We see too much of some actors. Some we don’t see near enough. Laura Dern is the latter, an actress who never disappoints but doesn’t work near enough for my tastes. Dern is an actress I liken to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a performer capable of carrying a film admirably but a performer more comfortable in important supporting roles. Dern has carried a number of films, and tends to work well in fringe cinema; just consider her long history with the enigmatic David Lynch. It feels like she may be on the precipice of a career resurgence as we sit here today, citing her recent lead role on the HBO comedy Enlightened. Nevertheless, my feeling is the more Laura Dern we get the better we will be.
Born in February of 1967, it was clear Laura Dern had an acting career ahead of her. Born into an acting family, Dern’s father is the great Bruce Dern and her mother the fantastic Diane Ladd. Dern knew from an early age acting was her calling, finding success as a teenager in Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film Foxes alongside another successful teen star, Jodie Foster. Foxes would allow Dern to work steadily through her teenage years, nabbing bit parts and supporting roles in films most of us have never seen. Dern’s first role to garner some recognition came in 1985 when she played Diane Adams, a blind girl who falls for the disfigured Rocky Dennis in Mask. From Mask, Dern would find doors opening for her in larger roles and with more distinguished directors, including David Lynch.
In 1986, Lynch released Blue Velvet, a polarizing masterpiece examining the dark side of suburbia before Sam Mendes got his hands on the subject. Blue Velvet is a deeply disturbing cult film that has become an iconic piece of American filmmaking. Dennis Hopper’s turn as the sadistic Frank Booth is arguably the most notable performance in the picture, but Dern’s Sandy Williams, the curious amateur sleuth alongside Kyle McLaughlin, was vital in keeping audiences in tune with the bizarro wolrd of Lynch’s vision. She was one of the regular people, embroiled in this seedy underworld of sexual masochism. A few years would pass and Dern would work in smaller roles on lesser-known films before teaming up with Lynch once again in Wild at Heart.
Wild at Heart was another polarizing film from Lynch, an ultra-violent road picture where Dern played Lula Fortune, the lover of the dangerous Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage). Never one to shy away from the bizarre, Lynch’s film was a lightning rod on the festival circuit, picking up equal amounts of praise and disdain from critics worldwide. Regardless of the critical divide, the performances of both Dern and Nicolas Cage – who would go on to make a very strange career out of playing over-the-top nut jobs – were recognized as strong turns, and both actors would find new life in their careers and new opportunities. And even though Dern would never stray far from her roots as a fringe-cinema star, she showed her abilities in robust blockbusters as well.
In 1993, Dern played Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, one of the biggest and most celebrated summer blockbusters of all time. Dern would reprise her role in the ill-conceived Jurassic Park III a decade later, but her performance in the original showed new range. That same year, Dern played Sally Gerber in the smaller, more intimate film A Perfect World. Directed by Clint Eastwood, A Perfect World is a hidden gem in the nineties landscape. Dern’s Sally was a fresh-faced police psychologist who helped add layers to the escaped convict, Butch Haynes, when we couldn’t get it from the action of the narrative. Dern would fill out the rest of the decade with roles both big and small, and her penchant for independent cinema has defined her career ever since.
In 2006, Laura Dern took on her most challenging role, working once again with David Lynch in Inland Empire, the three hour mind trip shot all on digital film. Dern would play a number of characters, all as the same person; trying to describe the direction of Inland Empire is a futile process. But Dern met the challenge head on and handled the material better than I think any actress could have done. Lynch asks much of Dern in this role, and campaigned for her getting an Oscar nomination that year by sitting out on Hollywood Boulevard with a poster and a live cow. Yes, a live cow. Any actress willing to repeatedly accept the challenges of a director like Lynch deserves any special notice she can get. Sadly, the campaign fell short.
Dern’s unique roles lend themselves to her unique appearance. She is tall, gangly, and quite expressive, a spitting image of her father, Bruce. She can show anguish just as easily as jubilation, and her facial expressions are quite elaborate. Dern has been getting rave reviews for her role in Enlightened, and perhaps her next career resurgence will be on the small screen where she has spent much of her time in the past with guest spots. But I still hope she has some time to star on the big screen, where her presence is always felt, albeit not nearly enough.