A golden girl with a flair for troubled souls
She was born into a cocoon of great Hollywood acting, her father being Bruce Dern and her mother, Diane Ladd. But from the time she was young and vulnerable, to her recent parts as a middle-aged mother, for which she’s even more vulnerable, Laura Dern has always been a performer unto herself, an icon among cinema greats. She has a model’s build (lean and five-foot-ten), trademark long blond locks, and an emotional earnestness (even when she’s bitter) that verges on naïveté, which audiences seem to instantly connect with.
Encouraged as a child by Martin Scorsese on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), in which her mother was acting, she shot into fame at the age of 18 in 1985, with parts in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, opposite Cher, and Smooth Talk, in which her curious character was famously seduced by Treat Williams’s drifter. And now, as she turns 50, she has two films in which she plays the wife of unhinged men: in The Founder, which opens nationally in theaters on January 20, it’s Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the mogul who built the McDonald’s empire, and in Wilson, it’s Woody Harrelson as an abrasive kook dreamed up by comic-book artist Daniel Clowes (watch the trailer, below).
In between she has built up a body of work that is stunning in its productivity, range and consistent high quality. There was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990); her Oscar nomination for Rambling Rose (1991), one of several movies in which she acted with her mother; a blockbuster part in Jurassic Park (1993); and a magnificent turn as a glue-sniffing pregnant lowlife in Alexander Payne’s satire Citizen Ruth (1996). She’s been piquing our interest continually since then, with two or three films a year, and TV miniseries, capped by 2014, when she was Oscar nominated again, for Wild, opposite Reese Witherspoon, and she played the simple-minded mom of Andrew Garfield in the powerful 99 Homes.
“I’ve always gravitated towards playing women who don’t know they’re entitled to a voice, let alone how to find it,” Dern has said. “The ones who intrigue me most are those people who didn’t know they’re entitled to self-awareness, so that’s a very cool thing to explore. And I wish that for all women.” Amen to that.