When it comes to polarizing audiences, Laura Dern is absolutely fearless. She has no qualms with picking roles that refuse to fit within a studio’s rigid standards of accessibility. She has sought to challenge herself as an artist, and has ended up challenging her audiences as well. As a moviegoer who loves to be surprised and provoked, I couldn’t be more grateful to this actress for her insistence on marching to the beat of her own drummer—of course, with parents like Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, it would’ve taken considerable effort for Laura to have turned out ordinary. She’s a gorgeous blonde beauty with an angular face that can contort itself into wildly disparate expressions, courtesy of an exceptionally wiry jaw. In this latest installment of Indie Essentials, we’ll take a look at eight of Dern’s most unmissable titles that divided audiences while still managing to keep them spellbound.
Blue Velvet (1986)
The greatest artistic collaboration of Dern’s career began when she was 19. Master surrealist David Lynch chose her to embody uncorrupted innocence in his scathing satirical nightmare of a suburban underworld. When she makes her first appearance, she seems to be emerging from the same mist that framed Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” There’s something almost ethereal about her character, carrying the good-natured name of Sandy Williams, and when she finally reaches her inevitable moment of disillusionment, it’s just crushing. No wonder Kyle MacLachlan can’t take his eyes off her.
Wild at Heart (1990)
Five years later, Dern made a 180 degree turn in Lynch’s exuberantly unhinged joyride, which earned an impassioned mixture of cheers and boos upon winning the top prize at Cannes. As sexually voracious 20-year-old Lula Fortune, Dern resembles Marilyn Monroe as reimagined by Janis Joplin. She craves Nicolas Cage’s Elvis doppelgänger with every ounce of her being, endures an excruciating encounter with Willem Dafoe’s unforgettably creepy Bobby Peru, and takes part in fiery altercations with her mother, played by Ladd with such awe-inspiring conviction that it snagged her an Oscar nod.
Rambling Rose (1991)
Both Dern and Ladd were deservedly nominated by the Academy when they quickly re-teamed in Martha Coolidge’s sublime, startlingly sensual period drama. Dern’s rambling titular heroine has a hunger for sex exceeding that of Lula’s, while verging into nymphomania. Daddy (Robert Duvall) invites Rose to become his family’s housemaid in order to prevent the sweet-hearted gal from selling her body on street corners. Yet Rose’s erotic appetite proves difficult to suppress, and there’s an especially galvanizing moment when she receives pleasure at the hands of Duvall’s precocious son, Buddy (Lukas Haas).
Citizen Ruth (1996)
This equal opportunity satire centering on the abortion debate remains the most daring work to date from filmmaker Alexander Payne. When glue-huffing, chronically troubled Ruth Stoops (Dern) finds herself pregnant, she becomes the subject of a media frenzy, as pro-lifers and pro-choice activists alike attempt to mold her into an icon for their respective agendas. Skewering both sides with darkly comic relish, the script co-authored by Payne and Jim Taylor cheerfully courts controversy without trivializing the issues it promises to explore. Dern is the elastic beanpole in an epic tug of war, and her bewilderment provides many of the film’s biggest laughs.
Ellen: “The Puppy Episode” (1997)
Ellen DeGeneres probably realized that once she came out of the closet on her acclaimed sitcom, her chances of achieving standard Hollywood stardom would be next to nil. Thankfully, Dern doesn’t give a hoot about ratings (see below), and likely didn’t bat an eyelash when signing on to play the pivotal role of Susan on the two-part “Puppy Episode.” She’s the only person Ellen desires to speak with in a crowded airport, but when the star’s big confession (“I’m gay!”) is picked up by a well-placed microphone, her words turn countless heads while bringing down the house.
Inland Empire (2006)
The Independent Spirit Awards don’t have any right to declare that they, in fact, champion independent spirit. If they did, they would’ve given a great deal more accolades to David Lynch’s uncompromising magnum opus, which he marketed by dragging a cow and a billboard through LA (how’s that for indie spirit?). Dern is flat-out astonishing as an actress whose identity blends with that of her character. Dreams merge imperceptibly with reality, but Dern remains our emotional anchor throughout. And in the words of Lynch, “If you intend to understand my pictures, you must follow the emotions. If you follow the buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.”
No matter how many outrageous faces Dern displayed in “Inland Empire,” none were quite as freakish as the heavily made-up mask she sported as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in Jay Roach’s disarmingly entertaining HBO drama. Like Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin in Roach’s “Game Change,” Dern’s Harris is an opportunist who seizes her moment of stardom with the utmost self-confidence (too bad they’re both lacking in the smarts department). Dern is clearly having tremendous fun in the role, and her delight is utterly infectious. In a way, Harris’ self-delusion may have served as an fitting precursor to the next character Dern would bring to HBO…
Meet Amy Jellicoe. No seriously, please meet her. You’ll be so glad you did. She’s not only the juiciest role of Dern’s career, but also one of the most fascinating lead female characters in television history. After enduring a spectacular meltdown at work, Amy achieves what she believes to be “enlightenment” on a retreat, and becomes determined to bring her friends and family to a higher state of spiritual awareness. Of course, Amy is a complete mess, but she makes you want to root for her anyway, particularly when she sets her sights on taking down capitalistic corruption. Her partner-in-crime is a meek colleague, Tyler, wonderfully played by Mike White, who co-created the show with Dern. With its ratings at a distressing low, it’s possible that HBO may not renew the show for a third season, despite its enormous critical acclaim. Here’s hoping more audiences will tune in for this deliriously unpredictable, brilliantly acted, profoundly timely series. It’s every bit as vital and adventurous as its leading lady.
Watch the second season of “Enlightened” on Sunday at 9:30ET/8:30 CT.