Laura Dern (10 February 1967 -)
Laura Dern’s career has had its ups and downs, like many others, but she’s always maintained a positive approach that has paid off handsomely over the years. Perhaps being the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd meant being an actress was always in her genes, but she’s forged her own path and played significant roles in a number of movies, from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), to her Oscar-nominated role in Rambling Rose (1991), and perhaps most famously as archaeologist Dr Ellie Sattler in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1994), a role she reprised in Jurassic Park III (2001). She’s an actress who has forged a career by making some very interesting choices, and in doing so, has made a variety of movies in a variety of genres and never been pigeon-holed as a result. Her lithe, slightly elongated frame and tousled blonde hair are her physical trademark, but she can be tough as nails when required, and has the kind of intuitive acting style that brings an uncomplicated honesty to the parts she’s played over the years. Here are five movies she’s appeared in that have benefitted greatly from her performances, and which are well worth tracking down if you haven’t seen them already.
October Sky (1999) – Character: Miss Riley
Dern takes a supporting role as a science teacher who helps inspire some of her pupils as they begin to express their interest in rocket engineering. The movie is based on the true story of Homer Hickam (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), and its depiction of the small town Fifties milieu Hickam grew up in is expertly recreated, allowing Dern and her co-stars to channel some very effective nostalgia in the process. Her character is the kind of teacher we all wish we had in school, but rather than make her a complete paragon, Dern takes a pleasant natured figurehead and makes her more fully rounded than the role needs her to be.
A Perfect World (1993) – Character: Sally Gerber
A tense thriller directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by John Lee Hancock, this sees Dern as a criminologist who locks horns with Eastwood’s Texas Ranger in the hunt for two escaped convicts (played by Kevin Costner and Keith Szarabajka) who have taken an eight-year-old boy hostage. Dern gives an impassioned performance as she fights Eastwood’s intransigence and hostility towards “new-fangled” ideas of man’s innate humanity. And as the only female of note in the movie she more than holds her own in such testosterone-fuelled company, and offers a welcome change of perspective whenever she’s on screen.
Daddy and Them (2001) – Character: Ruby Montgomery
In this black comedy – written and directed by her co-star Billy Bob Thornton – Dern plays one half of a couple who come to the aid of an uncle who’s accused of murder. Part road trip, part exploration of the jealousies and fears that can bind a couple just as easily as love and friendship, the movie gives Dern the chance to show off her comedic skills, and work with her mother as well. It’s a little rough around the edges, but has a charm all its own, and Dern and Thornton together make for a great couple who can’t help but be at odds with each other.
Focus (2001) – Character: Gertrude Hart
A complex, thought-provoking look at anti-Semitism, both perceived and actual, in Brooklyn during the last days of World War II, this sees Dern as a young woman turned down for a job by William H. Macy’s thoughtless racism. When the tables are turned and he finds himself equally prejudiced against, his relationship with Dern’s character gives him the opportunity to make amends for his previously callow thinking. Dern gives a sympathetic, assured performance as the harrassed young woman whose perceived Jewishness proves no justification for her own flawed prejudices.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004) – Character: Terry Linden
With the tagline, “Why do we want what we can’t have?”, this sees Dern as a frustrated, negligent housewife whose husband (played by Mark Ruffalo) has an affair, and which leads to her doing the same. The problem? Their extra-marital partners are their best friends, another unhappy couple. Dern is terrific, downplaying her natural vivacity in favour of a subdued, wayward approach that speaks of unspoken abuse somewhere in the character’s past. And she has a standout speech in which she describes the way in which her husband treats her like a dog, a moment of sincerity and emotional honesty that is delivered so perfectly Dern is simply mesmerising to watch.