Let's be honest. Bruce Dern is not a name that is immediately registers in the minds most people, cinephiles exempt. Admittedly, I knew little of Bruce Dern before his latest film, "Nebraska". But however ignorant and young I may be, Bruce Dern's face is not that of a stranger, but nearly an acquaintance, like someone you've passed on the street for years. With a 56 year long career and an enormous list of film and television credits under his belt including The Great Gatsby, Marnie, Rawhide, Gun Smoke, Mulholland Falls, and working alongside Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Jack Nicholson.
Interviewing was Leonard Maltin who more than accurately introduced Bruce Dern as "a raconteur". Listening to the interview was like sitting around a kitchen table with a distant great-uncle who wandered in from a storm, raspy, rambling and completely riveting.
Dern began as a runner, most impressively, running 50 mile marathons and running every day-without fail-for 17 years. His athlete's cast trailed forward into his life as an actor, most apparently manifesting in his extended, endurance race of a career. A career that at age 77, seems to be just beginning
Bruce Dern first took interest in acting in 1956. "I started realizing that the people on the screen were touching me." the actor reflected. Soon after, Dern auditioned for and joined the Actor's Studio and went under contract for Elia Kazan. Kazan regarded Bruce Dern as an "untrained instrument" training him for a year in nearly 25 scenes as a "silent partner". Sending Dern off to Los Angeles to begin his career, Kazan said, "Nobody is going to appreciate the ability that you have, until you are in your late 60's… You're not a leading man, you never will be. You have a face like a forceps baby. Therefore, you're gonna go out there and you're gonna be the third cowboy from the right." Obviously, Dern was undeterred.
Quickly becoming a prolific supporting actor, he found his niche in cowboy movies, famously becoming the first and only actor to ever kill John Wayne in a movie. "He [John Wayne] was completely sh*tfaced at 11:00 in the morning… He leaned into me and he said, 'Oh ah, they're gonna hate you for this." To which Dern rebutted, "Maybe, but in Berkley, I'm a f*ckin' hero!" The night was studded with stories like this, anecdotal gems accented with spot-on imitations of golden-age greats- including Bette Davis on the set of "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" calling Joan Crawford a c*nt.
With every biting and often jarring scene shown of Bruce Dern's acting, it became incredibly clear why this under-the-radar, mostly supporting actor was onstage at the Arlington receiving a Modern Master's Award. He may not have played leading roles for the majority of his marathon career, nor was he cast as friendly, likable, sensitive characters, but his raw, almost eerily real performances have more than earned Bruce Dern the honor and title of Modern Master.