The Strangely Imperfect Trinity of Top-Billed Laura Dern Performances

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When we were discussing July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s mid-90s abortion comedy debut Citizen Ruth, I noted how rare of a treat it was to see Laura Dern receive top bill in a film, any film. I didn’t realize at the time exactly how rare that treat was. Although the child of two well-renowned, actors, Laura Dern has only starred top bill in three theatrically released feature films. That’s less than one film a decade in a professional career that spans back all the way to 1973. I’ve always thought of Dern as an enigmatic, striking screen presence capable of stealing any film she stars in, from Jurassic Park to her various David Lynch collaborations to her odd childhood appearance in the Cher melodrama Mask. It seems so strange to me, then, that the actor would be afforded so few opportunities to anchor a film with that idiosyncratic, attention-commanding presence. Even stranger still is the bizarrely imperfect set of roles that make up her top billing trinity. Dern commits herself whole-heartedly & with great humility to each lead role she’s allowed, but the nature & number of those roles suggest that she’s working in an industry that’s unsure what to do with that sense of commitment.

I’d say, far and away, the best performance in Dern’s top billing trinity is the one we’ve already discussed extensively here in Citizen Ruth. A homeless, pregnant addict who cares more about huffing household chemicals for a cheap high than engaging with the political debate that surrounds her unborn fetus, Ruth is one hell of a protagonist, a deeply damaged character that pushes past anti-hero into something much more disturbing. As I said before, the character she most closely resembles in my pop culture data bank is Stranger with Candy‘s hellishly cruel protagonist Jerri Blank, an undeniably bad person whose corrupt moral center is in far worse shape than a simple explanation of chemical dependency. In Citizen Ruth, Dern is charged with embodying a Jerri Blank archetype worthy of an audience’s sympathy. It’s no small task. On the one hand Ruth is a victim of an imperfect economic system, one reduced to a political talking point in an abortion rights debate she wants nothing to do with in the first place. On the other hand, she’s an aggressively air-headed subhuman willing to lie, cheat, steal, and gut punch children as much as needed to achieve her never-ending, immediate goal of huffing herself high. Alexander Payne constructs a dangerously dark line of humor in Ruth’s troubled character & Dern finds a way to make the blistering mess of a human being somehow, improbably endearing. It’s incredible how much joy you get watching Ruth pull off her (absurdly modest) heist of the century at the film’s conclusion, especially considering the morbid circumstances that lead to that moment & the grim implications of that character’s most logical future. Dern deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a heist of her own with the audience’s sympathies in that role & it stands as an easy choice for her best top bill performance to date.

Dern’s very first top bill performance predates Citizen Ruth by a five year gap, but her titular characters in both films share a surprising number of similarities. 1991’s Rambling Rose was an early high point in Dern’s career in terms of accolades, but maybe defines a low point in the context of artistic adventurousness. Filmed after her early David Lynch collaborations Blue Velvet & Wild at Heart, but years before her peak moment of popularity in Jurassic Park, Rambling Rose finds Dern starring top bill in some blatant, uninspired Oscar bait. She almost landed that Oscar, too. The film marks the first time a mother & daughter were nominated for a single work (her mother Diane Ladd stars opposite of her as the film’s matriarch) and at just the age of 24 Dern was one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Leading Actress Academy Award. In the film she plays even younger, depicting a teenage girl in the Depression-era South who’s taken in by a charitable family attempting to save her from forced prostitution. In essence, Rambling Rose is a watered-down version of the Brooke Shields shock drama Pretty Baby. However, by casting an adult Dern as its underage sex worker (who never actually does any sex work) and reducing her dangerously vulnerable place in the world to a source of melodrama & light humor, the film makes its teenage-prostitute-in-peril story all the stranger. Rambling Rose portrays a long gone South where kids innocently play Cowboys & Indians and “Girls don’t want sex; girls want love” in an overly saccharine way that leaves no doubt that the film believes its own bullshit, all while hilariously mistackling hefty topics like budding teenage sociopathy & forced hysterectomies as a “cure” for an “overactive” libido. It’s a singularly strange, uncomfortable work, one that’s more than a little amusing in its ineptitude.

The strange thing here is how little Dern is given to do. Diane Ladd chews scenery as an anachronistically progressive matriarch that allows her to appear noble at every possible turn. Robert Duvall stars as the paterfamilias, known simply as “Daddy”(*shudder*), who is similarly, hilariously noble in his thwarting of the young, misguided Rose’s various sexual advances. I particularly enjoyed Duvall’s Southern drawl delivery of the line, “Put that damn tit back in your dress! Replace that tit.” A young Lukas Haas lights up the screen as a proto-Norman Bates preteen creep, one that convinces Rose to allow him to get her off with his little boy hand, a moment he emotionlessly accompanies with the line “Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating experience of my life.” Yuck. The boy hungers for Rose. Rose hungers for his father, a sexual desire that’s communicated largely through body language & intense eye-fucking (before she moves on to find beaus outside of Daddy’s home). She isn’t afforded much room to do anything else. Laura Dern is amusing & dorkily sexy in her titular role as Rose, but she isn’t given much to do outside indulging in some unsure, girlish lip-biting, delivering the film’s only on-screen orgasm, and proudly disrupting an entire town’s routine by parading in a flagrantly feminine strut while wearing a skin-tight flapper costume. Although Rose is much sweeter than the violently selfish Ruth, she’s got a similarly hedonistic view on life, a one-track mind that supplants Ruth’s quest for huffing spray paint with a quest for sex, something I have a hard time believing she doesn’t enjoy no matter how much moralizing the film does in lines like, “Sex ain’t nothing but a mosquito bite.” Rose is, of course, much sweeter than Ruth, but she’s just as humorously air-headed, as typified by her assertion, “I am only a human girl person!” Both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose use this (to put it generously) naiveté to their narrative advantage, constructing scenarios where Dern’s protagonists have little to no say over their own bodies & personal freedoms in a world full of men & political pundits looking to manipulate her to their own will. The difference is that Rambling Rose makes the mistake of telling its story through the men’s POV. Citizen Ruth actually centers its conflict on Ruth’s POV as she’s caught in the middle of others’ meddling, and it’s a much better film for that choice (among so many others).

The most recent entry in Dern’s top billing trilogy provided her a character much more active in her own destiny. The question of what that destiny is or what it means is largely up for interpretation, though, as David Lynch’s Inland Empire is an entirely incomprehensible work of deliberate art house obfuscation, a complex puzzle in which there is no possible answer to be found. To date, Inland Empire is Lynch’s latest & most incomprehensible work (a very crowded field on that latter point). It’s also the ugliest movie I’ve ever endured, a confusing experiment in standard definition photography that recalls the flip phone videos from last year’s documentary Amy, except stretched to feature length. In her third collaboration with the increasingly stylistically hostile director, Laura Dern plays a wealthy, confident actress that more closely resembles her personal life than her lead roles typically do. That’s about the only thing that resembles reality in this deliberate mess of Lynchian self-parody, a three hour (and some change) long masochistic trudge through Mathew Barney-esque art gallery nonsense. At times I enjoyed trying to wrap my head around its sprawling, yet insular narrative experimentation, but another part of me kept praying for David Yow’s shotgun-wielding psychopath from Southbound to crash the scene & yell “Quit being so fucking mysterious!” I like a little genre film formula mixed in with my art house abstraction & Inland Empire feels very little need to meet me halfway on that expectation of entertainment value.

I don’t mean to make the film sound like it’s entirely unhinged from any semblance of an A-B narrative. There is a central story at work here in which Dern’s successful actress protagonist is cast in a “remake” of a fictional film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, that was never completed because the original cast was murdered. At first this premise sounds like it’s setting up Lynch’s version of a Maps to the Stars style Hollywood satire, one riffing on a famed “cursed” script like Don Quixote or Confederacy of Dunces. The truth, of course, is much stranger than that as Dern’s troubled actress experiences a Persona-esque psychological break where she becomes unstuck in time & reality, alternating between her “real” life as a wealthy actress & the movie-within-the-movie role as an impoverished sex worker/adulteress in an art house narrative swirl that somehow lands between Slaughterhouse FiveThe Last Action Hero. Hardcore Lynch fans often list Inland Empire as one of the best films of the 2000s & Dern’s lead role as the artistic high point of her career. Although I find the film structurally fascinating, it’s hard for me to match the enthusiasm there. Between all of the film’s sex worker dance parties, pet monkeys, and humanoid rabbit sitcoms, I feel like Dern’s performance is mostly lost in the chaos & Lynch’s vision is similarly lost up its own ass. You could argue that Dern is afforded a wide range here, playing both a gussied up movie star & a violently discarded sex worker, but I think she knows a similar range in both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose and those films both have the added benefit of not looking like they were filmed on the unwashed backup cam of a used SUV.

There are a few narrative similarities you can draw across all three of Laura Dern’s top bill performances. For starters, all three works cast her protagonists as hopelessly stuck in a world dominated & controlled by men, whether it be the national politics of abortion rights, the Old South, or the Hollywood industry gossip machine. Oddly enough, all three roles also include an uncompleted pregnancy in their narratives, a coincidental, but telling detail that reveals a lot about the vulnerable kinds of lead roles Dern typically lands. Much like a lot of details in Lynch’s Inland Empire, Dern’s portrayal of a top-of-the-world actor is unfortunately detached from reality. Dern has had much more success headlining projects on television (an environment that’s a lot less hostile to women in general), including several made-for-TV movies and the well-regarded HBO series Enlightened. In cinema, it seems the industry is less sure what to do with her. By no stretch is her career at all flailing. In fact, she’s slated to appear in Episode VIII of Star Wars next year and has been consistently working as a lead actor for decades. It’s just weird to me how few roles in that time span have been top-billed and how the three that have aren’t quite sure what to do with her Shelley Duvall style of offbeat, dorky femininity. If you need any proof that Laura Dern should be headlining more feature films, you needn’t look any further than her devastating & humorous turn in Citizen Ruth. The deeply flawed Rambling Rose & Inland Empire do little but support that idea by proving she can remain charming & competent in even the most confounding productions. As a trio, Dern’s top billed performances typify a career that Hollywood could be serving far better in the way in the way it utilizes her talents. Dern is too capable of a performer to be so often cast as a supporting player. I’d love to see more roles for her where her name is perched at the very top of the movie poster. She’s earned that slot many times over.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

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6 thoughts on “The Strangely Imperfect Trinity of Top-Billed Laura Dern Performances

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