Underrated: Laura Dern

Nicole Kidman. Cate Blanchett. Julianne Moore. These and many more are the actresses of our generation, who gained prominence in the late 80’s/early 90’s and since then and until today serve as the most prominent, high-profile and successful leading ladies of cinema. Looking over her filmography from the past 25 years, it becomes apparent that Laura Dern only naturally belongs to the very same generation of film actresses. And yet she is never mentioned in the same vein as her previously mentioned peers, isn’t a household name like they are, and aside from one Oscar nomination, is far less successful as they are in those particular circuits, despite garnering much critical acclaim throughout her career. Perhaps it was a conscious decision made by Dern, to avoid the spotlight and focus on the performances themselves, and not all the rest of the whole superstar celebrity business, but whatever it is, it becomes apparent very clearly that Dern has under her belt a career of performances equally as impressive as those delivered by her peers these past couple of decades. With the recent announcement of her casting in the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, it seems that Dern is here to stay and destined to continue delivering great and memorable performances in the years to come. And so, without further adieu, I give you the highlights of the career of Laura Dern, one of my favorite actresses.

Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet / Lula Fortune in Wild at Heart

After a few bit parts (including an uncredited appearance when she was seven years old in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as “Girl Eating Ice Cream Cone”), Dern made her big break not once but twice in two consecutive David Lynch productions. The first time around it was as sweet and innocent all-American girl Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet, serving as a part of the “wholesome suburban America” setting that is scarred and damaged by the deeply disturbing goings-on surrounding Frank Booth. Although Dern delivered an impressive performance, there was no denying that the true stars of the film were David Lynch and Dennis Hopper, while all other performers kind of took a backseat; after the film, she returned to bit parts until she co-starred in Lynch’s next outing, Wild at Heart. Showcasing incredible range, this time around Dern played pretty much the exact opposite of her character in the previous Lynch film; unlike sweet, wholesome Sandy (although even in that role Dern expertly managed to add some depth), Lula is outgoing, promiscuous and overtly sexual, assertive and wild while still retaining a certain insecurity about herself underneath – character traits that would return a year later in her next role.

Rose in Rambling Rose
One of Dern’s more “showy” performances, in which she delves face-first into her complex, tragic character and delivers a visceral, raw performance, opening Rose up and exposing all her inner workings, her deepest feelings and hardships to the viewing audience. It is so far the only role that has garnered Dern Oscar attention, and while it isn’t her best performance, it’s certainly one of them, showcasing some pure, no-holds-barred acting from the talented actress. I mentioned in the previous paragraph that the role of Rose shares some traits with the Lula character from Wild at Heart – sexual and promiscuous with much insecurity. That said, where Wild at Heart was an exercise in pulp fiction, Rambling Rose takes a far more realistic (and historical) view, and where Wild at Heart embellished and romanticized Lula, Rambling Rose shows these traits as a sign of Rose’s inescapable, tragic weakness. Disaster seems to follow her character around everywhere, and no matter how hard she tries she just can’t shake who she is. And where Lula was assertive, Rose finds herself far more subjective, to the pressures of Mr. Hillyer, her employer, and to the protection of his wife. The point is that Rose can’t fend for herself, further emphasizing the tragedy of her character.

Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park

Once again showing incredible range, Dern took a completely different direction than any of her previous characters with this role in Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur-horror classic. Where her previous characters were quite child-like in their inability to fend for themselves or take responsibility, with Ellie Sattler, Dern portrayed a seasoned, down-to-earth and fully grown woman with her own integrity and an air of elegance, maturity and intelligence about her – which isn’t to say that Sattler doesn’t get down and dirty near the end of the film in which her abilities are put to the test facing the harsh realities of the quite deteriorated situation. As is often the case with Spielberg films, Dern’s performance is characterized by restraint and subtlety, contrasting her more prominent and “showy” performances in some of the other films mentioned here.

Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth

Dern delivers her greatest performance in Alexander Payne’s truly brilliant film debut about Ruth Stoops, a homeless, childish, ignorant mess of a woman who seems to always find her life in a perpetual hole. She associates and has sex with the lowest scum of the earth, is treated like dirt, is addicted to inhaling toxic gasses, was sexually taken advantage of in her childhood as we learn, has had for children, the “two that survived” having been put up for adoption, and now finds herself pregnant again and in the middle of a literal war between the pro-lief and pro-choice camps. Hard to believe it, but this is actually a comedy film, and I think it’s quite a testament to Payne’s skills that the film actually is genuinely funny, despite the bleaker-than-bleak, darker-than-dark humour on display. And Dern is right there with him – her character is obnoxious, childish, ignorant, hopelessly lost and seemingly completely incapable of actually getting her life together and reforming her ways, despite her best intentions; and yet, Dern somehow still manages to make Ruth both endearing and also quite funny. And despite all her drawbacks and hopeless incapability to get better, we still feel for her. Dern’s performance belongs firmly in the “showy” camp, as she gets to do an accent, plenty of screaming, crying, jumping, writhing and other physical feats. But it is really quite an impressive and totally bewildering performance, in its raw intuitiveness and visceral nature.

Terry Linden in We Don’t Live Here Anymore

This little, totally underrated, gem of a movie is a rare treat. It’s beautifully small-scale; it features one location, four characters and is based on nothing more than dialogue. This renders it as actually one of the perfect “actors’ movies”, a film based almost entirely on its performances Like with Elile Sattler way back in Spielberg’s film, this movie gives Dern (and the other fantastic actors as well) to be a little more subtle and restrained for the most part, portraying real, grounded, down-to-earth, realistic characters we could totally see existing in real life. It’s a performance that works not because it shows off, but because Dern manages to completely become this character and portray her with one-hundred-per-cent believability. As the film progresses Dern and similarly talented co-stars Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause (Nate Fisher!) and Naomi Watts get more opportunities to become a little showier, but even in these parts Dern maintains the performance’s strongly rooted foundations in reality and integrity.

Nikki Grace/Susan Blue in Inland Empire

Lynch’s most recent film reunited him with Dern, whose career he essentially started decades earlier in films previously mentioned. This time around, though, Dern had a much bigger role to play, and I don’t only mean in terms of screen time. Inland Empire is a film that is quite literally impossible to describe, so suffice it to say that in a film that makes about as much sense as an alligator dancing the bossa nova with a peacock, Dern serves as a much-needed link to reality. Her performance serves as the emotional core of the film – and for that matter, really as the only emotional connection we as members of the audience make with this film in general. Like in many of her later roles, Dern goes the subtle way this time, delivering a subdued and poignant performance that is constantly rooted in reality – which is just what the audience needs in order to get through the insane dreamscape that is Lynch’s film intact. Lynch heavily lobbied for Dern to receive an Oscar nomination for her truly monumental performance in the film, but alas, as in the case with most of the other roles mentioned here, the Oscars show no love for Dern.

Katherine Harris in Recount

But where the Oscars show no love, the Emmys and Golden Globes do, as Dern was showered with praise for her fantastic portrayal of real-life Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in this generally quite excellent, taught, fascinating HBO made-for-TV movie depicting the controversy surrounding the Gore/Bush election results in 2000, focusing on the Florida recount and that whole ordeal specifically. Looking back over her filmography, Dern hasn’t really played any other real-life characters, quite unlike some of her contemporaries who have made careers out of doing so (Cate Blanchett, for example, has done everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to Veronica Guerin to Katharine Hepburn to Bob Dylan, just to name a few). And in this very well-made TV production, she manages to join the elite group of actors who deliver truly, genuinely outstanding portrayals of real-life figures. This type of role is comprised of two parts, and Dern excels magnificently in both. The first is the external portrayal, from the physical look to the mannerisms and speech patterns. In Dern’s case this becomes even more complicated as she is not portraying an historical figure such as Queen Elizabeth I, but rather a character that hundreds of millions of Americans saw plastered all over their TV screens day-in-day-out in November of 2000. It was crucial that Dern portray Harris’ every quirk and gesture to the smallest, scrutinizing detail because the memory of the real Harris’ TV persona and appearance is still fresh in most viewers’ minds, and I can safely say that she totally nailed it. But the second and more important part of portraying a real-life character is going beyond the external look and providing the audience with a window into the inner emotional core of the character – the driving force, the inner workings, the feelings and motives and personal thoughts – to make us identify with and understand why the character does what she does. And by my phrasing, I think it should be easy to guess that I think Dern succeeded marvelously and entirely in this field as well, and ends up delivering another one of the best performances of her career.