reputation as she nailed the portrait of a drug-addled pregnant woman who finds herself caught between warring sides of the abortion debate. “Dern is a revelation: Desperate, kooky, as devious as a pack rat, her Ruth grows likable, and even heroic, by remaining too pure a scoundrel to be taken in by the phonies around her,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly.
Twenty years after her first collaboration with David Lynch, Dern once more became the director’s muse in Inland Empire (2006), playing a movie star who finds herself starring in a project that seems cursed. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian praised Dern’s performance for its “indestructible poise and intelligence.” That intelligence would be key to Dern’s latest project with Lynch, Twin Peaks (2017). In Lynch’s original 1990-1991 series, FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) assistant Diane was a little bit like Charlie Brown’s red-haired girl, never seen. But in this last chapter, she finds an embodiment in Dern, smart, enigmatic, and sporting a flamboyant manicure that suggests a woman not to be toyed with lest her claws come out.
With Enlightened, Dern created her own opportunity, co-creating and executive producing the HBO series with its writer, Mike White, and winning accolades as Amy, a former corporate executive trying to claw her way back after a demotion-induced nervous breakdown and rehab. Dern earned a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination for her performance, along with critical hosannas. “I was blown away by how Dern is able to keep Amy on this knife’s edge between maniacal optimism and seething anger, and there’s no telling which direction she might go at any moment,” read one such review by Meredith Blake in The AV Club. “It’s exhilarating to watch.”
Dern continues to stretch herself in her roles. She reveals an adventurous spirit that encompasses the mothers in Wild and Big Little Lies, the lavender-haired resistance leader Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in The Last Jedi (2017), a woman confronting childhood abuse in The Tale (2018), literary trickster Laura Albert in Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy (2018), and Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman trying to clear a man on death row in Edward Zwick’s Trial by Fire (2018), the film that SFFILM Festival is screening as part of its tribute to Dern. Forty-five years after Martin Scorsese took notice of the then seven-year-old’s acumen and devotion to craft, she continues to make quite the impression.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance film writer.