“I wanted to go to Jupiter. That was my plan from day one, and David Lynch gave me
the ticket.” – Laura Dern
American actor and filmmaker Laura Dern rose to prominence on the back of strong performances in popular hits like 1985 film Mask as well as cult-classics like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which was released a year later in 1986. Dern has several accolades to her name, including an Academy Award and five Golden Globe Awards. Apart from her brilliant work in films, Dern’s star turn in the critically acclaimed drama series Big Little Lies earned her an Emmy Award. With such lofty credentials, Dern can comfortably make the claim of being one of the best acting talents of her generation.
Born in Los Angeles in 1967 to actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, she was introduced to the film world from an early age and felt a strong inclination towards it. Her first film appearance came in 1973 as an extra in Josep Sagent’s White Lightning, but her official debut is listed as Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in which she appeared opposite her mother. While slowly building up her portfolio, Dern sought emancipation at the age of 16 so that she could work longer hours and gain more creative freedom.
During the latter half of the 1980s, Dern experienced unprecedented fame with major roles in successful films like the aforementioned 1985 biographical drama Mask. However, her breakthrough role would come a year later when she took on a starring role in David Lynch’s surreal coming-of-age mystery thriller Blue Velvet as a suburban girl who is the performative symbol of innocence. Dern would collaborate with Lynch again in his 1990 black comedy Wild at Heart, solidifying their brilliant creative chemistry.
Widespread praise and critical acclaim followed Dern into the next period of her career as well, earning appreciation for her work in films like Rambling Rose and Jurassic Park. She picked up an Oscar nomination for the former and became a part of the first mother-daughter duo to have been nominated for Academy Awards for acting in the same film. Dern would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress almost 28 years later for her stunning performance in Noah Baumbach’s drama Marriage Story, a project which ushered in the arrival of streaming platforms to the biggest of stages.
On her 54th birthday, we revisit some of the essential films from Laura Dern’s illustrious career as a tribute to her contribution to the world of cinema.
Laura Dern’s 6 definitive films:
6. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach – 2019)
Noah Baumbach’s 2019 exploration of a dysfunctional marriage was well-received by critics and audiences alike who praised the film for its incisive investigations. When an actress (Scarlett Johansson) splits up with her theatre director husband (Adam Driver), she hires Laura Dern as her no-nonsense divorce lawyer who guides her through the murky waters of post-marriage. For her performance, Dern won her first-ever Oscar as well as Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards.
“Marriage Story shows how a woman in the really ruthless, ugly world of divorce might use her body, her design sense and her shoes to win a case,” Dern said. “Men in this business are famous bullies who leave the women with as little as possible. Nora has to fight the way the boys do to protect her female client.”
5. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg – 1993)
Steven Spielberg always had a penchant for the spectacle and Jurassic Park is one of the prime examples of his tendencies. He imagines a world where technology has enabled scientists to bring the dinosaurs back to life, causing disastrous consequences for messing with the natural order. Dern is delightful as a paleobotanist who is fascinated by the majestic creatures.
“I thought it was amazing,” Dern said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News about seeing the film again after all these years. “I think Steve Spielberg taps into a level of magic that speaks to something in ourselves because movies can become dated where there can be new effects or different kinds of imagery, and yet his movies remain timeless.”
4. Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee – 2014)
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, this 2014 biographical drama is a compelling story about a recently-divorced woman (Reese Witherspoon) who embarks on a journey to find herself again. Dern is fantastic as Witherspoon’s mother, handling the complications of their relationship with the subtlety of a veteran. As a result, she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role.
“I love emotion. I love laughter, I love irreverence, I love questions. I’ll always consider all that,” Dern revealed. “The hope is that as it cracks me open and I have empathy or easy to judge places, that it will do the same for you as well. That’s why we long to do it. Documentaries were such a huge inspiration for me growing up. To tell stories that were true. That was really interesting to me, even if it was in a non-fictional way.”
3. Blue Velvet (David Lynch – 1986)
Lynch’s attempt to contextualise surreal horrors within a superficially tame suburban framework will always remain a landmark achievement of the genre. In contrast to the dark visions and motifs that punctuate the psychosexual nightmare that is Blue Velvet, Dern’s character is a personification of morality and innocence in a world where these ideals have been rendered obsolete.
“I know he was looking for someone he believed was really pure,” Dern said. “Not in a physical way, like, ‘She looks like a girl next door,’ but pure of heart, maybe. Not jaded, not cynical. And that is the one thing I will say for myself. I’ve been very lucky in many ways, but I’ve been through my own version of a lot, my own heartbreaks, we all have, and I’ve not become bitter ever, over anything.
“It’s part of my constitution and I think David really likes that. I can be dramatic or emotional or scared, but he needed Sandy, at her root, to be such a believer, so hopeful, such an optimist, and that really is my nature. Because, yeah, he hadn’t auditioned me. He’s never auditioned me. Shit, if he does now, I may never work with him again. Luckily I just keep fooling him.”
2. Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne – 1996)
A brilliant black comedy by Alexander Payne, Citizen Ruth stars Dern as a poverty-stricken drug addict who happens to be pregnant. Using her example, Payne conducts an exigent re-examination of our biases when it comes to the abortion debate. Dern proves that she can handle comic parts as effortlessly as serious dramatic roles.
Dern recalled, “With Citizen Ruth, there are a couple of different movies in the editing room, one in which I am more vulnerable, and maybe even have more compassion toward a few people in the film, and one in which I have no intellect, no interest in anybody, and everything is self-serving. In one take, I was always just completely brain-dead.”
1. Rambling Rose (Martha Coolidge – 1991)
Set in Georgia during the Great Depression, Dern stars alongside Robert Duvall in this 1991 drama about a young woman and the oppressive value systems that she has to navigate. She becomes the servant of a wealthy family in order to escape prostitution but finds other kinds of troubles in her new world.
“It had so many things going against it,” Coolidge said. “It was a small adult film. It was a period film, so everything costs more to get the details right for sets and costumes. Even the smallest items are more complex. It involved sexuality in an honest way that you don’t see in Hollywood. There is also this prejudice against the South, though a few films such as Driving Miss Daisy and Steel Magnolias have broken through it.”