Let us now praise two actors, one who stars in "Nebraska," one who didn't.
Now 77, Bruce Dern deserves every accolade and honor coming his way thanks to "Nebraska," director Alexander Payne's rueful comedy about a fogged-in career alcoholic, living in Montana, who embarks on a fool's quest to collect what he believes to be a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. The drive back to his home state of the title is taken with the old man's reluctant son, played by Will Forte.
Dern hasn't had a part this good in decades. He seizes the day mostly by not seizing a single moment of "Nebraska" overtly. Never known for his subtlety, Dern has played a lion's share of psychos and wackos and killers in his time. You wouldn't know it by watching his work here, at once wide-eyed and emotionally closed-off. As both the director and Dern have acknowledged in interviews, Payne encouraged Dern in a sternly minimalist direction. Less was more. And truer.
And now I'll admit an ungracious thought, which takes nothing away from Dern's success, but still. Watching "Nebraska" a second time, there were times when I couldn't get Gene Hackman out of my head.
Payne sought out various actors for meetings regarding the part of Woody. Among the rumored prospects: Robert Forster, so good in Payne's previous picture, "The Descendants"; Jack Nicholson, who starred in Payne's "About Schmidt"; and Robert Duvall. And others, including Hackman, who grew up watching his favorite actor, James Cagney, on screen at the Palace in his hometown of Danville, Ill..
"Gene Hackman, I definitely tried to meet," director Payne told the Huffington Post recently. "But he won't meet anyone right now. He's retired." Hackman hasn't been seen on screen since "Welcome to Mooseport" in 2004. He has, he says, called it a day.
One of the limitations of the "Nebraska" we have, the one starring Bruce Dern, concerns the Woody we see on screen versus the Woody we hear about — the mean drunk, hapless, resentment-filled – from other characters. Dern, by choice, suggests only fleetingly the man's deeply embedded resentments and flashes of temper. He's 51 percent stoic pussycat, 49 percent everything else. The admixture works. But think of what Hackman, had he been pulled out of retirement, might've done with some of the scenes in "Nebraska." A more authentic SOB, perhaps? A more unpredictable mixture of tones? Probably.
We're all casting directors in our minds.
In the alternate-universe version of "Nebraska," Hackman would've found the fitting bookend to one of his 1970s portraits, that of the drifter in director Jerry Schatzberg's road movie "Scarecrow," co-starring Al Pacino. Slight, even contrived, the film nonetheless is a showcase for its actors, and Hackman's remarkable in it, as he was in so much of that decade.
Re-seeing Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975), in which Hackman plays a private eye in a personal tailspin, I wrote that "no American actor energizes a character's limbo state more vividly." Hackman won his first Oscar for the rage-fueled Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971), his second for "Unforgiven" (1992). He didn't play too many stoics in his career, with the notable exception of "The Conversation" (1974), one of his triumphs. But he could make gray men, stuck in neutral, fascinating creatures.
I suppose I wish he'd done "Nebraska." Then again, Forster would've been terrific too. Dern made the most of his opportunity, which is all any actor can do, really. Truth in the service of story: The best of 'em make it look simple, and sadly beautiful.