Thursday, June 4, 2015

Birthday Take: Bruce Dern in "Nebraska" (2013)

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Bruce Dern
Born: June 4, 1936 (79)
Nomination: Best Actor - Nebraska (nominated) as Woody Grant

The Take

While I have seen hundreds, possibly thousands, of movies, there are rarely those moments where I connect with it because I see something personally familiar. While there are characters who may share ideals that I have or react to situations similarly to me, I rarely come away apologetically claiming that they are in fact a cinematic version of myself. It would take some serious voyeurism to find a character who was close enough to me that I would love a film on that level. However, there is one that immediately comes to mind when I think of a character that I recognize in my own life. It may not be a reflection of me, but of my own grandfather who still lives in his own aloof fashion. I am talking about Woody Grant in Nebraska.

While I have largely been a California native for most of my life, I am occasionally bombarded with stories from my grandfather of his past and an era pre-electricity.  I am immediately made clear that his idea of a good time is different from mine. So while I have never taken him to Mount Rushmore or driven through middle America with him, I recognize Grant as my own largely because both  men are greatly candid and can pull some great jokes out of nowhere. That is, they could be jokes if you're sure that they aren't actually senile. There's a strange endearment to the aging process that gives them a certain leeway in which they may be fragile and crass, but they are still respectable figures in your life.

While the same could go for June Squibb as my grandmother surrogate, I come away from Nebraska largely remembering Woody's story. In a way, I see the reaction to how my grandfather is treated in real life. He is often quiet, fine with skirting in the background of situations. He can also pull powerful stories if a prop strikes memories. However, the most similar thing is that no matter how much you respect him, he isn't entirely always willing to be open. Sometimes he'll take the abuse of others just to not be bothered. He finds pride in legacy and what he can do for his family. So while the film ends with his biggest achievement being that his son bought him a truck, there's powerful resonance in realizing that the family better understands what they really want out of life wasn't to win the lottery, but to have something to pass down to generations.

There's a chance that Nebraska is reminiscent of most middle American families thanks largely to its accuracy. I may not even be the only one who can watch fondly and just spout out stories about my grandfather. However, that could just be the magic of Bruce Dern as an actor, who based on interviews is still a strong and agile man who is relatively good shape. It may also be that in a genre of elderly figures, they aren't often represented as more than optimistic heroes seeking enlightenment. While I do like films like On Golden Pond, I am more likely to revisit Nebraska and see my family in that film. It may be because it isn't sensationalized. It could just be that I first watched it on the right day. However, it is interesting to find cinema that speaks directly to me not thematically, but more personally like this.

For the most part, my grandfather is still alive and I see him from time to time. Years have passed since I first saw Nebraska and my feelings still remain strong. While I have seen several Dern performances in the time since, I haven't found one that is perfectly relative to my life. It is a testament to his craft and the black and white cinematography that a story about fading relevance can actually make me realize something deeper about my own personal feelings. While I don't think that my grandfather has ever walked alongside the freeway aimlessly or lost personal belongings by the train tracks, he has done enough similar stuff that I can relate. It may not be the most glamorous of portraits, but that is likely what makes it the most truthful for me.

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