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Bruce Dern had established himself as the movies' premier heavy, playing sociopaths, psychotics and just plain criminals by the time he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Coming Home (1978). Some perceptive critics had noted that Dern was a finer actor than his roles generally allowed one to believe, repelled as one was by the neurotic persona that Dern was able to project and that casting directors capitalized on.
Jack Nicholson, a close friend, claimed that Dern was the best of the new breed of actors who had been born just before World War II and were coming into their own in the 1970s. Unlike his screen image, Dern had come from a patrician background: his grandfather had been governor of Utah and a secretary of war under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When allowed to step out of his on-screen persona to assay the millionaire Tom Buchanan in the 1974 remake of The Great Gatsby (1974), he acquitted himself quite well.
Some critics said that "Gatsby" would have been better if Dern rather than Robert Redford had played the title role. Others pointed to his fine work as Nicholson's brother in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) to establish a case that he was an underappreciated and underutilized talent. By the time Dern appeared as the cuckolded Marine in "Coming Home," a consensus had emerged that Dern was a fine actor. He won an Oscar nod for the role, then fell victim to the infamous "Oscar curse" that has claimed other winners, most famously in the case of 1969 Best Supporting Actor winner Gig Young, Dern's co-star in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).
Dern, like Young before him, was determined to break out of supporting roles. Like Young, who had been cast repeatedly as a light comedian in his career, Dern had also become typecast, but as a psycho, surpassing even Anthony Perkins in those types of roles. Dern was determined to break out of the ghetto he had found himself in before "Coming Home." He failed, and his career suffered.
Up through his Oscar nomination, Dern had starred in 26 films in 11 years since graduating to steady employment in A-pictures with Waterhole #3 (1967). After the 1979 Oscar nod, he would appear in only a dozen feature films in the next 11 years, not counting TV movies. None of them brought him stardom or much acclaim, and his attempt at becoming a lead man, Middle Age Crazy (1980), flopped badly (he did received a nomination for Best Performance by a Foreign Actor at the 1981 Genie Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, for his work in that picture). It was back to psychos, this time as a lead, in Tattoo (1981). The movie proved to be another flop, and his reputation was further damaged when he bragged that he had actually performed on-screen sexual intercourse with co-star Maud Adams, a boast that Adams heatedly denied. Dern's star was seriously dimmed.
Although he landed a coveted role in the film adaptation of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season (1982), the film was a disappointment with critics and at the box office. He turned in a fine performance three years later in the TV movie Toughlove (1985) (TV), but overall, his career was floundering.
Another psycho role, that of Uncle Bud in After Dark, My Sweet (1990), started buzz about another possible Best Supporting Oscar nod for him, but the film proved a box-office bust and the nomination never materialized. A predicted career renaissance for Dern faded, just as the careers of his ex-wife, Diane Ladd, and their daughter, Laura Dern, kicked into high gear.
Since the 1990 high point of the second wave of his career, Dern has stayed steadily employed, but has never again generated much critical acclaim, nor made any inroads towards reclaiming his crown as the cinema's premier sociopath. A fine actor, who will be remembered most vividly for such psycho/killer roles such as the rustler leader who gunned down John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972), Dern's career serves as a cautionary tale for those actors who try to escape the ghetto of typecasting. While nothing restricts an actor's artistic development as much as typecasting, unless like a Duke Wayne they can turn that type into superstardom, trying to break out of the type can prove to be career suicide.