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Figuring It Out: The Films of Laura Dern

Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) speaks in voiceover in a half-dazed, half-searching tone, as if slowly bringing herself out of a dream. “The story you are about to see is true … as far as I know.” A documentary filmmaker, she’s used to finding ways to look beyond the surface of what people present about themselves; she’ll have to turn that ability on herself. She remembers herself being and looking older than she was, speaking about a man she calls a lover—despite the fact that he was an adult and she was only 13—with a defensive, forced attempt at nonchalance (raised arms, dismissive pitch) that turns pleading, then incensed when she’s called a “victim,” her voice breaking into a raised whisper, her expression into a furious grimace. “This was important to me, and I’m trying to figure out why … Let me just figure this out for myself.”

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“The Tale,” debuting on HBO on May 26, is documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s narrative retelling of her experience, and an emotionally searing look at how people process their abuse. The casting of Dern, one of the most adventurous actresses working today, feels apropos, given the performer’s willingness to walk a constant emotional high-wire act and her recent hot streak that includes, but is not limited to, “Enlightened,” “Wild,” “Big Little Lies,” the “Twin Peaks” revival, and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” It’s also an instructive text when looking at Dern’s body of work, a career filled with stories of women who have either experienced or witnessed unbearable trauma and who are trying to find the meaning behind it all.

The daughter of two of New Hollywood’s greatest character actors (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd), Laura Dern began her career in uncredited roles alongside her mother (“White Lightning,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) before emancipating herself at 13 when her mother objected to one of her early credited roles in the teenage punk girl drama “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.” Dern’s role as one of the members of the Stains is relatively small (it’s largely Diane Lane’s show), but she makes an impression as being kind and empathetic, expressing genuine sympathy when a band member of another touring group overdoses. Dern’s teenage roles draw on her natural warmth and luminous presence; her performance as the blind Diana in “Mask” in particular sees her displaying an unusual level of openness with Eric Stoltz’s Rocky (born with a rare skull deformity), a willingness to accept him for who he is and stray outside her comfort zone for someone who accepts her.

Straying outside one’s comfort zone is central to Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk” (pictured above), which gave Dern her breakout role as Connie Wyatt, a teenage girl hitting her rebellious years and having a hard time of it with her demanding mother. The first half of the film is a remarkable study of a teenager’s tentative first steps toward sexual exploration, with Dern veering back and forth between being marvelously unaffected (tossed-off delivery and leaning posture around her parents) and exaggerated flirtation, like that of someone who’s both fascinated bt sex and stuck in a childish, mocking view of it. She adopts confidence only to shrink away, puts her full body into a kiss before breaking off, admitting that she’s not used to “feeling … this excited.” 

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It’s in the second half, when a greaser (Treat Williams) appears outside when she’s home alone that “Smooth Talk” dives headfirst into that discomfort. Dern’s bashful body language gives way to a menacing, dancelike semi-seduction with Williams, shifting from apparent fun and games to something that’s outright predatory, with her demeanor collapsing collapse into hyperventilative terror. She’s in that uncertain place in between childhood and adulthood, when everyone is trying to define themselves, but there are plenty of men who have their own ideas of who she is and what they want from her. “Smooth Talk” would be an ideal (if grueling) double feature with “The Tale,” a young person’s immediate experience with sexual desire, confusion and abuse paired with an adult’s retrospective understanding of that trauma.

Dern received raves for her work, getting her first of two straight Independent Spirit Award nominations (back when they tried to be more than Oscar predictors); her next would come with a part that would bring her to greatest and most important collaborator. Few directors have brought as much out of Dern as David Lynch, but then, few performers have brought as much out of his characters as Dern, beginning with her role as Sandy in “Blue Velvet.” The archetypical girl next door, Sandy has a kind of unearthly wholesomeness that’s best showcased in her monologue about her dream about “robins of love.” The key to Lynch’s work is his belief that the truly good can coexist with the truly wicked. Dern represents the former, delivering the monologue with a whispered awe and reaching hand gestures that border on evangelical before bringing herself down and finding a way to clarify it to her rapt listener/love interest. Sandy and Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) see some terrible things (including a painful moment of trauma that prompts a distorted look of sorrow that’s distinctly Dern), but she remains unwavering in her belief that her dream of light can conquer darkness and make sense of this strange world (would that Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy were so lucky). 

Dern teamed with Lynch again for 1990’s “Wild at Heart” (pictured above), playing the far more confidently sensual Lula while retaining the same good-heartedness she brought to “Blue Velvet.” It’s a heightened, deliberately iconic role, with Dern leaping into exaggerated dancing, purring with sexual abandon and leaning just so to express her arousal or satisfaction when talking to or about Nicolas Cage’s Elvis-obsessed Sailor. But Lula is also someone who has experienced great pain—the death of her father, her molestation at the hands of his friend, the murderous rage of her mother (played, in a stroke of casting genius, by her real-life mother, Ladd)—and has come out the other end demonstrating a full-bodied, defiant belief in the all-conquering power of love. The film’s “Wizard of Oz” framing device sometimes comes across as a bit forced, but it’s also another example of how Dern’s characters often tell themselves stories to make sense of their lives and guide them from darkness to light. 

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Dern’s early adult roles often deal with characters exploring their sexuality at a time or place where that might put them in jeopardy; that’s certainly the case with Martha Coolidge’s “Rambling Rose,” in which her “borderline nymphomaniac” Rose comes to live with the Hillyer family (father Robert Duvall, mother Ladd and teenage son Lukas Haas) after unspecified trouble with men. Dern brings a blithe, bouncy exuberance and confidence to the role, waltzing down the street knowing that her walk can turn heads and her smile win hearts. But Dern also embodies Rose’s goodness, her sexual escapades being the actions of someone who has an intense and open need to be loved, and to be treated with the kindness that she shows the world but that the world hasn’t been good enough to show her. A scene between her and Duvall after she’s caught in bed with a man sees her not going so far as begging, but rather earnestly presenting herself with all cards on the table, an eyes-wide-open, forward-leaning acknowledgement that “I’m only a human girl person, and I ain’t always perfect.” 

“Rambling Rose” earned Dern her first Oscar nomination and preceded two high-profile supporting roles in 1993. As criminologist Sally Gerber in Clint Eastwood’s beautiful “A Perfect World,” she illustrates the impossible situation that Butch (Kevin Costner) was put in as a troubled child with an abusive father, giving a full picture of his trauma and bringing us to empathize with how he became a criminal. As Ellie Sattler in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” Dern plays the warmer counterpart and partner to Sam Neill’s testier Alan Grant, exuding, intelligence, physical capability and a deeper concern for how easily the park can spiral out of control and the consequences that come with it (she also has the ability as an actress to practically unhinge her jaw in terror when things do go wrong). In a key character moment, she pleads empathetically for John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to recognize how the people they love may get hurt. Both roles cast her as figures of empathy, finding ways to make sense of the reasons why people cause each other pain while trying to prevent it from happening again.

If “A Perfect World” sees Dern asking us to sympathize with a troubled person, Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth” (pictured above) shows how far that should be extended. Make no mistake: Dern’s pregnant, inhalant-addicted Ruth Stoops is a first-class fuck-up. Dern dives headfirst into making her as gross and unlikable as possible, smearing her mouth with inhalant residue, manipulating the same people who are manipulating her (both sides of the abortion debate attempt to co-opt her case for their agenda), and shouting some truly filthy insults (“suck the shit outta my ass, you fucker!”) with gritted teeth and gusto. Yet the actress still finds something sympathetic in her, her downcast eyes and fidgeting fingers communicating her knowledge that she’s fucked up yet again and is about to be on the receiving end of some real hardship. Ruth may sputter with uncertainty when trying to voice the whys behind her right to choose, but Payne and Dern take her choice, and the pain behind what led her to it, seriously (besides, she said it loud and clear the first time).

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Dern’s career slowed down in the late 1990s and early 2000s, something she attributed (more than plausibly) to her guest appearance on “Ellen” as a radiant, openly gay woman that causes Ellen DeGeneres’ character to come out herself. She got her first serious critical attention in years in John Curran’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” in 2004. The film, about a two couples (Dern and Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts and Peter Krause) whose lives are upended when Ruffalo and Watts begin an affair, is too drifting and one-note to draw much blood, but it comes to life whenever Dern’s enraged, emotionally rangy Terry takes focus. Dern adopts a hunched-over posture for her arguments with Ruffalo, her clenched chin jutting out slightly, to show a woman who’s well aware of how she’s being deceived and whose total dismissal to the role of child caretaker (something she does not take to naturally) looks like it’s almost literally weighing her down. Terry’s agonies in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” are resolutely ordinary, compared with some of the other characters Dern has played, but they’re no less important to her.

Dern reteamed with David Lynch for the truly deranged “Inland Empire,” in which she plays the actress Nikki Grace, getting the comeback of a lifetime with the role of Susan Blue before her role starts bleeding over into her identity (or something … even more than usual with Lynch, describing what actually happens seems futile and beside-the-point). It’s a tour-de-force performance, alternatively put-upon, ferocious, frightened, and whatever one can call this terrifying face. She’s simultaneously the film’s emotional anchor and its constantly metamorphosing nucleus. “Inland Empire” is, at least partially, about the emotional wringer that performers can put themselves through for a role, and how easy it is to mix up one’s own emotions with their character’s. A monologue in which Nikki’s character (?) describes her trauma and her self-defense in a jaded tone that occasionally sparks into violence is later seen in a theater, the actress observing herself. She’s played a character who has lived through real terror, but we see that the actress herself is living in terror, both at home (her husband is deeply controlling and ambiguously threatening) and at work. Does the actress simply play the part, or is she drawn to roles that bring her to relive (and potentially make peace with) her nightmares?

“Inland Empire,” like most of Lynch’s works, does not put its or its characters’ purpose into words so bluntly; Dern’s next major role is a little more easily (and narrowly) defined, but not uninteresting. The 2008 TV movie “Recount” (pictured above) relives the national trauma of Bush v. Gore, the second-most nightmarish presidential election in recent memory. Largely focused on the tactics employed the official campaign teams of Vice President Al Gore (Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Ed Begley Jr.) and Governor George W. Bush (Tom Wilkinson, Bob Balaban), the film also takes time with Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Dern) and her poorly disguised efforts to throw the election to Bush. Dern walks a fine line between humanity and cartoon with Harris, whom she portrays as a zealous, wide-eyed ideologue with exaggerated hair and makeup. But she finds the heart of Harris in her true-believer story about Queen Esther sacrificing herself for “the lovely Jewish people,” evangelizing as if her staking her career on Bush winning the election is for the good of the people. Her self-martyring tone is farcical, but it’s also indicative of how political partisans view their work as de facto for the good of the people and a tool to bring a country together after a moment of bitter division, rather than the actions of further division. 

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Many of Dern’s more recent film roles have been smaller, supporting parts, but a few have still been notable. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” she has that same true-believer tone as a rich woman who has taken to the new religion of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Her student’s passion for something that’s given her life meaning is palpable; so is her shocked pain at being rebuked for questioning how, exactly, it can switch teachings so cavalierly, her body practically crumpling at Dodd’s shout. She’s more unflagging in her optimism as Reese Witherspoon’s mother in “Wild” (her second Oscar-nominated performance). Dern comes across in only a handful of small scenes as a vivacious presence who nonetheless knows perfectly well that she’s lived through hell, smiling through memories of pain because it brought her the most important person in her life. She’s the witness to someone else’s pain in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful “Certain Women,” a lawyer to a man (Jared Harris) who got screwed over when accepting a piddling settlement after a workplace injury but who can no longer be helped because of it. One senses her lived-in frustration as he refuses to listen her (then listens to a male colleague who tells him the same thing), but her genuine empathy for a man who she’s effectively powerless to help is also clear. And as Admiral Holdo in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she commands the screen with a steadfast, unwavering certainty that she’s doing the right thing—any assumption of her incompetence be damned—finally proving herself to be among the bravest and most self-sacrificing heroes in the series.

Still, most of Dern’s best recent work has been on television. The brilliant, unjustly canceled “Enlightened” sees Dern’s personality as embedded into the work as Mike White’s (indeed, the two are credited as co-creators). Amy Jellicoe is another of Dern’s troubled heroines trying to find meaning in their lives, following her nervous breakdown first with a genuine attempt to regain the respect of her colleagues, then by becoming a corporate whistleblower in a move that’s half genuine, half out of bitterness. Amy’s a mess, lashing out at people she (rightly or wrongly) believes have wronged her at one moment, then preaching with a sincere but totally oblivious sense of illumination in the next. What holds Dern’s performance together as Amy whips back and forth between manic highs and deadening lows is an ardent, indefatigable expression that it’s possible for her to do something important with her life and potentially make the world a better place, no matter how crazy that world thinks she is. 

Dern returned to HBO in “Big Little Lies,” with her Renata Klein initially set up as an ostensible villain; Dern tears into the overbearing, bullying aspect of Renata, whether she’s stabbing the air with her hands like a maniac or giving a silent but icy glare, shouting her threats at the top of her lungs or whispering them with quiet menace. But there’s still a beating heart in her, a genuine desire to protect her daughter from pain (whether it’s violence at school or the more everyday hurt of someone skipping her birthday party), and the heartbreak in Dern’s voice when she voices her feeling of utter powerlessness (a control freak’s worst nightmare for minor issues, let alone real pain) is unmistakable. Much of the strength in “Big Little Lies” is its belief that flawed women can ultimately come together, forgive each other and help each other along; Dern’s performance is key to that.

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And still, “Big Little Lies” had only the second-best Dern performance on television last year. There’s a nostalgic, near-breathless thrill in Dern’s first appearance as Special Agent Dale Cooper’s long-unseen secretary Diane on “Twin Peaks” (or “Twin Peaks: The Return”), an unmistakable callback to their close connection in “Blue Velvet.” Still, one couldn’t have predicted Dern’s delightfully cynical performance, all long drags on cigarettes and venom-spitting “fuck yous,” a far cry from the mostly upbeat Sandy. But even putting aside the eventual revelation about Diane’s nature, it makes sense after decades of disillusionment following a rape by the man she most trusted. That pain comes through in her reunion with Bad Cooper, her voice breaking, her breath quickening; it’s even clearer in her late-series breakdown, her shield of cynicism giving way to trauma flooding back. Even Diane’s return to normalcy is a pyrrhic and only temporary victory, with a sex scene with MacLachlan’s Good Cooper playing less like a triumph and more like a final, deeply sad shared moment between the two (which Dern somehow conveys largely with her back), one of the show’s many acknowledgements that trauma cannot be erased. 

“The Tale,” then, is instead a look at how one lives with that trauma. Fox’s gradual shift to acknowledging something terrible happened is not an easy journey, nor is it a simple one. The film deals heavily with the tortured self-rationalizations and denials employed by both survivors and abusers, ones both sincerely believed and desperately clung to. The final scene is confrontational without being fully cathartic, Dern’s belated but volcanic outrage a moment of her taking her past back (a real triumph) without any illusion that she has expelled that very pain. If there’s something Dern’s best work shows, it’s there forever; one can only try to make sense of it.

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