Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Laura Dern

Laura DernAn actress ever since she was a child, Laura Dern has captured our attention through her authoritative screen presence, regular appearances on both the silver and television screens, and her collaborations with David Lynch. Celebrating her birthday and winning her first Academy Award this week, now’s as good a time as any to pay tribute to one of today’s great actresses.

Smooth Talk (1985)

By Eugene Kang

Smooth TalkBased on a Joyce Carol Oates’ short story about the Tucson murders committed by Charles Schmid, Smooth Talk is presented as an account of a teenager’s summer. Only seventeen at the time, Laura Dern plays Connie Wyatt, who wants to break free from her family life. Her mother always compares her negatively to her older sister, and her father cannot give her the emotional support she actually needs. Though she is ready to experiment with her sexuality, she flees from any potential encounters with boys. Dern is so perfectly cast not just because she plays a teenager without affectation (harder than one might think), but also because she is physically mature for her age, and often young women who mature early are unfortunately targets of unwanted attention, male and female. The climax of the film is a sick cat and mouse game between the older, charismatic yet aggressive Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) and Connie. The way the scene plays out is so obviously from a female perspective (thanks to the source material, the direction of Joyce Chopra and Dern) that it is one of few movies to show what “seduction” looks like through a female lens and how terrifying it actually can be when the power dynamic is so skewed towards the man. Smooth Talk is a little slow and relaxed in its first half, but the climax is still highly effective.

Blue Velvet (1986)

By Henry Baime

Blue VelvetBlue Velvet, David Lynch’s fourth feature film, marked somewhat of a return to- or in many ways a birth of- the Lynchian trademark style after time away from it with the much more conventional historical drama Elephant Man and his adaptation of Dune. It revived Dennis Hopper’s career and gave Isabella Rossellini one of her first roles, but most importantly for this particular retrospective, it proved to be Laura Dern’s breakout role. Released when she was only nineteen, her role as the daughter of a police detective and love interest and confidant of Kyle MacLachlan’s protagonist Jeffrey, Dern establishes a compelling and memorable presence that make her character seem much larger than the part. Where some other performers in the film portray their characters with a certain absurdity unlike most of what is seen elsewhere in film, she provides a grounding presence that keeps the film’s idyllic small town feeling intact even as the dark underbelly is uncovered. Though she was excellent in Blue Velvet, her role in it is perhaps most notable for being the first in a long series of collaborations with David Lynch that have continued for more than three decades and continued to bring widespread acclaim to both of them.

Wild at Heart (1990)

By Alex Sitaras

Wild at HeartAfter Laura Dern’s breakout performance in Blue Velvet, David Lynch and Laura Dern partnered again for Wild at Heart. A foil to her doe-eyed breakout role, Wild at Heart sees Dern cast as the hypersexual Lula who plays opposite Sailor (Nicolas Cage). They’re a couple on the run from hitmen sent by Lula’s mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real life mother) who disapproves of her daughter’s relationship with Sailor. Wild at Heart is gritty and jarring to watch because of its editing, heavy metal soundtrack, violence, and bizarre, dangerous characters. Yet the film is ultimately a romance and elevates its atmosphere to that of the otherworldly with surrealist scenes and singing atop a car. Dern has always played self-assured roles and has a presence on-screen, and her performance as Lula stands out in her filmography as she goes toe-to-toe with Lynch and Cage’s uninhibited boldness (or weirdness??)- which is no small feat. Her character is the prime mover for Sailor’s actions and stirs within Sailor a feeling of love despite the two being youthful, rebellious, and without a care in the world. Yet no matter how distant or independent one sees oneself, we all experience the human condition and have certain desires that must be fulfilled. And for Lula, she desires Sailor, flaws and all, and he desires her.

Jurassic Park (1993)

By Carson Schilling

Jurassic ParkSteven Spielberg’s prehistoric masterpiece Jurassic Park is a fantastic adventure film that relies on its humanistic performances just as much as its groundbreaking CGI. Laura Dern’s performance in this film is one of its strongest aspects, as she completely embodies her character of Dr. Ellie Sattler and steals nearly every scene she is in. Her charming aura is perfect for that of a leading lady and Dern’s chemistry with the rest of this iconic cast is just as excellent. Spielberg has an incredible knack for writing memorable characters and the delivery of Sattler’s clever wit and genuinely loving personality could not have been performed by anyone but Dern.

The career development that Dern exhibits in this film is fantastic and the way that she plays the character of Sattler is unlike much of what she has done before. Ellie’s scenes with Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) are incredible as well, as both of these actors provide for one of the most interesting couples in sci-fi filmmaking. The dynamic between the two with Sattler wanting children and Grant not wanting them adds such a pleasantly human touch to the story and Dern’s portrayal of this motherly want makes her character so lovably authentic. Despite being in a treacherous theme park overrun with dinosaurs, Dern manages to ground her character and reactions in such a solid reality. Jurassic Park is the perfect vehicle for Dern to shine and its iconic status in dinosaur lore was achieved greatly due to her outstanding performance.

Citizen Ruth (1996)

By Kevin Jones

Citizen Ruth

The directorial debut of Alexander Payne, Citizen Ruth focuses on a woman, Ruth (Laura Dern), who is caught in the middle of the abortion debate. She is an addict who has become pregnant with her fifth child. Promised a shorter sentence for her most recent arrest if she got an abortion, she quickly becomes entrenched with both the radical pro-life group the “Baby Savers” and then an equally radical pro-choice group. Flipping between the two extremes as she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life, Ruth is given no easy option. Either way, she is stripped of her individuality and forced into making a decision that will serve an agenda outside of herself. Add in her addiction and this is a very turbulent time in her life, one that drives her right to the edge.

Laura Dern is consistently excellent in this film, capturing the violent mood-swings, rage, and sadness of Ruth is nuanced detail. She never allows Ruth to disappear from focus, capturing either her internal anguish as she lays on a bed entirely ignored or her rage as she fights to finally be heard. There are a lot of goofy lines in this that could come off as comedic if delivered by somebody less committed, but Dern sells every single line. There are so many emotions captured here and Citizen Ruth’s success is often predicated on Ruth herself, convincing the audience of how she feels and making her not just a caricature of a drug-addicted, marginalized woman. Dern achieves the feat of making her real, bringing her to life, and ensuring the audience sees every element of her personality, no matter how comfortable it makes them. The struggle to stay sober, the fight for her own identity, and the battle to fend off of her old demons (either real people or not), Ruth is a complex woman and Dern makes capturing her look easy.

The Tale (2018)

By Eugene Kang

The TaleThe Tale makes an interesting double feature with Smooth Talk early in Dern’s career. Dern plays a successful documentary director who receives an alarmed message from her mother who has found a letter that Dern’s character wrote when he was thirteen. In the letter, she details how she broke up with a boyfriend who was “older.” As she delves into her own childhood, it is revealed that the boyfriend in question was her adult riding instructor (Jason Ritter) and that he had statutorily raped her with the help of another riding instructor (Elizabeth Debicki) who had sexually groomed her. Based on director Jennifer Fox’s own experience, The Tale is a harrowing, painful self-reflection into a forgotten trauma. Dern’s character realizes how she misremembered important details, such as how young she really was even though she had imagined herself as older and worldly. Dern plays all the complex emotions so beautifully that we forget that this isn’t exactly her story, except in a strange way it is. When Laura Dern made Smooth Talk when she was a teenager, she believed that her character’s relationship with the sexual predator in her film had been potentially consensual. After making this film however, Dern has said that she got a new perspective on Smooth Talk and believed that her character had been coerced. The Tale is a hard watch, but it is a necessary one to learn about the mentality of those who have been assaulted and the patterns of predators, and Laura Dern and Jennifer Fox makes the film compelling to watch.

Marriage Story (2019)

By Ben McDonald

Marriage StoryAfter almost 50 years of appearing in the movies (yes, 50!), Laura Dern finally won her first Oscar for sassy divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. In the weeks leading up to the 92nd Academy Awards, many expressed admiration for her accomplished career and her highly entertaining performance in the film, but some questioned the “Oscar-worthiness” and originality of her part. It’s true that Dern doesn’t appear much in the film, and there are certainly comparisons to be made between Nora and her equally likable/hateable Big Little Lies character Renata Klein, but in my mind these criticisms totally miss the mark on what is actually a pretty astonishing and unique performance. To some extent, Dern plays Nora like a more reined-in, grounded version of Renata Klein – she’s intelligent, commanding, and occasionally quite funny. The main difference between the two is that Renata is a melodramatic caricature and Nora is a real character.

Dern’s extended, highly articulate monologue about the hypocrisy of how the world treats women is surely her “big scene” (and actually one of the most memorable in the film), but the part of her performance that has stuck with me the most is her very first appearance. Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole has set up a preliminary meeting to seek Nora’s advice regarding her divorce from Charlie (Adam Driver). As part of the process, Nora asks Nicole to describe her side of the story, all the while serving her fancy tea and cookies. This all sounds very mundane, but what’s fascinating is how Dern plays Nora giving a performance of her own. Through watching the scene, you get a sense for why Nora is such a popular lawyer – she listens attentively and understandingly like a close friend, always taking her client’s side and even offering a shoulder to cry on when necessary. Yet there’s a hint of exaggerated falsity to Nora’s performance; she probably doesn’t act dramatically different around her real friends, but in this professional context she is essentially being paid to play a part. It’s a very subtle distinction, but that highly focused level of nuance that Laura Dern brings to the role elevates it from merely being an entertaining side-character to a real person. It’s unquestionably an Oscar-worthy performance, and it’s wonderful to finally see Dern receive the Academy recognition she deserves.

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