Laura Dern Honored at the Museum of Modern Art Film Gala

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Naomi Watts, honoree Laura Dern and Gwendoline Christie

Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, Gwendoline Christie and more spoke about their work with Dern at the 11th annual event, presented by Chanel.

The Museum of Modern Art honored Laura Dern at its 11th annual film gala, presented by Chanel on Tuesday night in New York City. Dern’s friends and collaborators came out to celebrate her work and career.

Dern stars in Marriage Story and Little Women this fall, and she has gone from playing businesswoman Renata Klein in Big Little Lies to playing Marmee in Little Women, but she says her motto is to work with great directors to find the great roles.

“It’s a very simple recipe: Follow the filmmaker. I have done that because my parents suggested it,” Dern told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve been lucky when I’ve been privileged enough to have choices as an actor and gotten to work with extraordinary auteurs who’ve guided me along the way and given me such incredibly diverse and equally complicated characters.”

Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, Gwendoline Christie, Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach and more spoke about the pleasure of working with her, while Kristen Stewart, David Lynch and Nicole Kidman sent in video tributes. After the evening of heartfelt tributes, guests gathered for a dinner, and Maggie Rogers performed alongside Jon Batiste.

“There is no one I know who navigates the extremes of a work day and the extremes of this business with such grace, ease, thoughtfulness and intelligence, compassion, and conviction than Laura Dern,” said Driver, who co-stars with Dern in Marriage Story and said she “feels as familiar as family. Which I think should come as no surprise, because you can learn a lot about her from her work without her having to say anything. It’s an illusion in most cases, but as far as Laura’s concerned, she is what you assume and hope she’ll be.”

Payne is the only filmmaker Dern has worked with who has also directed her parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. Payne directed Dern and her mother in Citizen Ruth in 1996, and they had been looking for another collaboration ever since.

“There is no one like Laura Dern, and I don’t mean no actors or actresses like her, I mean no other human,” Payne said. “But as an actress, has she ever given a bad performance? Is there nothing she cannot play? She plays such a wide variety of parts and all with equal conviction and equal believability and equal surprise. As a director I can say there’s no better filmmaking partner.”

Baumbach, who directed her in Marriage Story, spoke about her ability to inhabit a character and use all the tools at her disposal in her performance. He recalled that she asked for a jacket to wear in the courtroom scene and then said more in the taking off and folding of the jacket than in any of the lines on the page.

“Laura doesn’t so much act a part as invade and conquer it. It’s physical, it’s visceral. It’s emotional. It’s brilliant,” Baumbach said. "Laura finds opportunity for character and storytelling in not only the script but in the wardrobe, the props, the set, the costumes, the weather.”

Watts spoke about the importance of her friendship with Dern, and she told The Hollywood Reporter before the event that they love doing “David Lynch impressions,” as both have worked with the director. The two met on the film We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and Watts said she was nervous to meet Dern initially because she admired her work so much.

“I was blown away by meeting her and seeing what a wonderful woman she was as well. Because you’re always nervous; what is this person going to be like?” she told THR. “It’s such a shame if I love their work and don’t love them as a person. Instantly I felt like she was a friend for life.”

Christie had a similar experience meeting Dern on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “I was hugely overwhelmed about meeting her, and she is even more compassionate and brilliant, and she truly zings and shines in life,” she said.

When Dern took the stage, she spoke about growing up on film sets (her parents used a drawer as her crib on set) and also credited MoMA as an artistic home, a place where she comes between films to explore characters. She also spoke about the importance of a needed “sea change” in film and TV, which is offering a diversity of roles and perspectives. She mentioned that she’d been asked if the women in power she’s played this year have any similarities,

“We haven’t seen them in movies before because there weren’t women in positions of power to tell stories about. I’m grateful the opportunities are shifting, because it is a paradigm shift,” Dern said. “Because museums are demanding diversity and representations, because advertisers are longing for it, because film, live-streaming and cable are telling stories that are complicated and deep and with parity and absolutely diverse narratives. And because of commerce, because audiences have said we want to see ourselves and we require you give it to us. And that’s why there’s a sea change, and I say we ride it all the way.”