THINGS I’VE SAID, BUT PROBABLY SHOULDN’T HAVE: AN UNREPENTENT MEMOIR,Bruce Dern, Christopher Fryer, Robert Crane, John Wiley & Sons, 2007, hardcover, 298pp,index, $24.95
Bruce Dern for many years played psycho killers and cowboys on TV and in movies, perhaps best recalled as the swine who shot and killed off John Wayne in The Cowboys. Wayne told Dern the audience would gasp when he got killed and they did because it was only halfway through the movie. Dern would also never live it down, Wayne predicted, and Dern confirms that is true, as well.
He’s been in loads of other television shows and movies, of course, not the least of which was as the terrorist preparing to blow up Super Bowl fans in Black Sunday, as the astronaut who seeks to save the last forests on a spacecraft in Silent Running, and there were roles in the award-winning Coming Home and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Here he passes along his experiences over the decades along with entertaining anecdotes of his friendship with Jack Nicholson, Alfred Hitchcock, Ann Margaret, and others, as well as other actors and directors he’s had relationships with, brief and not-so-brief, on various projects.
Dern came from a moneyed background, was a runner in high school and college and still runs today, but was practically disowned when he decided he wanted to be an actor. Soon he was making appearances in low budget movies and TV shows like Gunsmoke. Eventually, at his manager’s urging, he gave up television roles to build his value as a film actor.
He mentions something about the Goodyear blimp I never heard before that he learned making Black Sunday. The company grounds the blimps for a month every year for repairs. And that includes making repairs of rips and holes created by the morons who shoot at the blimp when it passes overhead, in an attempt to shoot the thing down. It doesn’t work that way, by the way.
On that same movie, Dern introduced John Frankenheimer to Alfred Hitchcock who told him he did the right thing in The Manchurian Candidate in keeping the light on in the small room in the rafters the sniper was perched in so Sinatra’s character could spot him from the floor, not because of Sinatra’s need, but for the audiences need to keep it’s attention riveted to the threat posed to the candidates on stage.
In a chapter on making the movie Tattoo, he dances around a bit about the notorious sex scene with co-star Maud Adams, even though in a discussion by a group of actors about sexiest scenes I once saw on television, he said that they actually had sex.
Dern is noted for playing out a scene beyond the script with an ad-lib comment or exchange. In James Michener’s TV miniseries, Space, Dern is mission control for the manned space program and ad-libbed a line after the actor portraying his son dismisses the space program as pointless. Dern calls his attention to the full moon abvove and says, ” Before you ever tell me that my life or what we’re doing here hasn’t been worthwhile, might I remind you that six guys have walked on that and come home to talk about it. So drop dead. ” Only he didn’t say “drop dead” exactly. Michener was on the set and loved it, saying that that was what he had been trying to say with his book, that nobody understood what was accomplished and Dern saved the day.
Dern’s story reads as very self-centered, but I’m not sure he’s pretending to be Shiva patting himself on the back with eight hands. It’s always “why did you pick me for this role?” or “I was good and they knew it” type of comments. Very self-congratulatory.
It could be brag. When he mentioned the sex in Tattoo in the television interview, it sounded like a brag to me. Especially since Dern, of all people, would know that depicting actual sex doesn’t make a scene inherently any sexier than any other. But, perhaps the key to the writing style might be his many years teaching through the Actors Studio. Here he’s not necessarily bragging, but is relating his story as honestly as he can, relating what he learned, while dispassionately assessing his own value and experience and what he can bring to a role.
It’s reminiscent of one of those spy novels written by moonlighting CIA spoks, all detail, no qualitative judgments, not even describing a beautiful woman as beautiful but instead listing details of her appearance as in a report.
Not that I’m saying that Dern’s story operates that way, but there’s a similar difference in style from the usual autobiography. One tipoff might be the number of brief but informative discourses on acting and filmmaking you don’t often find in a movie star autobiography.
Very interesting read about an actor I’ve enjoyed over the years.