In the opening scene of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Bruce Dern shuffles along on the shoulder of a major thoroughfare, his gray puff of hair looking like a storm cloud of confusion hanging over his head. A cop notices his slow trudge to somewhere unspecified, and attempts to assist. “Where you coming from?” he asks. Dern stops for a second, then gestures behind him as if to say, “You know. Back there.”
Dern plays Woody Grant, a man who looks at life literally, and thus answers the question literally. But consider this scene out of context, on a meta level, as an establishing shot for where Bruce Dern is in his career right now. Where’s he coming from? You know, back there, where he’s spent five decades working as a respected Hollywood actor with a dramatically long list of supporting credits.
It’s still early in the awards-season marathon, but at this stage—given Dern’s Cannes Film Festival win earlier this year for Best Actor, the current Gold Derby standings, and the critical response thus far to his Nebraska performance—it seems fair to assume Dern will be a Best Actor Academy Award contender this year. If so, he’ll assume a familiar role in the Oscar race: that of the Deserving Veteran, the prominent actor who’s reached the late portion of a career peppered with consistently well-regarded work, but still doesn’t have a statuette to show for it.
Nearly every year, the awards season gives us at least one DV, an actor who’s crossed the threshold of mid-life, and after giving many worthwhile performances that either escaped widespread attention or earned nominations but not wins, delivers one noteworthy enough to land in the Oscar race again. This year—again, at least at this stage—there are three people primed to be cast in this role.
There’s Dern, who at age 77, has one Academy Award nomination on his résumé (for Coming Home) and no wins. And there’s All Is Lost star and potential Best Actor nominee Robert Redford, who is also 77 and has been rewarded by his peers for directing, but never for his considerable talents as a movie star—though that could fall under the umbrella of his 2002 Lifetime Achievement Oscar. It might be argued that Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club performance qualifies, too. But McConaughey seems like someone who’s finally, consistently demonstrating what an interesting actor he is, as opposed to someone who was overlooked during his years of EdTVs and Two For The Moneys. Also, at 44, he still feels too young to be deemed a veteran for purposes of this discussion.
On the Best Actress and Supporting Actress side, there’s only one real potential candidate this year who meets the Deserving Veteran requirements. That would be Margo Martindale, who plays Meryl Streep’s firebrand of a sister in August: Osage County, and has played solid supporting roles in films for more than two decades without ever attracting Oscar’s attention. (Those who remember seeing her make an emotional acceptance speech are probably recalling her 2011 Emmy win for her role on FX’s Justified.) As for potential Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb, who plays Dern’s wife in Nebraska, she hasn’t had enough prominent film roles to suggest she’s been “robbed” of an Oscar in the past. (But please don’t tell her Nebraska character that I said that, because that woman will give me an earful.)
The prevailing wisdom of awards-season prognostication is that DVs who make it into the nominee field have an edge, because the Academy will want to honor the breadth of their entire career, or compensate for Oscars denied them in the past. This idea has been branded on our brains via memories of watching the Academy Awards when Deserving Veterans finally triumphed after years of being also- or never-rans. In 1982, for example, Maureen Stapleton and John Gielgud finally joined the Oscar winners’ circle along with Henry Fonda, who was rewarded for his stoically committed performance in On Golden Pond, but also a lifetime of portraying noble American everymen.
We also remember Paul Newman finally winning in 1986, for The Color Of Money, after six previous losses; Jessica Tandy receiving her first Oscar at age 80 for Driving Miss Daisy; Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups in 1991 after City Slickers resulted in his first Oscar; Al Pacino finally holding a gold statuette for hoo-ahing his way through Scent Of A Woman; and, more recently, Helen Mirren triumphing for The Queen, and Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart. All these wins help establish the impression that actors who have achieved a certain seniority and been passed over by the Academy automatically have a leg up on the competition.
But a quick scan of the winners and losers in all the lead and supporting categories over the past 20 years proves that isn’t the case. Usually, when Deserving Veterans have been nominated during the past two decades, they’ve gone home from the Governor’s Ball empty-handed. For every happy Helen Mirren story, there’s an Albert Finney (nominated five times with no win), a Lauren Bacall (one nomination, plus an honorary award in 2009), a Gloria Stuart (one nomination), a Hal Holbrook (one nomination), or a Nick Nolte (three nominations)—all fine actors, and all of them just happy to be nominated on one or more occasions.
In 2012, Christopher Plummer finally won his first Academy Award, as Supporting Actor, adding another tally mark to the Elders Always Win column. But on the same night Plummer was celebrating his victory for Beginners, two other worthy vets—Nolte and Max Von Sydow—were ending the night with no trophies to call their own. And let’s not even discuss Peter O’Toole, the king of the DVs, with eight acting nominations and not a single win, an Academy Award record he’d surely prefer not to hold.
In the weird, borderline-arbitrary world of movie awards, often the truly “deserving” don’t get what they deserve. The three aforementioned DVs poised to join this club come Oscar nomination day—Martindale, Redford, and Dern—will likely face tough competition in their categories, particularly from a pair of formidable performances in the same film: 12 Years A Slave. Lupita Nyong’o is practically a lock in the Supporting Actress race, which will make a win tough for Martindale if she’s nominated, while Chiwetel Ejiofor’s layered, heartbreaking portrayal of Solomon Northup could prove to be a lead-actor hurdle too high for even the seasoned Dern or Redford to clear.
That calculus, like so much Oscar chatter, is largely based on speculation. What we know for sure now is that the history of deserving veteran Oscar nominees is so rich and deep that there’s a past parallel for each of this year’s DV trio. The actors who’ve followed the same paths may not tell us where Martindale, Redford and Dern will wind up within the context of this year’s race, but it’s still interesting to note the similarities.
For Margo Martindale, perhaps the closest corollary is Melissa Leo, who won her Supporting Actress prize for The Fighter in 2011. Though Leo is nine years younger than Martindale, both women come across as hard-working dues-payers. Both have played bit parts in big movies. Both have logged plenty of hours in television, making the requisite stops on shows like Law & Order and Homicide: Life On The Street, the David Simon series on which Leo was a regular. Lately, thanks to Justified and The Americans, TV has given Martindale the room to do some of the best work of her career. In any medium, these two women have consistently demonstrated a skill for playing characters with steel in their bones. Does that mean Martindale will follow in Leo’s footsteps to the Oscar podium? Not with Nyong’o, Squibb, and others potentially standing in her way. Still, it’s inspiring that both women kept their heads down, did their work, and were eventually included in awards-season conversations after passing middle age—allegedly the kiss of death for actresses.
Robert Redford has always looked golden and inspiring onscreen, whether leaping off cliffs with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or knocking out the lights with a home-run hit in The Natural. And yet he’s only been nominated for an acting Oscar on one occasion: in 1974, for The Sting. He’s fared better with his filmmaking, earning two nods for best director, including one win, for 1980’s Ordinary People. He shares that imbalance with another significant Hollywood figure: Clint Eastwood, though Eastwood has earned more overall nominations. (Two for acting and four for directing, with a pair of directing wins.) But like Redford, after decades of building a reputation as a celluloid object of awe, Eastwood has never been recognized for the part of his career that eventually led him behind the camera.
Meanwhile, Dern has quietly spent decades doing the commendable work of a character actor without seeming to need the fêtes and five-star reviews brought on by a role in an Oscar-nominated film. Still, during interviews and appearances in the run-up to Nebraska’s release, Dern has spoken in often-emotional terms about finally getting the chance at a lead film role.
“I’ve had at-bats before,” he said during a post-screening Q&A at last month’s Middleburg Film Festival, a modestly curated weekend of cinema hosted in a small Northern Virginia horse-and-hunting town. “But never at the bottom of the ninth with two outs.”
Dern’s journey—both onscreen in Nebraska, and offscreen—has a touch of synchronicity with the road traveled by another Deserving Veteran: Richard Farnsworth. Like Dern, Farnsworth made a career out of character work, as an actor who was rarely first on the call sheet. Like Dern, he was nominated for his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1979, for a film co-starring Jane Fonda. (For Farnsworth, the movie was Comes A Horseman; for Dern, it was Coming Home. They both lost to Christopher Walken, who was nominated for The Deer Hunter.)
Like Dern, some years later, Farnsworth starred in a film about a man intent upon taking a road trip that his relatives and friends find absurd, but that lets him reconnect with his roots. That film was 1999’s The Straight Story, and it earned Farnsworth his second Oscar nomination and some buzz that he just might win because: a) His performance was wonderfully subtle and delivered while he was suffering from acute pain caused by cancer, and b) he was the oldest Best Actor nominee, and there was a strong sense that this might be the last time the Academy could recognize his work. (And it was; he died later that year.) He ultimately lost to American Beauty’s Kevin Spacey. But he retained a modesty throughout the process that made it clear he didn’t necessarily covet some fancy trophy.
“My agent called and said there’s an outfit that wants to make me a tux,” Farnsworth said in a 2000 pre-Oscar ceremony interview with the Associated Press. “They make them for the honorees. I said, ‘Aw, heck, mine will do.’”
Farnsworth came to acting much later in life than Dern; the former didn’t really get started until he was in his 40s, while Dern began to jump into TV and film roles in his early 20s. And in terms of tone and storytelling, Nebraska diverges from The Straight Story in some significant ways. Still, the places where these two careers overlap are a reminder that what happened to them and other DVs is no anomaly. It’s still possible for actors to do their best, most memorable work at an age when the average American is settling into retirement. It’s even possible to bask in the glow of long overdue praise and recognition while still maintaining a sense of humility.
After that Middleburg Film Festival screening, I asked Dern what he thinks about the Oscar buzz swirling around him. “I didn’t come to Hollywood about awards,” he said. “I came to Hollywood to make better movies, to try and put troubled folks, non-troubled folks, wonderful folks, weird folks, on the screen, and be in that process. If I have a goal, I just hope that in a movie, we reach the hearts of an audience. That’s really what I’m about.” Maybe that’s why so many root, year after year, for the Deserving Veterans who become part of the awards-season spectacle: They’ve amassed enough experience to appreciate the honor, but also to know that no matter what, the work itself is the real reward.