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Bruce Dern

Acts of Speech and Silence


Like many actors, Bruce Dern is someone whose persona is built on around not the entire body of work, but more a handful of films, with other roles basically augmenting our perception of who he happens to be. Someone else might argue for others films, but for our purposes, Silent Running, Drive, He Said, Smile, The Driver, Coming Home, Tattoo and The King of Marvin Gardens are the parts. Looking at them we may notice Dern was the sort of actor who wasn’t a supporting player so much as an actor who never quite became a star. David Thomson says as much when commenting on the poster of Coming Home. There was Fonda and Voight, he says, in “a rapturous embrace”, being “watched by a wistful, suspicious Bruce Dern, his eyes lime pits of paranoia and resentment.” Whether playing eco-friendly and liberal in Silent Running, or war-mongering and cuckolded as the captain in Coming Home, the sentiment remains much the same: we witness someone who seems uncomfortable in the world. In Silent Running it manifests itself in trying to protect the planet’s natural resources; in Coming Home in protecting his country. That in one he is almost a hippie, and the other the antithesis to a drop-out, doesn’t however indicate miscasting in either film. What is it Dern possesses that can capture the basic principle in two very different characters?

One could call it a misplaced sense of righteousness, misplaced not in the sense that Dern’s values are perceived as positive or negative (in Silent Running they are good; in Coming Home bad), but in the internalised nature of the righteousness. Frequently in Dern’s films we notice he lacks the blasé attitude, that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to ride out situations that others would deal with sarcastically, cynically, pragmatically or with indifference. In a cinematic decade where the blasé attitude was surely at its most pronounced, how could there have been a place for an actor like Dern?

Yet this would be to ignore the search for credence in a number of seventies films, where characters were caught slightly out of their time and sought out a value system within it. Two Lane Blacktop, The Long Goodbye, Taxi Driver, 92% Degrees in the Shade and numerous other films showed characters not quite moving with the times, but still trying to function off their own notion of integrity. Whether it is Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye finally taking out his too cool friend who thought he could play him, or Robert De Niro being called a cowboy by Harvey Keitel’s hip pimp in Taxi Driver, such characters were forced, perversely or psychotically, to find values that reflected their personalities.

One of the ironies of Dern’s character in Silent Running is that he is the most hippyish figure in the film; with the other characters on the space station jocks who mock his interest in saving the forest that may save the world. However he retains the weak sense of self and strong feeling of indignation that runs through numerous Dern characters whether playing hippy in Silent Running or cop in The Driver. “I’m really good at what I do”, Dern’s nameless character insists, in the latter, and throughout The Driver Dern keeps informing people how impressive he is. At one moment his assistant says “I’ve been watching you. And I’ve gottta tell you I’m not all that impressed.” This comes after Dern’s elaborate plan to catch the driver of the title fails, and Dern’s response is to get threatening: “I’m your manager, and you’re still on my team.” In each instance, in Silent Running and The Driver, Dern is a character not quite capable of holding his own, holding together the centre of his personality. It’s exactly why Thomson can say “he can be fearsome, loathsome, or pitiful, but he is neither calm nor commanding.”

Though Dern is clearly tall and often hovers over his co-stars, looking for instance a good four plus inches taller than Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, we should remember that  height rarely does very much for actors. There have been tall men in film – including Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Warren Beatty and Liam Neeson – but the camera usually admires proportion over height, and tall men can often look gangly on screen: James Stewart, Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Cooper. If they’ve been commanding it rarely resides in their height: Eastwood for example is more so for the squinting of his eyes than the length of his body. When Dern looms threateningly over O’Neal in the latter’s hotel room, it isn’t a tall person asserting his height; more a weak person looking to gain any advantage he can. It isn’t too far removed from a moment earlier in the film when Dern hauls O’Neal in for questioning and throws coffee into his lap. As O’Neal gets up ready to have a go, Dern asks him to take a shot: it’ll cost O’Neal two years if he does.

The Driver is a fine film in the Jean-Pierre Melville tradition, but where O’Neal plays the taciturn figure Alain Delon would sometimes play for Melville in Le Samourai and Un Flic, the Dern role would seem to owe nothing to the French drector. The film plays on the contrast between a man who can’t keep his mouth shut and another who almost never opens his. While O’Neal is the Melvillian, Dern talks too much to play a key role in a Melville film. He constantly offers what, in philosophical terms, would be interesting examples of J. L. Austin’s notion of speech acts, with Dern constantly cajoling, bullying and making promises. Throughout the film Dern promises his assistant that certain actions will bring certain results; but partly why Dern is a weak character in the film resides in his inability to turn the promises into fulfilled actions.  He has the idea that he will trap O’Neal by getting the Driver to take part in a robbery that Dern himself arranges: some crooks in custody will persuade O’Neal to be their driver; the criminals will drop the money off at a designated spot where Dern is waiting. The crooks will go free, the money will be returned to the bank, and O’Neal will end up in prison. It sounds great in theory, but this is speech act as theoretical impulse and egotistical flourish. After it goes wrong Dern says to his assistant that the problem with thieves is that they’re unreliable. He seems happy with his reasoning, but the assistant may well be wondering if he knows crooks are unreliable, why did Dern involve them in his fool-proof plan?

Thus whether it is using his height, or offering assertive speech acts, Dern seems a character without qualities, and of course the film constantly contrasts him with somebody who offers speechless acts full of qualities. When the criminals who are supposed to frame him want some evidence of O’Neal’s car driving skills, he doesn’t offer a fugue of self-justification. He takes them instead on a hair-raising ride round the car park as he demolishes the car quite deliberately in the process. O’Neal literally makes his point; he doesn’t offer it verbally. O’Neal is here in the tradition of the action star that trusts deeds over words: Eastwood, Delon and most obviously Steve McQueen. Indeed it could probably be argued that, generally speaking, the hero is a figure of cinema and the villain of theatre: as one often talks of theatrical villains but not of theatrical heroes. Does it not have much to do with the nature of the speech act of villainy and the speechless acts of heroism? In this sense Dern proves a great villain, and takes much further the sort of cartoon villainy he would show in a film like The Wild Angels.

Part of the villainy of speech acts is that people perhaps don’t quite take the baddie seriously enough, as if there is some intrinsic failure of character in the villain that needs to find various means of compensation. Many a scriptwriting manual will insist the hero needs to prove his character in extreme situations, and possess a conscious wish, evident for example in Robert McKee’s claim that “the protagonist’s will impels a known desire.” Frequently, though, it is the villain’s will that in fact impels that known desire. Whether it is a Bond villain that wants to take over the world, the resentful cop in Ransom, or Dennis Hopper in Speed, the baddie often drives the plot: evident in David Thomson’s astute comment that though “Hopper is presented in the movie as a madman, warped seeker after vengeance…he is also a brilliant high-concept screenwriter, for his plan and the movie’s are effectively the same.” (Screen Violence) Yet this known desire often accompanies an equal need for communication, for talking through the actions which they then hope to enact. It is of course a cliché of action cinema that the villain talks his way through the intended ways he will torture and kill the heroine, and thus gives the hero plenty of time to save the day. But this is also the opportunity both to explain known desires, and also offer yet one more speech act.

Now strictly speaking Dern isn’t the baddie in The Driver, yet his attitude makes him one.  He is after all a cop in the film and not even corrupt. He intends to give the money back to the bank after the robbery he has arranged: he only wants the bank robbed so that O’Neal will be caught. But his behaviour makes him basically villainous: he wants to play the game but refuses to play it fairly. Whether it is throwing coffee into O’Neal’s lap to get a rise out of him, setting O’Neal up for the robbery, or continuously calling his assistant an asshole, Dern is behaviourally villainous. In one scene near the end of The Driver, Dern is rushing through the train trying to catch the man responsible for swapping a case full of money, and at one moment we see a woman trying to put her case up on the luggage rack. Dern does the decent thing in helping with her case, but does it in a hardly decent way. He jams the case in and keeps walking as the woman turns towards him as he passes, as though to say what the hell was that. Dern offers a decent gesture offered in an indecent manner, just as he is in action a decent cop but with an indecent attitude.

It is actually this behavioural villainy that proves central to Dern’s work as he so often plays characters that function like villains even if they’re superficially ordinary men. In Coming Home, Drive, He Said, The King of Marvin Gardens, and even Tattoo, none of the characters are strictly villainous, but in attitude and/or speech acts they resemble the baddie. In The King of Marvin Gardens, Dern plays Jason Staebler, a fantasist determined to make the big time, and happily in denial about his own straitened circumstances. It seems the fantasising is part of the family: at the beginning of the film his radio presenter brother David (Jack Nicholson) tells a story on the air about how their grandfather died. It turns out to be fictitious, as we notice when David returns home to the house he shares with his grandfather. David’s fantasising however seems contained; the point concerning Jason’s is that it is not.  As Jason creates a fantastic world, he is hounded by debtors and gangsters and his own partner looks like she’ll lose her already fragile mind as the reality principle proves insignificant next to the fantasy one. Again the problem with Dern’s character resides in speech acts and attitude. Like many a fantasist Jason likes to talk big. There is one scene where he is talking to his bother about the island he wants them to buy up and develop and he offers it up as pure speech act: words have to speak louder than actions because clearly Dern can’t put his money where his mouth is.  He is an extreme example of someone who makes promises he can’t keep, and so the words become ever more bombastic to cover the emptiness of their content. While the hotel apartment the characters are in has problems with its plumbing, Jason can still talk of owning a hotel complex. When his girlfriend decides to use the hotel next door on Jason’s say-so, claiming he acquired it last week, she almost gets arrested. When Jason goes to try and sort the mess out, he doesn’t confront reality; he starts to shout down the manager.

The King of Marvin Gardens is a great film on the problem of speech acts separated from reality principles. Jason is the ultimate ‘illocutionary’ character – he is promises, promises, promises.  But it is one thing to be a dreamer; quite another to be destabilized by those dreams when your own mental health is precarious. Where David is the brother capable of differentiating fact from fantasy even if he tells tall stories on the radio for a living, Jason’s partner is clearly a fragile personality. The film ends with her shooting Jason dead, with Jason calling her bluff once too often, and after testing her mental well-being for what seems like years.

Obviously we are talking about very different approaches to speech acts here from the conventional villain, yet just as we talked about heroes and villains, in many a film it takes a subtler form of sympathetic and unsympathetic. Dern’s speech acts in both The Driver and The King of Marvin Gardens are in varying degrees unsympathetic rather than especially villainous. The main reason why O’Neal passes for sympathetic and Dern the opposite is that Dern constantly announces his brilliance, without much effect, while O’Neal illustrates his. It is O’Neal’s distrust in language and Dern’s trust in it that makes O’Neal sympathetic, just as in The King of Marvin Gardens it is David’s awareness of the difference between truth and fiction that makes him both a more sympathetic and reliable character than Jason.

If in both The Driver and The King of Marvin Gardens Dern’s role is to self-motivate, in both Drive, He Said and Smile the purpose is chiefly to motivate others. In the first Dern plays a sports coach, and in the second a judge at a small town beauty contest, playing big Bob Freelander, a character described by Pauline Kael as “a civic minded man who lives by the beaming banalities” the town celebrates. In Drive, He Said he is the basketball manager. After a miserable performance he harangues two of his players with a mixture of finger-pointing, a deliberately cadenced hectoring manner, and by sending them off to do duck-walking laps. Dern is the coach who believes in the game more than the players, just as in Smile he believes in the homilies that he spins about small town life and the beauty contest more than the participants. In very different ways the directors, Jack Nicholson, with Drive. He Said, and Michael Ritchie with Smile, are offering social critique: Nicholson with a jaundiced eye; Ritchie with an amused one.

Dern’s characters in each instance however are not privy to the film’s tone. When Kael says of big Bob that “he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body”, he is clearly no kind of villain. But our sympathy towards him would be tempered by a sense that the film’s tone is one thing and his behaviour another. Dern has obviously often played villains, and supposedly even received death threats after killing John Wayne’s character in The Cowboys. However, when we look at much of his work, and especially the key films, villainy is much less the central issue than the absence of the blasé attitude and the attempt so often on Dern’s part to find a place in the world, emotionally, professionally, economically. Sometimes he has this place and the film gently mocks or dismisses its significance – as in Smile and Drive, He Said. On other occasions he has authority which during the course of the film is undermined or deeply called into question, in the case of The Driver and Coming Home respectively. Sometimes, though, Dern’s characters seem to be searching out a place for themselves as if they are somehow unformed, as in The King of Marvin Gardens and also Tattoo.

In the much maligned latter film, Dern plays tattoo artist Karl Kinsky, hired to paint temporary designs on the bodies of a number of models for a photo-shoot. He befriends one, Maddy, who talks to him about her life, and Karl becomes besotted. If Karl is a character a woman can talk to he is also one that they can’t take seriously, until the point when Maddy realizes how seriously she ought to take him when he kidnaps her. He wants to cover her body in actual tattoos, and holes her up in the family house in New Jersey. Karl is the sort of emotionally stilted figure – indebted no doubt to Travis Bickle – who doesn’t see having designs on a woman as metaphorical, and wants to project his art onto the body of another. Though the film is often crude and derivative (Taxi Driver meets The Illustrated Man), and one of any number of psycho-stalker films released around the same time (including The Fan and Maniac) this movie written by Luis Bunuel’s daughter-in-law takes the artist/model cliché and sets it to work using the model’s body as the canvas. Dern’s search for credence here takes it into the creepy, but there is a melancholy loneliness captured well (as in The King of Marvin Gardens and Coming Home) by the seafront the film utilises. It is as though the speech acts he so often practises in numerous other films, are here sublimated into image acts: the tattoos he imposes on Maddy’s body the accumulated silence of a man without friends or acquaintances.

Clearly in all the films we have talked about here there are the limitations of speech worked through. In The Driver, Dern’s character talks but gains by the end of the film nothing from talking. In Drive, He Said the motivational gesture counts for little, and in The King of Marvin Gardens Jason’s endless mythomania leads to his own death. Yet the most eloquent expression of language’s limitations probably can be found in Coming Home, the film we started with and the film we should end on. At one moment, his wife Sally visits him in Asia and asks what Vietnam is like, and Bob replies it is not like anything – it is. At the end of the film it is Sally’s lover Luke who will talk to high school students about what war is like, while it will be Bob who, unable to make sense of his experiences, his disappointments, his sense of failure, will walk into the waves and swim to an almost certain death.

Anecdotally, it is interesting that though numerous commentators have talked of Dern as a great villain, and we have paid so much attention to the speech acts in his work, he presents himself in life as basically a loner figure. He has said that he has never drunk, never smoked, never drank coffee and never taken drugs. On The Johnny Carson show in the mid-seventies, Dern says that he would run eight or nine miles everyday, and Carson notes that Dern isn’t one given to team sports. There seems to be an interesting gap between Dern the character who often wants to belong, and who will usually talk his way into that sense of belonging, and Dern the man as someone who doesn’t quite trust language and social communication, no matter if he has occasionally mentioned camaraderie in relation to running. Is this perhaps where the pathos of his work resides, as if aware of the need to belong and at the same time the futility of the attempt? Near the end of Coming Home there is a fine scene where Bob, Sally and Luke are all in Sally and Bob’s house.  Dramatically a mess, as Dern pulls a gun on his wife and her lover; the scene is at the same time psychologically surprisingly subtle. This might seem paradoxical – weakly dramatic yet strongly psychological – but the film is good at creating different perspectives in the one scene. When Luke says that he has been in the same place as Bob this means he has both served in Vietnam and also been angry on his return. But he is also in a different place, with Luke losing the use of his legs and Bob suffering no more than a mild injury. Luke has also been in the same place as Bob by being in Sally’s bed, of course, and even though Luke insists that Sally still loves Bob, and Sally concurs, it is understandable Bob has his doubts. Maybe the scene is dramatically untidy as it tackles too many feelings, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t psychologically interesting, especially as it leads to Bob’s decision to swim out to sea and to his probable death.

Such a scene also proves of interest in relation to speech acts, with Bob more or less speechless in the scene as the situation verbally incapacitates him, and so turns the gun on Luke and Sally. He can only offer comments as though possessed, or in memory flashback mode as he curses them as if still in the jungle. Dern in The Driver was incapable of following through on his illocutionary speech acts, but at least he wasn’t verbally incapacitated by his sense of failure. Bob seem like he has lost the capacity for language, lost the confidence to use it not only with the authority of his position, but also that language itself has lost its authority. At the beginning of the film he is telling a colleague he’s going to bring him back a souvenir from ‘nam – a Commie AK 47. Near the end of the film he hasn’t so much removed the menace of the Communist threat, but become one himself as he points the rifle at Luke and Sally. Language collapses alongside God, country and family. In an early scene, the colonel’s wife says to Bob “May God be with you” as he prepares to leave. While he may have reservations (he seems disappointed that the colonel isn’t around to say goodbye – it’s his chess night), most of the way Bob can still believe in the love of his wife, faith in God and belief in his country. By the end of the film the coordinates that make language possible are all but missing.

In The Driver, The King of Marvin Gardens and Smile, he might be a man without qualities, but he isn’t a figure who is in the process of losing the values that sustain that lack of quality. (One of the ironies of The King of Marvin Gardens is that he loses his life before his misplaced values.)  But Dern, who was not averse to running many miles to work things out of his system, and indeed in the mid-eighties made a film about this very process called On the Edge, appears interested in the two poles of if you like speech acts and speechless acts. In the former we have villainy, delusion and false confidence; in the latter dignity, despair and solitary assertiveness.

In one interview Dern gives he talks mainly about running and he makes a couple of telling comments. One is that he would do arduously long runs earlier in his profession partly out of frustration – that his acting career wasn’t quite going as he wished. He also says though that after The King of Marvin Gardens he seemed no longer interested in the really long runs, and generally wouldn’t run for more than an hour. Was there some attempt to compensate for relative social failure by running, and that when the parts became more interesting he didn’t feel the need to run so hard? Dern was born in Chicago in 1936 and was from US aristocracy, but at the same time was a troubled youth sent off to a special school. There is a feeling in much of his work of an actor trying to make sense of status, power and social interaction, and Dern’s dull drawl, often offered as if the only person listening is likely to be himself, captures well this ambivalence between being for oneself and being for others. Even in The Driver he speaks as though the person most likely to congratulate him for his wit and wisdom would be his own character.

As with many actors, Dern has a body of work far greater than its significance. Our attempt here hasn’t been to summarize it, merely to indicate the high points that make Dern’s persona of interest. The other films, from Wild Angels, where he is a anonymous baddie, to The ‘Burbs (where the role is shot through with his Oscar nominated turn in Coming Home), from Family Plot for Hitchcock, to That Championship Season, a movie about four college buddies reuniting twenty years after the titular event, could be seen as adjunct films: films to further the thesis. It is also possible that someone would take another half dozen films and fashion a different argument altogether. “I’ve played more psychotics and freaks and dopers than anyone”, Dern has claimed, but that, we have hopefully proposed, is only half the story, and not the most intriguing half.


©Tony McKibbin