By John H. Foote

Nominated for Best Actor for his splendid performance in Alexander Payne’s black and white Nebraska (2013) many thought veteran actor Bruce Dern might win the Academy Award for best actor based on his performance, but also as an actor with a lifetime of fine performances. He did not. Leonardo Di Carpio should have won the Oscar for Best Actor for The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) but instead another lifetime award went to Matthew McConaughey when someone decided it was his “time”, whatever that means. McConaughey won the award for Dallas Buyers Club (2013) a fine performance but is it remembered six years later? No, of course not.


Dern was one of the greats of the seventies, giving an array of brilliant performances in such films as Drive He Said (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Cowboys (1972), Silent Running (1972), The Laughing Policeman (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), Won Ton Ton (1975), Black Sunday (1977), The Driver (1977) and Coming Home (1978), until Nebraska his only Academy Award nomination. Dern deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Great Gatsby, and certainly should have been a Best Actor nominee for his deranged terrorist in Black Sunday, but it was not until his shattered Vietnam veteran in Coming Home that he received any attention from the Academy. He fell out favor with audiences after the seventies, struggling to find good roles, even coming to Canada to act in the critically acclaimed Middle Age Crazy (1980) and the western Harry Tracy, Desperado (1981), before settling into supporting work. He made something of a very quiet comeback in the 2000’s with roles in Monster (2003) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) before Jack Nicholson suggested Dern for the lead in Nebraska after he turned it down.


This year Dern could be back with a nomination for Best Actor as an artist in the throes of Alzheimer’s in The Artist’s Wife. Dern portrays an aging artist who knows his mind is failing him and he needs to create art, is it what defines him. But the ravages of Alzheimer’s are catching up to him and rendering him artistically mute. His younger wife, portrayed beautifully by Lena Olin, has for years been his assistant, setting aside her career for him, sees his decline two ways – the first, she agonizes over what is happening to such a bright fine mind; second, she sees his decline as possibly a time for herself.


The struggle with the mind could become a theme at the Oscars this year, if nominated, as The Father, with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman is high on the Academy’s radar, and The Artist’s Wife, with the right support, could land in the race too. Falling, the Viggo Mortensen directed film, deals with a hateful, racist father portrayed brilliantly by Lance Henrikson and it could jump into the race with a strong campaign, but right now it looks to be the two former films with the best chances.


I make no secret of my belief that Dern is among the greatest actors alive, one of the finest to emerge in the seventies. Jack Nicholson celebrates Dern every chance he gets, he always has, and it seems people are now listening. His films from the seventies remain remarkable works, his performances superb, and it seems he might be doing some of the finest work of his career in his later years. His daughter Laura won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last year for Marriage Story which he witnessed as a proud father. Perhaps this year, the oddest of years for sure, could be his and that Oscar could be held high by one of the unsung, under appreciated icons of the seventies.

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