Can Dern’s Woody Get Traction As Best Actor?

After catching Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska at the Cannes Film Festival, I wrote that Bruce Dern‘s portrayal of the snarly, alcoholic, partly deluded Woody — good as it is — is essentially a supporting performance. It doesn’t matter if it resulted in a Best Actor prize at Cannes. A lead actor shoulders the burden of the story and conveys some kind of meaningful arc, and Woody doesn’t shoulder anything in Nebraska — he is, in fact, the burden. Woody doesn’t man up or chicken out. He doesn’t carry the weight or fail to do so. He is strictly color and consternation and snarl-crackle-pop.

Bruce Dern, Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

But In Contention‘s Kris Tapley disagrees, and so, he says, does Paramount’s marketing team. They intend to run Dern for Best Actor. Due respect but they should reconsider. Really. I love Dern as a guy to shoot the shit with and I fully admire and respect his Woody performance and I’d really like to see him win. Woody + career achievement award = good vibes all around. But it has to be for Best Supporting Actor. Why make it tough on yourselves? Dern will be a slam-dunk in that category.

Here’s how Tapley and I kicked it around. I also asked Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone to jump in at the last minute:

Tapley: “Paramount has decided to campaign Dern as a lead. It’s the right call and they could easily get the nod. How anyone can’t see that he drives the movie is beyond me, and I tend to be on the other side of this argument. Ask around. It’s playing well to ‘the type.”

Wells: “I worship Dern and he’s quite good as Will Forte‘s snarly, partly deluded dad but it’s a Best Supporting Actor performance. His delusion is the movie’s inciting incident but the the movie isn’t really about his journey as much as Forte’s. And BD’s performance is more about color and irascibleness than profound emotional spillage.”

“Dern’s character doesn’t experience a passage of some kind or say anything or break through in any way. He’s not ‘the guy’ in that film — Will Forte is. In a wimpy passive way, okay, but Forte is ‘the guy.’ NO WAY is Dern playing a lead character. It’s not HIS STORY. How anyone can miss this obvious reality is beyond me. And he’s going to lose if he tries for Best Actor.”

Tapley: “The movie is every bit about Woody. We start with him, we know everything there is to know about him. His son is basically a kind of cipher. The whole thing is strained through the colander of Woody Grant. I get why the knee-jerk is “oh, it’s a supporting performance,’ but just because it’s a bit more passive than Forte’s work doesn’t mean it’s not a leading performance.

“The movie is ABSOLUTELY ABOUT WOODY’S JOURNEY. That final moment in the truck is as much his as it is Forte’s, if not more. I think you’re using some stuck-in-the-mud logic. Think through it a little more. It’s not as cut and dried as you might think.

“And who cares about losing? Isn’t this toss-the-lettuce-in-the-air-and-go-with-your-heart country or whatever? That’s also playing into the cynical math of ‘we have a better shot at supporting.’ Why can’t a guy like Bruce Dern, who’s spent his life as a character actor in the skin of characters in films dominated by charismatic leading men, have his time to shine?”

Wells: “Eccentricity and color do not a leading man make.”

Nebraska director Alexander Payne, star Bruce Dern during filming.

Tapley: “I just got finished saying the performance is passive (which it is), not full of ‘eccentricity and color.’ We clearly see the work in two different ways. Dern doesn’t chew curtains. Never been his way.”

Wells: “I am not a student being instructed by you, my film-school teacher. I know a supporting performance when I see one. Woody is just an old, snarly, pissed-off drunk. The world is full of guys like this. My father became one of them in his final years…except he was never so stupid as to believe that the notoriously full-of-shit Publisher’s Clearing House actually sends out million-dollar checks. I love Dern and admire & respect that he brought this feisty old codger to life, but if he gave a lead performance I’m Nelson Mandela.”

Tapley: “That you’re reading the Publisher’s Clearing House thing as anything more than a metaphor for a life lived unfulfilled with the promise of something significant in one’s autumn…you know what, fuck it. I’m not your ‘teacher.'”

Wells: “The Publisher’s Clearing House thing is a pretty dumbshit metaphor. As I pointed out several weeks ago, Michael Ritchie‘s Fletch, which was aimed at regular folks in Nebraska, included a joke about PCH back in ’85.”

Stone: “‘The movie is ABSOLUTELY ABOUT WOODY’S JOURNEY’ is dead-on. That’s the whole point of Nebraska and the film’s most moving aspect. How Woody’s own life is revealed back to him, how he discovers who he was and who he is now, whom he used to love (and lost), what he settled for, what he never got. Will Forte’s character is merely there to facilitate this ‘coming of old age’ rediscovery. Nebraska is partly about Will Forte learning to love his cantankerous father, but it is more about the dreams of his father, his failures, his endurance in the face of those failures.

“This was also the debate about Viola Davis in The Help, even though she was the narrator and the titular character. Jennifer Lawrence was, by anyone’s definition, a supporting player in Silver Linings Playbook [Wells interjection: complete bullshit — JLaw’s Tiffany was a force-of-nature lead] and still won Best Actress. Marlon Brando was the lead for Godfather and won. [Wells interjection: Brando was the soul and the center of The Godfather…Dern doesn’t begin to come close to delivering a similar gravitas.) Anthony Hopkins was the lead for Silence of the Lambs and won. [Wells interjection: same argument] And on it goes.

“There is no question in my mind that Bruce Dern is the star of Nebraska and therefore, the lead. It’s a great performance.”

Nebraska costars Bruce Dern, June Squibb.

Wells: “Naaah. Nebraska is about emptiness, depression, loss, aging, flat landscapes, obese girlfriends and beer slurped in taverns. It made me get down on my knees and THANK THE LORD GOD I wasn’t born into some struggling middle-class family in Nebraska or Montana or Wyoming. I would be 40 pounds heavier right now and alcoholic and balding and beer-bellied and sitting in front of a TV like a zombie if that had happened. THANK GOD I was born to my parents and raised the way I was. Nebraska is a very well-made mainstream art film, yes, and hail to Mr. Payne for being one of the best directors we have right now. But Nebraska is also a fucking nightmare to contemplate. And Woody is the main beer-slurping ghoul of this realm. The King of Delusion and Snarly Dismissiveness.”

Stone: “But it’s always about you, Jeff. Your interpretations of films like this make you think about your own aging fears and your father, etc. The movie not about your own personal limitations. It has a broader message.”

Wells: “If you’re thinking about putting a gun in your mouth, Nebraska is a good film to watch because it’ll nudge you along in that direction. Don’t tell me this is just about my hang-ups and limitations. I am a river into which movies are dipped and then re-emerge, glistening and damp and redefined. I am absorbing and processing them as an unpretentious Average Joe, as a man of the people. I know what goes. I know what a movie is doing and not doing. I know all about the torpor of America’s breadbasket, the Great Empty Quarter, and so does Payne. That shot of everyone sitting in the living room like corpses, watching the TV with no expressions? This is Payne showing us a kind of Death, a form of American Hell.”

Stone: “Disagree. He is showing us a kind of death but he is also showing where true love can often be found, in the reflection of the people we’ve mostly written off as ordinary, pointless bodies polluting this earth. The son does a heroic thing for an ordinary man. And through that some kind of redemption emerged. It’s a great film, one I think will round out the year as one of the best, easily in the top five. But you have to be willing to abandon your preconceived prejudices.”

Wells: “Preconceived? We’re all preconceived in a sense. You are a product of your own genes and background and intellectual ferment. Shit has happened to you and you have made shit happen to the world by the force of your own will or charm or whatever. Life is baggage, and you can’t get away from it. I saw Nebraska in Cannes and went ‘okay, you can’t hit a homer every time at bat.’ I’m looking forward to Mr. Payne’s next effort. And with these words, I condemn myself to a loss of God knows how many thousands in Paramount Oscar-season advertising.”

  • “I am a river into which movies are dipped and then re-emerge, glistening and damp and redefined.”

    I haven’t seen Nebraska so I know fuck-all about where Dern should land but my god, the piece was worth reading if only for this Wilkinson-in-Michael Clayton-style sentence.

    • brenkilco

      So you’re an average Joe who redefines things by making them glisten with dampness. No comment.

      As For Dern, from the descriptions his category seems like a close call. But I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Not like he’s playing an obvious support. Say, a boogeyman serial killer with barely more than a half hour of screen time.

      • Raising_Kaned

        “Barely more than half an hour?” I thought Hopkins only had like 15 minutes, or something crazy along those lines…

        • brenkilco

          Most Google sources do say 16. Sure seems like more. Maybe because his scenes are so spread out and for a lot of the rest of the time you’re thinking about him.

          • Raising_Kaned

            Right — which I think is the primary argument for sticking him in the “lead” category (not that I agree or disagree, per se; I’m rather agnostic to this entire line of thinking, honestly…).

    • Manitobaman

      This might be a good point to insert Anthony Quinn’s “I am a river to my people” clip from “Lawrence of Arabia.”

      • Anthony Quinn, Robert Bolt, Tom Wilkinson, Tony Gilroy, myself. Not a bad rhetorical tradition.

      • brenkilco

        Prefer this one:

        Brighton: They think he’s some sort of prophet.

        Allenby: They do or he does?

  • Jabberwookiee

    “I am a river into which movies are dipped and then re-emerge, glistening and damp and redefined. I am absorbing and processing them as an unpretentious Average Joe, as a man of the people.”

    From a site seemingly devoted to head-up-own-ass statements, this one truly takes the cake. Ugh.

    • And nobody has a fucking word to share about whether Dern’s Woody is a lead or a supporting. Or whether nor not it makes sense to run Dern in supporting given the tendency of the Academy to give Best Supporting Actor Oscars to older, well-liked guys who’ve been around for decades. Forget all that. Just rag on me for pretending that I’m an Average Joe-styled Auda Abu Tayi. The level of discourse around this place!

      • Cool down, slugger. Most of us haven’t seen Nebraska. Repost this when it comes out.

      • moviewatcher

        Hardly any of us have seen the damn movie, how are we supposed to talk about his category placement?

        Btw, JLaw was supporting in SLP, Brando was supporting in The Godfather and Hopkins was supporting in Silence of the Lambs. But because the latter two are such magnificent performances, you rarely hear people complain about their category placement and rightful wins.

    • FrankV22

      In all seriousness, I’ve been dropping in on this blog for a very long time, and I can never tell if this is some sort of performance art Jeff is doing.

      I just can’t imagine his side of the conversation actually came out of a real person. Tapley comes across as totally normal, totally sane. And Jeff is all Id. It’s like he’s the human embodiment of Carol from Where the Wild Things Are.

  • hupto

    “Dern’s character doesn’t experience a passage of some kind or say anything or break through in any way. He’s not ‘the guy’ in that film —Will Forte is.”

    Two words: RAIN MAN.

  • roland1824

    It’s not only about him winning; this could be a “raising all boats” kind of strategy for the film. Running Dern as Lead Actor may give the whole picture a boost if he gets in. It’s easier to draw Picture and Director nods along with top tier actor nods and vice versa.

  • Joshsleeps

    Random-occasional-commenter-from-Tulsa here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m an avid reader and fan, but I continue to resent your relentless stereotyping of middle America as a nightmare of overweight, alcoholic, consumerist zombies. There is a cultural sickness that pervades every part of America, including your own. My father lives in Los Angeles and I’ve spent a significant amount of time there. I’ve also been to the smalltown shitholes in your state. People are the same all over. Your distaste for all things rural and blue collar is fine, but when you go on rants like the above, you fulfill the stereotype fed to idiots in my part of the country by conservative media. That is, you sound like a spoiled, insulated, coastal elitist with his head up his own ass. You also sound remarkably similar to my past adolescent self. Fortunately, I grew up and realized my disdain for middle America was woefully misplaced. Maybe someday you will, too.

  • Raising_Kaned

    In theory — I’m with you, Jeff (even though I haven’t seen Nebraska), but whether or not a performance “carries the burden” is a rather poor barometer, IMHO. Couldn’t you make the argument that both of the “leads” from SLP last year actually WERE the burdens to the rest of the “supporting” players? Just a thought.

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