Bruce Dern accepts Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival
In Alexander Payne's latest film, Nebraska, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a first-rate grump on a quest to claim the million-dollar jackpot that a piece of junk mail has convinced him he's owed. Back in May, the role earned Dern the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But the 77-year-old said getting the Chicago International Film Festival's Career Achievement Award last night had a different significance because it was coming from his hometown crowd. Dern was born in Chicago, grew up in Kenilworth on the North Shore and is a New Trier High School alum.
"With all of you here, and with all the seats filled, I realize there's a passion for film in this city," Dern said, gazing at the glass statue in his hand before the festival centerpiece screening of Nebraska at the AMC River East 21. "The reason it means the most here in my home city is because a bunch of Chicagoans got together and said, 'Bruce Dern can play.'"
A pair of clip reels showed off Dern's unconventional magnetism and rangy intensity, whether in his early minor roles in Westerns, as a Vietnam vet in Hal Ashby's Coming Home (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom) or as a memorably nosy neighbor in Joe Dante's The ’Burbs.
Walking the red carpet before the presentation, Dern was asked about the recent flood of praise coming at such a late stage in his career. "I got into this business knowing it was about longevity," he said. "I knew you had to do three things: You had to go to New York, you had to joint the Actors Studio and you had to work for Mr. [Elia] Kazan." Dern began studying under the legendary filmmaker in 1958. Kazan's words of advice for the budding actor? "If you're going to play Cowboy No. 3," Dern recalled, "be the best damn Cowboy No. 3 you can be."
It didn't take Dern long to move up to meatier roles: the Hitchcock films Marnie and Family Plot, Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, alongside Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens and as Tom Buchanan in 1974's The Great Gatsby. More recently, Dern has played graying cranks in Monster and Django Unchained. Dern said one of his connections to Nebraska came through his daughter, Laura; she starred in Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth.
Wrapping up his acceptance speech, Dern paid humble tribute to those who came before him. "When we first came to Hollywood, we had the chance to work with legends," he said of his generation of actors. "They were bigger than life. We're not legends. Well, Clint [Eastwood] might get a pass because he looks good on a horse."