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Spotlight on the Stars: Bruce Dern

Most of the time, when I look at a star, it tends to be a newfound A-lister or a young Hollywood hotshot. This time around, I want to turn my attention instead to a legend. For this article, it’s going to be one of the most unique actors that the industry has ever seen. His name? Bruce Dern. Much like in 2015 when Quentin Tarantino gave him a plum supporting role in The Hateful Eight, 2018 features Dern in a juicy part. This time around, he’s playing Joseph Kennedy, a presence in the life of the Kennedy clan, especially the male family members, that truly was larger than life.

The movie in question is Chappaquiddick, which debuted to solid reviews on the film festival circuit last year, before holding back to debut next month. For those curious what this one is specifically about, it’s an historical drama about the Chappaquiddick incident, as it would come to be known. IMDb describes the flick as such: “Ted Kennedy’s life and political career become derailed after he is involved in a fatal 1969 car accident that claims the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne.” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his team, led by Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) race to contain the situation, all in the shadow of Ted’s powerful father Joe (Dern). Kopechne is played by Kate Mara, while other cast members include Clancy Brown, Jim Gaffigan, Olivia Thirlby, and more. John Curran directs, while the team of Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan penned the screenplay. Garth Stevenson provides the score, while the cinematography is by the perpetually underrated Maryse Alberti. Having Dern play Joe Kennedy is a real coup, as he brings the necessary gravitas to the role. He’s perfect in the part too. It’s small in terms of screen time, but Dern looms large throughout. In that way, it’s much like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. He haunts the protagonist and is always on your mind, even when not on screen.

For those who forget, the man is a legend. Even though Dern has worked pretty steadily over the years, including popping up in Tarantino outings like Django Unchained and subsequently The Hateful Eight, he really came back to cinephiles with his award winning leading man role in Nebraska. He took Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and at one point seem poised to finally take home his first Academy Award (having been previously nominated in Best Supporting Actor for Coming Home and snubbed multiple times before/after), but he wound up falling short. He still received his second Oscar nomination though, getting into Best Actor. It officially made him overdue for a win in my book, not that he wasn’t already, if we really think about it. The Hateful Eight didn’t do it for him, but now he has Chappaquiddick to help him contend. That being said, another 2018 release could also be his ticket.

Later this year he’ll be a part of the White Boy Rick cast, which may end up a real Oscar player. Dern is at a point in his career where he’s getting not just patriarchal roles, but grandfatherly ones too. As such, hopefully it will continue to give the man the respect that he deserves. Go back to his iconic performances from a generation ago and you’ll see how underrated he truly is. Nebraska reminded us all of his mastery of the craft, while The Hateful Eight continued that trend. Now, with Chappaquiddick and soon White Boy Rick, the latest stage of this tremendous career continues.

Dern is one of the all time greats, there’s no debate there. Few in the business are more deserving of an Oscar statue than him, so hopefully the Academy recognizes him in the years to come. All he needs is one filmmaker to give him the sort of character he does best. Then, it’ll just be academic. Whether it ends up being for White Boy Rick or something else, Dern on the Academy Award stage will be worthy of a standing ovation. You can take that to the bank. Chappaquiddick next week will whet your appetite for Dern, and hopefully there’s plenty more from the man to come…

Stay tuned for more on Dern and Chappaquiddick, opening in theaters on April 6th, as well as White Boy Rick, hitting screens on August 17th!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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