Oscars: Why 'Nebraska's' Bruce Dern Should Go for Supporting Nom

Bruce Dern in Nebraska Close Up - H 2013
Paramount Pictures

Bruce Dern in Nebraska Close Up - H 2013

Earlier this week it was reported by several outlets that Paramount, which is distributing Alexander Payne's $13 million black-and-white indie Nebraska, has decided to push one of the film's stars, 77-year-old veteran character actor Bruce Dern, for an Oscar nomination for best actor rather than best supporting actor. THR has confirmed with Paramount that this is, in fact, the case: "He's the lead in the movie," a studio spokesperson told me, "and we are campaigning him in the lead actor category."

I have tremendous admiration for Dern, who has long been one of the most underappreciated talents out there, and great respect for the Paramount awards operation, which has been among the most consistently on-target over the last few years -- but I must nevertheless confess that I, like others who closely follow the awards race, think that this is a mistake.

Ever since I caught Nebraska at May's Cannes Film Festival -- where, it must be noted, Dern was awarded the festival's best actor prize -- I have maintained that the performance is and should be pushed as a supporting performance with the Academy. I still feel that way. Here's why.

As I see it, the film may open and close on images of Dern -- walking down a highway and driving a pickup truck, respectively -- but its lead is Will Forte, as a lost young man trying to be a good son to -- and come to terms with -- his elderly and declining father, who never seemed to care very much for him. I haven't clocked the exact screen time that the two have, but I am almost certain that Forte's outweighs Dern's. And I am certain that Forte has more dialogue than Dern, who hardly speaks throughout the entire film.

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I get why Dern and those close to him -- such as his daughter, the great actress Laura Dern, who I've heard hosted several dozen of his and her industry friends for a private screening and cocktail party in his honor on Tuesday, and who is reportedly playing a central role in plotting his awards strategy -- might prefer for him to be pushed for best actor rather than best supporting actor: the best actor category is generally regarded as the more prestigious of the two, and who wouldn't want that for him?

After all, this is a man who hasn't had many parts that were this substantial or central to a film since he was last Oscar-nominated 35 years ago, in the best supporting actor category, for Coming Home. (He lost to Christopher Walken for The Deer Hunter -- see here.) He has been very good in many significant films -- among them Marnie (1964), Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, Will Penny (1968), Hang 'Em High (1968), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), That Championship Season (1982) and Monster (2003) -- but usually as the third- or fourth- or fifth-billed actor, who rarely gets much public, critical or awards acknowledgment.


But what I fear Dern and his backers may not be considering is this: if he goes lead he'll have an outside chance of getting nominated, but if he goes supporting he has an exponentially better chance of getting nominated -- and he might even win.

The best actor race is always jam-packed with viable contenders, whereas the best supporting actor race is not. Consider how many actors with bigger names and/or higher batting-averages and/or cool narratives of their own Dern would be up against this year in the best actor category: Forest Whitaker (The Butler), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Robert Redford (All Is Lost), Matthew McConaughey (The Dallas Buyers Club), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Josh Brolin (Labor Day), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate), Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Twelve Years a Slave), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) -- and Paramount's own big-name contender Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Some of these actors' performances won't live up to expectations, but many will.

Moreover, best actor noms almost always go to vibrant and showy performances, not quiet and passive ones like Dern's in Nebraska -- and, fairly or not, those generally come from younger men. The average age of best actor winners is 44. The oldest man to ever win a best actor Oscar was 76-year-old Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond (1981), and only one man older than Dern has ever even been nominated: Richard Farnsworth for The Straight Story (1999), who was 79 when he gave the last quiet and passive perf to score a best actor nom -- 14 years ago.

The best supporting actor race, however, is almost always thinner, and therefore a nom in it is more attainable. This year, possibilities include Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Michael Fassbender (Twelve Years a Slave), Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and a few others, none of whom appear or are even rumored to be slam-dunks.

Moreover, the best supporting actor category is the one in which the Academy has always exhibited more sentiment about and appreciation for older actors. The average age of best supporting actor winners is 50. Meanwhile, the oldest man to ever win was 82-year-old Christopher Plummer (Beginners) -- and four other men also won when they were older than Dern will be on Oscar night: 80-year-old George Burns (The Sunshine Boys), 79-year-old Melvyn Douglas (Being There), and John Gielgud (Arthur) and Don Ameche (Cocoon), who were more days into their 77th year than Dern will be. Several other supporting noms have been afforded to people who were older than Dern will be, but who did not take home the prize: 82-year-olds Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild), Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Ralph Richardson (Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes), 80-year-old Plummer (The Last Station) and 78-year-olds Alan Arkin (Argo) and Paul Newman (Road to Perdition).

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Some of the aforementioned men gave less substantial or impressive performances than Dern does and would have had even a prayer in the best actor category, as Dern would. But I see Dern's case as not unlike theirs or a number of other older greats who also won during their third acts -- including 71-year-old John Houseman (The Paper Chase), 57-year-old Sean Connery (The Untouchables), 74-year-old Jack Palance (City Slickers), 66-year-old Martin Landau (Ed Wood), 70-year-old James Coburn (Affliction) and 72-year-old Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) -- in that they were strong perfs that led Academy members to say, "Let's seize the moment now and recognize a great career that we have never properly acknowledged before -- in the supporting category, which means we won't have to deprive a typical best actor performance in order to do so."

At the end of the day, I hope that Dern will buy in to my "tallest midget theory": 'bigger' performances (based on screen time) contending in the 'smaller' acting category (supporting) stand the best shot of getting nominated, and the 'biggest' that gets nominated will usually win. In other words, if you, like Dern, gave a performance that could be pushed for either lead or supporting with justification/without looking ridiculous -- as did Kate Winslet when she was pushed for supporting for The Reader, a positioning that the Academy rejected and corrected -- then you should probably swallow your pride aside and go supporting. Over the last 20 years, that worked quite nicely for:

  • Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)
  • William H. Macy in Fargo (1996)
  • Benicio Del Toro in Traffic (2000) WON
  • Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock (2000) WON
  • Ethan Hawke in Training Day (2001)
  • Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind (2001) WON
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago (2002) WON
  • Tim Robbins in Mystic River (2003) WON
  • Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (2004)
  • George Clooney in Syriana (2005) WON
  • Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
  • Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2005) WON
  • Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal (2006)
  • Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007) WON
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt (2008)
  • Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) WON
  • Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech (2010)
  • Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
  • Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)
  • Helen Hunt in The Sessions (2012)
  • Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained (2012) WON

Dern and his backers should know that there would be no shame or harm in changing course at this relatively early date. Indeed, last year it was announced in November that Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) -- who also won Cannes' best actor award -- would be pushed for the best actor Oscar, but by December he and The Weinstein Co. realized that that was a mountain too high to climb, so they reversed course, announced that they would again be pushing him for best supporting actor and he eventually won the Oscar.

As a fan of Dern, I sincerely hope that he and Paramount will, sooner rather than later, arrive at the same conclusion that Waltz and The Weinstein Co. did and decide to play the odds. Or else, instead of going to the Oscars as a nominee in the second-coolest male acting category, he might end up watching the show at home, which would be a damn shame.