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Bruce Dern Tells Hollywood Tales on the 'Nebraska' Promo Trail

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood November 4, 2013 at 2:37PM

With the release of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” imminent, along with what will undoubtedly be a full-frontal campaign to get Bruce Dern an Oscar nomination, Dern has been trudging – more gracefully than his character, Woody Grant, perhaps – down Memory Lane. The result has been gold for connoisseurs of film lore. Like his recollection that “The Wild Angels” – the original outlaw biker movie and ancestor of “Easy Rider” -- was created by the student body of the University of Corman.
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Bruce Dern and Sheila Johnson at the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival
Bruce Dern and Sheila Johnson at the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival

With the release of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” imminent, along with what will undoubtedly be a full-frontal campaign to get Bruce Dern an Oscar nomination, Dern has been trudging – more gracefully than his character, Woody Grant, perhaps – down Memory Lane. The result has been gold for connoisseurs of film lore. Like his recollection that “The Wild Angels” – the original outlaw biker movie and ancestor of “Easy Rider” -- was created by the student body of the University of Corman.

“We didn’t realize then what it meant, but we were there,” Dern said, referring, of course, to the school of director/producer Roger Coman. “On the set of “Wild Angels’ we had Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and Henry Jaglom. As crew.”

One of the things about “Nebraska” that’s obviously tickled Dern, the totemic figure among indie character actors, is working with a studio, in this case Paramount -- the same studio for which, in 1977, he made “Black Sunday,” playing a deranged Vietnam vet who plans to bomb the Super Bowl from the Goodyear blimp.

Back in the mid-‘70s, “Paramount and Universal had a terrible fight over remaking ‘King Kong,’” Dern recalled. “And Paramount won and got the rights to make it” referring to the unlamented version with Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, and directed by John Guillermin (“The Towering Inferno,” “The Blue Max”).

“So around the time ‘Black Sunday’ came out, Universal had a movie called ‘The 2-Minute Warning’ about a sniper, John Cassavetes, in a football stadium. It came out about two months before we did. And just to get back at Paramount, Universal put a little blimp in their big ads everywhere. There was no blimp in the movie at all. It was just a big F-You to Paramount because they got beat out. Paramount was just better at what they did.”

“Studio rivalries were always good for the business,” Dern said, philosophically, “but that was the only time I was involved in one.” 

This article is related to: Bruce Dern, Nebraska, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Awards Season Roundup


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.