• Laura Dern took out Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role. (EPA)
During the last three years, something shifted. Dern stopped playing wild-hearted, thin-skinned women and just went all out wild.
By
Natalie Reilly

11 Feb 2020 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 11 Feb 2020 - 9:59 AM

Laura Dern’s acceptance speech for her Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress was, much like the woman herself, gracious in its simplicity. A tribute to her family, it contained no political point scoring, (though there was a hint at caring for the planet), no snide jokes; no false modesty – Dern was, and perhaps is, so far as we can tell, all heart.

The daughter of two accomplished actors, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, Laura had herself legally emancipated from her parents at 16 so she could work the gruelling actor’s hours of an adult. By all accounts, Dern could’ve been the Gwyneth Paltrow of her time. Blonde, willowy and of Hollywood pedigree, it’s interesting to reflect on her career and realise, that for a long time, she was more like Jennifer Garner; providing a type of kooky girlishness, and much needed light, to some intensely dark movies.

Dern was only 18 when she played the sweet, blind girlfriend of Eric Stoltz in 1985’s Mask before her breakout role a year later in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet – again, playing a deliberately nice, caring suburban girlfriend to Kyle MacLaughlan– a role in which she radiated innocence -- the perfect contrast against Isabella Rossellini’s steep descent into depravity.

1990’s Wild at Heart, another surrealist Lynch film, saw her portray yet another girlfriend, this one wounded and reckless, and almost totally without boundaries. On and on it went for Dern, playing women who were especially accomplished at forgiveness. Which is, essentially, another vehicle for grace.

Jurassic Park in 1993 gave us a more pragmatic Dern, who, though a highly qualified scientist, was still partial to indulging the entitled men around her. 

There it was in Rambling Rose, for which she received her first Oscar nod, for playing an abused sex worker in the 1930s. Jurassic Park in 1993 gave us a more pragmatic Dern, who, though a highly qualified scientist, was still partial to indulging the entitled men around her and keep the peace as much as one can while being chased by dinosaurs.

And though this ability to indulge may have typecast her, it takes a special kind of grace to hold hands with Ellen when she comes out on her show. Few people could do it, and probably no one so well as Dern.

But then, during the last three years, something shifted. Dern stopped playing wild-hearted, thin-skinned women and just went all out wild.

Vice Admiral in The Last Jedi. A dogged attorney in Trial By Fire, and then, of course, the ultimate Alpha mum: Renata Klein on Big Little Lies. Here was Sheryl Sandberg on Ritalin; a self-made CEO with a roaring ego and the fury to match it. This character was accomplished at making money and taking names – forgiveness was for losers. Her rage bordered on camp; cementing her status as a gay icon. Her lines were so epic they became instant GIFS.

But the best part of it was that Dern, gracious and warm, bestie of all women, forgiver of foolish men, seemed to have so much fun playing her. Was this the key that turned open the role that would earn her the Oscar? Because, let’s be honest, high powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw in Marriage Story is just Renata on Zoloft.

Smart, sympathetic, and above all calm, Dern’s Nora is highly skilled at comforting her clients so she can bankrupt their exes. Her rage is papered over with assurances of a better world. That monologue about parenthood’s double standards – ooof! It’s hardly surprising when she lulls Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole into a place of deep sisterly affirmation, before she becomes the smiling assassin on her behalf.

So good is Dern at feminised rage on screen that director Greta Gerwig chose her to play the iconic Mrs March.

So good is Dern at feminised rage on screen that director Greta Gerwig chose her to play the iconic Mrs March -- “Marmee” -- in her pointedly feminist version of Little Women. A version, which Gerwig has said, purposely includes the line uttered by Mrs March in the book “I am angry nearly every day of my life.”

It may be that Dern, who gave a shout-out in her speech to her stepchildren, CJ and Harris, as well as her biological children from her marriage to her ex-husband Ben Harper, is naturally gracious. But grace, in the end, is what happens when the storm passes. It could be that Dern, whom Billy Bob Thornton left for Angelina Jolie without telling her, while they were still engaged, found solace through suffering, and sifted grace from that.

Or it could just be that she was the storm itself all along, as all the best actors are.