Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Having worked on several westerns and suspense thrillers in his early career throughout the 1960s and 1970s, his first Oscar nomination came for his supporting performance in 1978’s Coming Home, a Vietnam War era romantic drama where he plays the deployed husband of Jane Fonda’s character as she falls in love with a paraplegic played by Jon Voight.
At home in both drama and comedy, Dern worked under legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Sydney Pollack, Roger Corman, Sam Peckinpah, and John Frankenheimer as well as modern icons who will be considered legends in cinema’s future (if they aren’t already) such as Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne, the latter of whom directed the film that brought him his second Oscar nomination: Nebraska.
This weekend, Dern plays a supporting role in Ravage, a film about a nature photographer who had suffered through a harrowing event that the police refuse to take seriously. The film has been up and down the release schedule with one source saying it opens this weekend and another saying it won’t open until May of next year. If it doesn’t release this weekend, that really isn’t a problem as it won’t change my decision to highlight his career and my favorite films of his below.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Starring a who’s who of Golden Era Hollywood royalty, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte features Bette Davis as a woman suspected of the murder of her lover decades earlier who has called on her cousin (Olivia de Havilland) to help her convince the local government not to demolish her home. The film also featured Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, and Mary Astor, with a collective 21 Oscar nominations and four Oscars shared between five of the six at the time of release. Oddly, Cotten was never been nominated by the Academy in spite of several strong performances that should have at least been considered. Dern played Davis’ deceased lover.
As Davis descends into madness, this thriller dances on the edge of sanity in a most pleasing and enjoyable fashion. The film itself was nominated for seven Oscars, mostly in the production department with Moorehead securing her fourth and final Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the film. It’s a film that has moments of sheer creative verve and others of tepid cheesiness, but the end result is an undeniably entertaining feature.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Pollock’s harrowing exploration of Great Depression era dance marathons, where those hurt most by the economic collapse compete for a $1,500 prize, suffering for the seeming amusement of a jaded emcee. Starring Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons, and Dern, the whole affair is as twisted as it is compelling.
With knockout performances from everyone involved, most notably Fonda, Sarrazin, York, Buttons, and Young, Pollock’s picture was utterly riveting and the treatment of the slowly wearying dancers is a difficult, but rewarding watch years later. The film pulled in 9 total Oscar nominations including citations for Fonda, Young, and York, but surprisingly none for Best Picture. It still holds the all-time record for the most nominations without that top citation.
The Haunting (1999)
This film was one of the hardest decisions I made about putting together this list. It isn’t a very good movie and Dern isn’t a big part of it. That said, when it came out in 1999, I was absolutely thrilled with it. Terrific visual effects, ominous cinematography, and a bevy of very talented actors giving us all a fright.
This film was based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House and was also a loose adaptation of a same-titled 1963 film. As entertaining as the film was back in 1999, I recognize just how poorly it has aged. The effects aren’t as interesting as they once were and some of the performances were on the border of being atrocious; however, the film feels like a campy throwback to the style of horror film that the 1963 film exemplified and that is one of the primary reasons I included it here.
Django Unchained (2012)
The first of three films Dern made with Tarantino, his character is a very minor one, though his role in his second Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight, is much larger. Django Unchained was a fascinating inversion of the frilly Civil War-period south depicted iconically, and troublingly, in Gone With the Wind.
Influenced by the spaghetti westerns that were popular in the 1960s and infusing just a touch of blaxploitation era influence, Tarantino crafts an immensely entertaining, pensive, and cathartic rebuke of the antebellum south. He continued to prove that he was a superlative filmmaker with this picture.
Giving Dern his best role in decades, Alexander Payne put him into the character of an aging patriarch insistent on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize that his son (Will Forte) and his wife (June Squibb) believe to be fictional. Forte initially agrees to drive him to Nebraska, but after the letter is stolen and Forte embarrasses Dern in a bar, the simmering tension between the two boils over and their bonding trip becomes something even more important, an exploration of Dern’s desire to remain independent in light of increasing dependence due to his age.
Dern is marvelous in his role as a headstrong retiree desirous to leave something behind for his family when he dies and never giving up hope that he will be seen as having been a good father. The entire cast is strong in the film, but Dern leverages his decades of experience into an indelible performance.