Column: Laura Dern has always been worthy of celebrating. Hollywood is just catching up
Laura Dern is everywhere these days, and that alone is proof that no matter what hill you occupy in the current culture wars, all is not lost. Emmys, Golden Globes, Oscars — for the last few years, virtually every project she touches turns to gold — “Twin Peaks,” “Big Little Lies” Seasons 1 and 2, “The Tale,” and this year, “Little Women” and “Marriage Story,” both of which are best picture nominees, with Dern nominated as supporting actress in “Marriage Story.”
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She was even part of Ellen DeGeneres’ receipt of the Carol Burnett Award at this year’s Golden Globes; Dern played the woman to whom DeGeneres’ character Ellen came out during the famous boundary-breaking “Puppy” episode. The decision to play an openly gay woman on broadcast television in 1997 damaged Dern’s career (though far less than it damaged Degeneres’). It wasn’t until 2008, with the HBO movie “Recount” and then, three years later, the HBO comedy “Enlightened,” that she came roaring back.
For reasons still baffling and regrettable, HBO killed “Enlightened” after its second season, but Dern got an Emmy nomination all the same and, more important, everyone suddenly remembered how good an actress the star of pre-“Ellen” films including “Rambling Rose,” “Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart” and “Smooth Talk” really was.
At this point, most everyone agrees that “Enlightened” was just a few years ahead of its time; had it premiered a few years later, when the notion of prestige television had become mainstream and female stars were less confined by sexist strictures of “likability,” the burning wire of Amy Jellicoe would have lasted at least another season.
But Dern has always been a performer ahead of her time, and 35 years after she decided to turn down a Brat Pack lead for a small role and a chance to work with Peter Bogdanovich in “Mask,” the industry is finally beginning to catch up.
Dern is a character actor who is also a star, a very rare breed. She is also a character actor who never appears to be playing a character, a breed rarer still. No matter how radical the part (“Enlightened’s” Amy, the napalm-equipped helicopter parent Renata in “Big Little Lies,” the take-no-prisoners divorce attorney in “Marriage Story”), Dern humanizes it. And no matter how human the part (the self-deluded documentarian in “The Tale,” Marmee in “Little Women,”), Dern radicalizes it.
A Netflix featurette on Laura Dern as a very good divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.”
It’s tough to think of another performer who fits so easily in, and is willing to do such a varied palette of projects. In 2017, she had roles in “Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” and “The Last Man on Earth” on Fox, Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix.
Following this year’s Oscar glory, she’ll next be seen in projects both tried and true and newly launched. She’ll reprise her 1993 role as Ellie Sattler in “Jurassic World 3” and she just signed on to a series on Quibi, the short-form streamer. In “Just One Drink,” she’ll play a bartender listening to varying customers over several episodes running 10 minutes or less.
She herself is a glorious reprimand to stereotype — blond, slim and beautiful, with an A-list Hollywood pedigree, she is famous for showing up, working hard, making herself heard and being kind.
The only time I met Laura Dern, she brought macarons. She was starring in “Enlightened” at the time and was part of an Envelope Emmy panel I was hosting. She showed up at The Times offices camera-ready and bearing a box of cookies for her fellow panelists. I have done a lot of panels in my time and no one has ever thought to bring cookies.
Her roles this year, as a tough-as-nails 21st century L.A. divorce attorney and a self-sacrificing 19th century wife, mother and early feminist, prove what many of us have known for years: Laura Dern can do anything.
And considering that even as a supporting player she manages to deliver the best lines in both movies — (“So it’s a deal when it’s something you want and a discussion when Nicole wants it?” in “Marriage Story”) and (“I am angry nearly every day of my life” in “Little Women”) it’s probably a very good idea to just let her.
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