Laura Dern's Literary Sensibility
Article taken from The New Yorker
At the Strand Bookstore, Laura Dern bent to caress a stack of copies of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Her davening torso and probing hands made her resemble a praying mantis. “This was the book, when I was fourteen, that made me love books,” she said. “Before that, I mostly read scripts.” The actress, the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, appeared in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” at the age of seven, rode her bike to acting classes at nine, and, at fifteen, sued her parents for emancipation so that she could continue acting. Her best teacher, she said, was the director David Lynch: “Without him, I would not have made the acting choices I’ve made, because he required me to play the girl next door” (in “Blue Velvet”), “to be completely untamed” (in “Wild at Heart”), “and to have no narrative at all” (in “Inland Empire”).
In her bracing new film, “Certain Women,” written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, Dern, now forty-nine, stars with Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone as women living in and around Livingston, Montana. “They’re all fighting how the boys have arranged the system, and are ill-fitting in their lives,” Dern explained. Her character, Laura Wells, is a mopey lawyer whose client, a carpenter, won’t accept that his workplace-accident lawsuit is hopeless until he hears it from a man. After the carpenter takes a hostage, the cops ask Wells to put on a bulletproof vest and go in. Her face, as she grasps that her life has somehow been leading to this, is a study in misgiving.
Dern canted herself over the counter and waited to catch the attention of a bearded clerk. She inquired about “You Will Not Have My Hate,” a memoir by Antoine Leiris, whose wife was killed in the Paris attacks last fall. “Not in stock,” he said. She apologetically withdrew.
Although she exudes a warm candor, Dern said that it isn’t hard for her to tap into her characters’ sense of buried grievance. In “Certain Women,” she said, “I could relate to Laura’s longing to find a place where she doesn’t need to fight, a place where she can say, ‘This is my world, I own it!’ Which is my daughter’s approach, whereas feminists of my generation still have the ‘I’m sorry! Is it O.K.?’ approach.” She laughed. “I even apologize about making requests in restaurants, where I’m paying for the food.”
She went on, “When I talk to—I don’t want to say younger journalists, but, basically, younger journalists—they’re excited by this film, by seeing women get to tell their stories. That’s because they grew up in the nineties. But in the seventies, when I was growing up, we had ‘3 Women’ and ‘An Unmarried Woman’ and ‘Klute.’ ” Her fingers divvied up the generations. At her son’s elementary school, she was known as “the mom who talks with her hands.”
In the rare-book room, Dern picked up a first edition of Tennessee Williams’s “Camino Real.” “He was my mom’s second cousin,” she said. “She did his play ‘Orpheus Descending’ in New York, and the actor opposite her got strep throat or something, and she had to go on with his understudy. And that understudy was Bruce Dern.” She smiled down at the book, then noted that her parents divorced when she was two. Dern and the father of her children, the musician Ben Harper, are also divorced.
She roamed around, stroking books by Arthur Rackham and Judy Blume. She opened Langston Hughes’s “Black Misery,” vignettes about growing up black in a white world. “Oh, my God!” she said, turning the pages. Stricken, she read, “Misery is when you go / To the Department Store / Before Christmas and find out / That Santa is a white man.” She almost ran to the register with the book.
On her way out, Dern trailed her fingers over a Gabriel García Márquez novel and said, “Now I just want to read everything he ever wrote. But, as a child, instead of trusting Márquez and his flights of fancy I trusted movie directors, who told me that things would not be all that magical. I watched ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by myself at thirteen, I saw ‘Raging Bull’ fourteen times, and ‘The Omen’ and ‘The Exorcist’ messed me up.” Her hands framed a huge screen. “It started with Walt Disney, actually, with ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Bambi’—somebody’s going to die, innocence will be taken, and you will be left alone.”