How shooting John Wayne killed Bruce Dern’s career

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Maybe, just maybe, the curse is finally off Bruce Dern’s career — the curse that has plagued him for four decades as the guy who shot John Wayne.

The 77-year-old Bruce Dern, left — in a scene with Will Forte — has a Golden Globe nomination and the prospect of a future Oscar nomination for his role as Woody Grant in the movie Nebraska. His role in The Cowboys, as a bad guy who shoots John Wayne in the back, caused the public to turn on hm.
The 77-year-old Bruce Dern, left — in a scene with Will Forte — has a Golden Globe nomination and the prospect of a future Oscar nomination for his role as Woody Grant in the movie Nebraska. His role in The Cowboys, as a bad guy who shoots John Wayne in the back, caused the public to turn on hm.

After all, the laurels are mounting these days for the 77-year-old actor, thanks to his performance in Nebraska as a cantankerous dad who believes he has struck it big in the sweepstakes. A recent Golden Globe nomination shines bright as does the prospect of a future Oscar nomination.

But this is happening in the twilight of a troubled career that has seen Dern give other fine performances yet never receive his due. His friend and contemporary, Jack Nicholson, once called Dern the finest actor of their generation.

And as long ago as 1978, the Academy Awards bestowed a best supporting actor nomination on him for his work in Coming Home as Jane Fonda’s seriously troubled husband. Yet even that moment of achievement also reinforced the continuing perception of him as a Hollywood bad guy of a particularly creepy sort.

He knows that his career never recovered from The Cowboys, the 1972 western that saw him shoot John Wayne in the back. And lately Dern has spoken more openly about the day that scene was filmed — recalling that Wayne, hammered on Wild Turkey, sidled up to him, and said. “Oh, they’re gonna hate you for this.”

And the public did. Dern told me 10 years ago that he lost count of the number of times some guy would stop him on the street or in a restaurant or store, and say, “You killed my buddy!” He had a ready response: “No. Excuse me, he died of cancer. It was just a movie.” But that defence never really worked. And sometimes those encounters were downright scary — especially for an actor who had started receiving death threats just days after the release of The Cowboys.

Thanks to a technical glitch, my 2003 interview with the Dern never appeared. But I remember clearly the pain that crossed his face when I mentioned The Cowboys. I also remember his stoicism as he went on to discuss the career damage he had suffered as a result.

That day, Dern was supposed to be discussing his supporting role in Monster, the film that would win co-star Charlize Theron an Oscar. But it was The Cowboys that opened a floodgate of memory — back to a watershed year in which he made two career decisions, one good, one really bad.

There was his first real starring role as a galactic greenhouse keeper in the cult science fiction movie, Silent Running. Signing for that project was the good decision. But Silent Running proved incapable of advancing his career — not with The Cowboys overshadowing it that same year.

Dern wasn’t mincing words: Accepting the role of the slimy, slack-jawed Long Hair in The Cowboys was the worst career choice he ever made, because he ended up messing around with the John Wayne mythology and the Duke’s image of invincibility.

“When I first came to town, (Robert) Redford, (Warren) Beatty, George Hamilton, Clint (Eastwood) — they were the real leading men. As for Jack and I and Dustin (Hoffman) and (Robert) De Niro and everyone else — we were ‘characters’ who were also allowed to become movie stars because in the Seventies they still made movies about folks on the ‘outside.’ That’s where we lucked out.”

But there was a caveat to all this. “We would never be bigger than life. And I killed someone who was bigger than life.”

He began understanding the implications of what he had done when he attended an early preview with an audience and watched himself shoot the Duke dead.

“It was only 48 minutes into the movie. People gasped.” He had never encountered a visceral reaction like this from an audience before. And he felt no better when his character came to a gruesome end later in the movie and the audience went wild. Then came the media onslaught.

“Rex Reed did a profile in which he said I’d established myself as the sleaziest, most despicable villain in cinematic history. And I was.”

Dern should have started trying to reshape his image. It didn’t happen.

He failed to sense danger when he joined the cast of director Jack Clayton’s underrated film version of The Great Gatsby. Robert Redford played Gatsby and Mia Farrow Daisy. And Dern? He played Tom Buchanan — “the worst WASP prick in American literary history.”

He did show another side of himself in Smile — “a wonderful little beauty pageant movie” — and then screwed up again. “They talked me into stealing a Goodyear blimp in Black Sunday and trying to blow up the Superbowl.”

He tried without success to break free of an image of sleazy villainy.

“I tried,” Dern insisted in 2004. “Over the next 25 years I tried.”

But the image stuck. The IMDB website continues to describe him as “the movies’ premier heavy, playing sociopaths, psychotics and just plain criminals.” Critic David Thomson sees him as “a professional haunted by failures … a man whose own unease flowed into his querulous screen persona.”

In 1991, David Letterman asked Dern why he always played some of the most “heinous” people who had ever lived. The actor kept his dignity. “I can only tell you that I became an actor because I was interested in what made people do what they do,” he remembered telling Letterman. He was also interested in outsiders: “Whatever character I play lived just beyond where the buses run.”

And how did Letterman respond?

“He didn’t get it,” Dern said in 2004, “but the point was that the people I liked to portray lived just beyond where everyone else lived. They don’t hear the music that everyone else does, and that makes them interesting.”

An honourable answer from an intelligent and thoughtful actor. But he’s still the guy who shot John Wayne.

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