An Ode to Laura Dern: A Career of Masterful Complexity

Laura Dern owned 2019, but her impressive career has been persisting for decades.

We can all agree that both Adam Driver and Florence Pugh have had a big year in 2019. From starring in critically acclaimed films, to being nominated for Oscars, Driver and Pugh have clearly had the time of their lives. But looking back at last year, it is Laura Dern who actually owns it. Not only did she star in five films and a TV show, but she became a serious award season contender, and the hottest sensation on Twitter after admitting that she saw Baby Yoda at a basketball game, while a TikTok video of her shoving her daughter surfaced on the internet.

Almost every month of 2019 was filled with new Laura Dern content. In February, she acted alongside Liam Neeson in Hans Petter Moland’s action-thriller Cold Pursuit. Then in April, she appeared in the biopic, J.T. LeRoy, with Kristen Stewart. A month later, she co-starred with Jack O’Connell in Trial by Fire, followed by her reprisal as Renata Klein in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Big Little Lies, from June to July. As if these weren’t enough, Dern closed last year with a bang by starring in two major releases back-to-back: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, with her performance in the former landing her plenty of awards. The entirety of her works from 2019 are a testament to how great and versatile Dern is as an actress.

Yes, Dern is best known as a performer who can inhabit a variety of complicated characters with distinct personalities, but versatility and range aren’t her only gifts. It is her ability to showcase her characters’ vulnerability, depth, insecurity, and pain, using only small gestures and subtle facial expressions that make her exceptional. Over the course of her decades-long career, this skill is part of the reason why even when she plays difficult, somewhat unpleasant, characters, she’s able to carry their complexity and make us understand them more deeply.

Now in her 50s and as compelling as ever, Dern, who knew she wanted to be an actor since age seven after Martin Scorsese told her mom, Diane Ladd, that she was going to be an actress (at the time, Dern was on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a film in which she became an extra), has mastered her skills even more perfectly.

Everyone from actors, to directors, and screenwriters, want to work with her. To celebrate her rising moment, and in honor of her 53rd birthday this month, I’ve compiled a list featuring her impressive body of work from the early days of her career, until now. Without further ado… here’s my ode to Laura Dern.

Mask (1985, Peter Bogdanovich)

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Universal Pictures

Though Dern’s first credited role happened five years before she appeared in this based-on-true-story movie, her role as Diana, a young blind girl who falls in love with Rocky, a boy who was born with a rare skull deformity known as craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, is her breakthrough performance. Dern, who at that time was a college student at the University of Southern California, makes an instant impression as she expresses her openness to Rocky. Offering warmth and maturity beyond her age, Dern not only radiates in every scene she’s in, but also embodies Diana’s humanity. She transforms her into a beacon of sympathy, reminding us that we need to see past people’s looks, and pay more attention to the beauty inside. But more than that, by subtly showing the disappointment that Diana is feeling after her parents reject Rocky, Dern is able to provide more insight into how the socially myopic world her character lives in has limited her to search for beauty in the outside world. In a film populated by astounding work from more seasoned actors, like Cher and Sam Elliott, Dern’s performance is far from flashy, but her natural tenderness shines bright among her co-stars.

Smooth Talk (1985, Joyce Chopra)

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Goldcrest Films

Smooth Talk is not an easy movie to watch. Partly a coming-of-age story, and partly an uncomfortable drama of sexual awakening, Joyce Chopra’s fictional feature debut depicts the story of an insecure teenage girl named Connie Wyatt, as she deals with the turbulence of emotions through her transition to adulthood. Dern earned her first-ever awards recognition, an Independent Spirit Award nomination, for her phenomenal performance. She displays both her character’s naivete and sexual frustration, while never jettisoning the parts that make her innocent. As the film unfolds into a more disturbing territory, Dern is able to carry a sense of discomfort and terror under her quasi-confidence, and a newly found liberation as an adult, in ways that are heartbreaking yet subtle. While the film’s exploration of teenage sexuality is thought-provoking, it is Dern’s performance, however, that makes the impact linger until the end credits roll.

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)

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De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

We all know that Dern has a long professional relationship with one of film Twitter’s favorite auteurs, David Lynch. The kick-start of this was Blue Velvet, an atmospheric suburban tale about a young girl, who after meeting a guy who just discovered a severed human ear near his house, gets tangled up in a vast criminal conspiracy. Dern plays Sandy Williams, a girl-next-door, in question, who functions as the symbol of goodness, in contrast to the dark world the film is set in. Capturing Sandy’s innocence, while steering back and forth between sweet and curious, Dern provides more depth to what could’ve been an uninteresting, archetypal character — showcasing her vulnerability as the beating heart of the movie. Dern delivers a monologue about her character’s dream, in which she sees robins descend from the sky to bring the blinding light of love. This could’ve been a ridiculous monologue if handled by a lesser actress, but Dern, with a touch of wonder in her eyes, is able to transform it into a very moving piece. None of Lynch’s characters are easy to pull off, yet here, in her first attempt, Dern perfectly conveys his vision with her versatility and radiating charisma.

Wild at Heart (1990, David Lynch)

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The Samuel Goldwyn Company

In her sophomore collaboration with Lynch, the Palme d’Or winning Wild at Heart, Dern unleashes new energy that we haven’t seen from her before. She unapologetically plays Lula, a rebellious teenage girl who runs away with her boyfriend, Sailor (Nicolas Cage). With aplomb and passion, she harnesses lustful, sensual confidence, while maintaining the natural warmth we’ve often seen in her previous roles. Though the film’s complicated plot and tonal change toward the end can come off as a bit harsh, Dern’s magnetic chemistry with Cage, as well as her ability to display the wounds Lula possesses as a result of her enduring trauma, is enough to give the film much more emotional resonance.

Rambling Rose (1991, Martha Coolidge)

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New Line Cinema

In Martha Coolidge’s Great Depression Era drama, Rambling Rose, Dern and her mother, Diane Ladd, made history as the first and only time a mother and daughter were nominated for Oscars in the same year. Though in the end, neither of them walked away with the trophy, Dern’s phenomenal performance as Rose, a sexually curious young woman optimistic in her efforts to dodge prostitution, earned her a respective place in the industry as one of the best young actors at the time. Dern sashays from one scene to another with confidence, compellingly showing cheerfulness while hinting at the sexual frustration that simmers underneath her character’s bubbly persona. Beyond that, Dern’s skill to give more insight into Rose’s desperate need for love, by using brilliant subtlety, is what eventually makes her performance all the more remarkable. This is the role that shows Dern’s evolution as an actress.

Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)

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Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s cultural touchstone, Jurassic Park, maybe best known for its grandiose set pieces and heart-thumping action. But at its deepest core, Jurassic Park is actually a character-driven movie that juxtaposes morality with science, and at the heart of it all is Laura Dern’s portrayal as the pragmatic paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. Her character could have easily been reduced to an archetype of a female scientist, often featured in these kinds of movies. However, Dern marvelously epitomizes her character’s warmth and intelligence while displaying heroism in ways that are grounded and empathetic: best showcased in her monologue about how the people they love might get hurt if the park continues to operate. It’s an iconic role, anchored by Dern’s performance — one that became a benchmark of blockbuster heroines, even up until today.

Citizen Ruth (1996, Alexander Payne)

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Miramax Films

A stimulating debate of pro-life versus pro-choice, Citizen Ruth sees Dern having the time of her life as the pregnant, glue-huffing, disgusting mess that is Ruth Stoops. Walking a delicate line between two serious topics in a notorious performance that flexes her comedic muscle, Dern goes fully insane and gets physical while retaining the sympathy she always delivers. Though Ruth remains unlikeable, manipulative, and offensive until the end of the movie, Dern is able to showcase vulnerability, caused by the inner conflict her character is grappling with, as she’s getting pushed and pulled from both warring sides of the abortion debate. In the end, the film does not take a stand on either side of the argument, but Dern’s hilarious performance speaks volumes about how ridiculous the debate is in the first place.

Ellen “The Puppy Episode” (1997, ABC)

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ABC

In 1997, Dern guest-starred in two episodes of Ellen, in which Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay. The episode quickly became one of the most talked-about sitcom episodes in TV history.  Dern plays Susan, an openly lesbian woman who motivates the titular character to come out of the closet and embrace her true identity. Even though her character only appears for a short time, Dern’s radiant presence manages to give a touch of warmth amid the shocking revelation of the episode, gracefully supporting Ellen’s character until the minute she reveals herself to the world. Susan may not have the same level of complexity as her previous characters, but it’s a brief appearance that cemented Dern in an important part of television history.

Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch)

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518 Media

Sixteen years after Wild at Heart, Dern re-teamed with Lynch in Inland Empire, a deranged look inside a nightmare that actors can put themselves into for a role. Most of us will remember Dern for an extreme close-up that captures the existential horror shown in her elastic face. But more than that, Dern’s impressive portrayal as Nikki Grace, an actress who gets a role in a movie, On High in Blue Tomorrows, after the lead actress is murdered, is the one that anchors the puzzle pieces of Lynch’s obscured vision. She manifests Nikki’s exhaustion, and the emotional burden she has to carry both at home and at work, with determination and emotional precision, lending poignancy to each layer of the mystery. It’s a challenging role, yet once again, Dern proves that anything is possible when she’s on-screen.

Recount (2008, Jay Roach)

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HBO

Dern’s next role is in Jay Roach’s Recount, an HBO TV movie chronicling the 2000 U.S. presidential election, and the case of Bush v. Gore. She gives a marvelous performance as Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State who gained national attention after becoming an integral part of the Florida election recount: an event that certified George W. Bush’s narrow victory over Al Gore. Though it’s basically a biographical role, never once does Dern’s performance come across as an impersonation. Dern is able to reach into Harris’ humanity and humor, while displaying her myopic worldview, as she deals with the ambiguity revolving around the laws of a recount, and the responsibility of making sure the outcome is for the good of the people.

Enlightened (2011-2013, HBO)

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HBO

Though all of her movie performances are equally remarkable, Dern’s best work to date is on a television show called Enlightened. Co-created by Mike White and Dern herself, Enlightened, one of the best TV shows ever made (which sadly got canceled after two seasons), tells the story of a self-destructive woman, Amy Jellicoe, as she tries to improve herself and deal with her inner demons while navigating a workplace that does not allow that to happen. Amy is not exactly an easy person to be around. She’s constantly annoying and hysterical, and her flawed idealism can easily get on your nerves. But at the same time, she’s also the perfect embodiment of a real person, with real feelings, who always tries to do good for herself and her surroundings. Dern, on top of her game, plays Amy perfectly, showcasing her emotional and psychological struggle to become the person that she always wanted, while never eschewing the volatility that makes her difficult. Watching Amy’s evolution through Dern’s tour-de-force performance is a wholesome experience, both spiritually enlightening and heartbreaking.

Big Little Lies (2017-2019, HBO)

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HBO

On the page, Dern’s character, Renata Klein, in Big Little Lies is, at best, farcical. She’s manic and unhinged, constantly fighting anyone who defies her, and bossing everyone around. Her over-the-top-ness quickly makes her the most meme-able TV character in the last decade. Whether she’s tragically screaming “Will somebody give a woman a moment?!” after kicking her husband out of her car, or humming to Diana Ross’ ‘It’s My House’, every moment that Renata is on-screen is always a moment to treasure. But just like how Dern is able to provide vulnerability underneath Amy Jellicoe’s instability, here she ferociously transforms Renata from a cartoonish character into a complicated woman trying to have control in a patriarchal world. Her performance is simply astounding. She gives Renata vulnerability by slipping into her humanity and insecurity, then uses it to make her more empathetic, despite how difficult she might get.

The Tale (2018, Jennifer Fox)

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HBO Films

The Tale would make a perfect double feature with Smooth Talk. Both explore the dire strain that sexual abuse can inflict on its victims. But where the latter depicts them by highlighting the confusing nature of youthful desire, the former (in which it is based on a true story of the director) zeroes in on the victim’s journey, as she reopens the trauma that’s been repressed deep inside of her. The result is a horrific autobiographical tale, but one that is important to tell. Dern does more than just impersonation, displaying pain using her conflicted facial expressions. As her character is confronted by the long denial she has been using to cover her trauma, Dern showcases courage and emotional catharsis in the film’s final moment without invalidating the pain itself.

Marriage Story (2019, Noah Baumbach)

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Netflix

For her sharp performance as a divorce attorney in Marriage Story, Dern scores her third Oscar nomination. I know, I know, compared to her other roles, Nora Fanshaw isn’t exactly a character that requires depth or any sort of complexity. But the reason why I’m including this is to show how even when the role Dern plays isn’t meaty, her presence can still make it thoughtful. And in this film, it’s best showcased from her delicious delivery of a monologue in which she skewers the double standard in parenting. Not only does Dern capture how ruthless a divorce attorney is, her ambitions, to win the court on behalf of Nicole, also encapsulate how in a world dominated by men, where women are being measured every day, she has to fight tooth and nail at every moment possible if she wants to smash that double standard.

Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig)

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Columbia Pictures

Marmee’s presence in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has always been an integral part of all of its adaptations. But where she’s mostly portrayed as someone who is gentle, loving, and basically the glue of the March family, in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, Marmee is depicted as a woman, who underneath her wisdom, is revolutionary and unafraid to address her simmering rage. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she declares to Jo, telling her that women also can, and need, to express their emotions, not suppress them — a declaration that is central to Jo being the person that she is by the end of the film. Dern executes this line with honesty and tenderness at the same time, unraveling parts of Marmee that we haven’t seen before. Though her appearance is brief, Dern makes sure that her limited screen time is always remarkable.

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