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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Craven: Bruce Dern

I was introduced to Bruce Dern through a late afternoon phone call to his home in Pasadena. I’d always liked Bruce in movies going back to They Shoot Horses Don’t They and The King of Marvin Gardens and I was deeply moved by his Oscar - nominated work in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Some critics dismissed him for the unstable characters he sometimes played but he always struck me as an imaginative and fearless actor willing to explore complex psychologies.

Bruce was my first choice to play the lead role of Austen Kittredge in my 2012 film Northern Borders . To my surprise, he expressed immediate interest. On the phone, we talked about my script for no more than a few congenial minutes. Then Bruce launched into several of his perfectly remembered stories. In one, he talked about twice working with Alfred Hitchcock; then he segued into a tale that involved his buddy, Hollywood director John Frankenheimer, who wanted nothing more in life than to meet Hitchcock. Bruce walked me through each vivid moment, from his futile request to the disinterested Hitchcock to a surprise encounter, months later, when the legendary director unexpectedly and very briefly appeared at the Beverly Wilshire hotel and pressed Frankenheimer for an explanation for why one of his characters had left a light on in a booth, in The Manchurian Candidate.

Bruce delivered the yarn with perfect timing and a spot-on imitation of Hitchcock. And with apologies to Bruce, I often retell this funny story — it’s just too good to resist.

Bruce’s vast treasury of tales prompted a New York Times writer to title her recent feature about him, - quote - “Dern Has a Story for You.” But after all, his godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt, and his uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish.

Sometimes on set, I’d have to interrupt Bruce as he was holding forth with a mesmerized gaggle of students who worked on the picture as part of our Marlboro College film intensive. “Bruce,” I’d say. “It’s time to shoot our scene.”

He’d head toward the set and was always good-natured about it. But Bruce was used to playing supporting roles, what he described as “fourth cowboy on the left.” In Northern Borders, he had to knuckle down hard to carry the lead. This required an approach to our shaping his character that he later called “boot camp in Vermont.” In private, Bruce credits his work here with his success in landing - and then playing the lead role of Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska – the part that won him this year’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Bruce faces some stiff competition for this year’s award. But I won’t be the only Vermonter rooting for him. People all over Vermont have seen him bring Howard Mosher’s Austen Kittredge to life in Northern Borders. And many share my pleasure in the fact that Bruce Dern’s Oscar-nominated character has at least a few roots here in Vermont.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and directs Kingdom County Productions
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