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Laura Dern - Biography

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Laura Dern

Personal details

Name: Laura Dern
Born: 10 February 1967 (Age: 48)
Where: Los Angeles, California, USA
Height: 5' 10"
Awards: Won 3 Golden Globes, nominated for 1 Oscar

All about this star


It's often sad to see the children of stars attempt to follow in their illustrious forebears footsteps. It's so very hard to reach those heights, so disheartening to watch them struggle in vain. Yet occasionally, with a combination of talent, luck, perseverance (and, often, good connections) the kids come through. Nicolas Cage, for one, has made grand additions to the Coppola family cannon. And another who's made it against the odds, AND forged a serious and generally respected artistic career, is Laura Dern.

Laura Dern was born on February 10th, 1967, in Los Angeles. Her parents were both renowned actors Father Bruce, the finest seether in cinema history, is remembered well for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Great Gatsby, and as the only villain to have killed John Wayne onscreen, while mother Diane Ladd appeared in such classics as Chinatown and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Through these two, Laura is linked to an impressive family tree, and some of cinema's most memorable moments.

Bruce Dern hailed from Chicago, his family being big wheels in New Deal politics. His father was a law partner of Adlai Stevenson, while his grandfather, George, was the Secretary Of War under Franklin Roosevelt. Ladd, who grew up in Mississippi, was a cousin of Tennessee Williams, she and Bruce coincidentally meeting while in an off-Broadway production of Williams' Orpheus Descending, in 1960. They fell in love and moved to California, but soon suffered tragedy when their first child drowned in a swimming-pool, aged 19 months. It was a blow from which their marriage never really recovered. But they gave it a go, and conceived a second child, Laura, while starring together in Roger Corman's The Wild Angels - tagline: "Their credo is Violence, their god is Hate, they call themselves The Wild Angels", who wouldn't want parents like THAT? When Laura was born, the couple were filming TV show Castle Keep, written by Robert Altman who recalls them bringing the baby on to the set, using one of the drawers from their motel room as a makeshift crib.

Sadly, Bruce and Diane split when Laura was 2. She stayed with her mother, having little contact with Bruce till she began calling him when she was 8 (they're now very close). The small family lived for a while in Santa Monica, then three years in New York, then moved back to the Valley, Diane in the meantime remarrying. To begin with, Laura found it alienating to have just one parent but, as time went on, she found that fewer and fewer of her schoolmates retained two. Another strange, and thoroughly disturbing moment came when she was watching TV at age 5. There's Bette Davis, standing at the top of a staircase, clutching a hat-box. The box opens and what should drop out and bump leadenly down the stairs but the head of Laura's father. Understandably, she freaked out, calming only when Ladd informed her that it was just a movie (Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte) and got Dern on the phone to prove it.

Laura certainly had early contact with the film industry. At 6, she appeared with Burt Reynolds as he busted a moonshine ring in White Lightning, then was Girl Eating Ice Cream Cone in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Ladd, unlike so many parents, put Laura's earnings into a bank account and never, ever touched them. Laura's first experiences of acting, and of watching her parents' passion, set her mind. By 9, she decided to follow them. They didn't like it, but eventually Ladd agreed on the grounds that a) Laura would do it on her own and b) she would study acting for at least two years. It was a deal so, before her tenth birthday, Laura enrolled at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute.

Acting was a blessing because Laura was not enjoying school-life. She attended a private Catholic school, then moved to a serious college-preparatory High School, but never really fitted in. For a start, her parents had always encouraged to think for herself and communicate those thoughts. They'd also, despite the Catholicism, grounded her in astrology, metaphysics and Eastern mysticism (they were, after all, prime movers in the Sixties thing). Laura, an only child, was used to hanging around with her mother's friends - her godmother was Shelley Winters - and conversed with them as friends and equals (she got a fine education in radicalism and feminism). On top of this, she was huge and gawky. She hit 5'9" before her teens, was painfully skinny with wide hips, AND had scoliosis, giving her terrible posture. She hated her looks, stood out like a sore thumb and consequently did not date till she was 16. In 5th Grade, she recalls weeping when the other kids taunted her because her name spelt backwards was Nerd. It took her a year to recognise the inaccuracy.

So, acting gave her hope. At 11, she auditioned for Foxes, directed by Adrian Lyne (later to make Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal). Ladd thought the rejection would curb Laura's crazy ambition but, having told Lyne she was 14, she got the part, joining Jodie Foster (who'd earlier also appeared in Alice') in a tale of teenage girls and their predictably raunchy problems in the San Fernando Valley. It was a start, but parts were hard to come by. Laura was too tall to play her own age, but labour-law requirements meant few casting directors would take her on to play 18-year-olds. Until 1983, her only stand-out part was alongside Ray Winstone, Diane Lane and various members of The Tubes and The Sex Pistols in rock spoof Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Again, mother Ladd had not been keen on Laura's involvement and Laura had precociously sued for emancipation to get her way.

Now came Teachers, and the first sign of a breakthrough. As a schoolkid made pregnant by bad-boy teacher Nick Nolte, she shared a supreme screen moment with him. As he drives her back from an abortion clinic, she lights up a cigarette. "Uh, Diane, do you think you should be doing that?" he asks. "I just had an abortion. I think I'm old enough to smoke", comes the testy reply. Next came The Three Wishes Of Billy Grier, with another Teachers co-star Ralph Macchio, about a child with a premature ageing disease. And then came the breakthrough itself, payback for failing an audition for The Breakfast Club. Laura was to start at the University Of Southern California, but dropped out when parts came her way. First, she was the fragile but sexual maturing Connie in Smooth Talk, which won her plaudits in both Rolling Stone and Time, then she was the sweet blind girl who falls for loveable elephant-boy Eric Stoltz in Mask, for which she rehearsed by riding horses while blindfolded. Then there was David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

By now, Dern had moved into her own apartment, sharing with spiritual psychotherapist, Marianne Williamson (soon to be a famous guru). This was a big plus for Laura, who would study Jung in depth, and later return to UCLA to study psychology and religion. Now Blue Velvet - where she was a policeman's daughter helping Kyle MacLachlan track down torch singer Isabella Rossellini while being menaced by gas-sucking maniac Dennis Hopper - brought another set of relationships. She became close friends with Lynch and Rossellini, and went out with MacLachlan for four years. She may fall for her leading men, she says, but she won't begin a full relationship till after production, once friendship has flowered.

The next five years were tremendous. She played Lord Byron's spurned lover in Haunted Summer, and appeared opposite Paul Newman in Shadowmakers, about the genesis of the atom bomb. Then came Lynch again, and the bizarro road-movie Wild At Heart, where she played Lula to Nic Cage's boisterous Sailor, being threatened by her unbelievably malicious mother (played by Ladd) and seduced by an unconscionably sleazy Willem Dafoe. Dern was often asked why so many of her characters appeared to be raped - she replied that, in their own way, these women were in control of the situation.

Now came recognition. In Rambling Rose, she played a sexually liberated youngster who brings chaos to a straight-laced Southern household in 1935, winning an Oscar nomination. This made hers the only family to have all been nominated for Oscars - Bruce for Coming Home, and Diane for Alice.., Wild At Heart and, like Laura, for Rambling Rose. Having refused to appear in the epic At Play In The Fields Of The Lord because she'd have to swim in a leech-filled river, Laura moved on to Afterburn, winning Golden Globe and Emmy nominations as a widow trying to uncover the reasons for her pilot husband's crash. She also won a boyfriend, in co-star Vincent Spano. Now came two high profile spots; a fairly humiliating role as the brunt of Clint Eastwood's demeaning wisecracks in the otherwise excellent A Perfect World. And then Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park where, as Dr Ellie Satler, Jeff Goldblum's paleontologist girlfriend, she ran and screamed with aplomb. At one point she was on the beach at Kauai with co-star Sam Neill. Hurricane Iniki was due to hit in 6 hours but sent one huge wave in advance, smashing the pair of them to the ground. After filming, she began a long on-off relationship with the enigmatic Goldblum, getting engaged in 1994, then calling it off two years later. Coincidentally, she had earlier dated director Renny Harlin who would now become the new husband of Goldblum's ex, Geena Davis.

Dern could perhaps have sought more blockbuster success, but her radical upbringing had touched her deeply, as had cause-movies like Norma Rae, Network and Silkwood. In 1991, she worked on a book of interviews with homeless people. She campaigned for the Pro-Choice movement, for women in Afghanistan, for the Democratic Party, and for many others. In her work too, she consistently took on politically sensitive subjects. In Ruby Ridge, she played right-wing extremist Vicki Weaver, who she described as the polar opposite of herself. In Citizen Ruth, she was a poverty-stricken and pregnant glue-sniffer, ordered by a court to abort her child and consequently drawn into the national Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. In The Baby Dance, she was again poor and pregnant, this time living in a Louisiana trailer-park and considering whether to hand her onrushing baby over to a rich Hollywood couple. She was again nominated for a Golden Globe for her efforts. Perhaps most controversial of all, and defying her advisers, she played the woman who caused Ellen DeGeneres to come out as a lesbian - at the time, the biggest story in America. Dern was again Emmy nominated for the role.

Also making an appearance in that legendary episode of Ellen was the red-hot Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton. Her relationship with Goldblum now over, she accepted Thornton's invitation to appear in a rock video he was making in Little Rock, Arkansas, for Widespread Panic. The tabloids were already claiming the pair were having an affair, and were further fuelled by the fact that Thornton's fourth wife filed for divorce on the very day Dern travelled to see him. But the affair actually began during the shoot, and the couple were eventually engaged in early 1999. Thornton even wrote Dern an extended Valentine, the film Daddy And Them, where the pair play Claude and Ruby Montgomery, trying to help out murder-charged uncle, Jim Varney. Dern would excel as the supremely jealous Ruby, going hilariously barmy when her husband is seriously injured in a car crash and is attended to by an overly pretty ambulance driver.

Then disaster struck. As Dern put it: "I left our home to go and make a movie, and while I was away my boyfriend got married, and I never heard from him again". Suddenly, Thornton had fallen for Angelina Jolie and the couple were bragging about their sexual exploits at every opportunity - which Dern must surely have enjoyed immensely. Describing the split as being "like sudden death", she sought comfort by staying with Rossellini, and talking it over with best friend Meg Ryan. And indeed it would be Ryan who, a year or so later, introduced Dern to her next love - rock star Ben Harper, then himself in the throes of divorce. This relationship would last, son Ellery Walker being born in 2001 and daughter Jaya three years later. Dern and Harper would marry in 2005.

2001 proved to be a great year for Laura, possibly her best yet. She warmed up for it with Robert Altman's Dr T And The Women, where Richard Gere would play a rich Dallas gynaecologist whose life beguns to crumble when his wife Farrah Fawcett is committed and he falls for golf pro Helen Hunt, all while daughter Kate Hudson plans a spectacular wedding. Dern would show as Gere's alcoholic and freshly-divorced sister-in-law, adding yet more female complication when she crashes in Gere's house with her three spoilt children.

Following the finally-released Daddy And Them and a monster hit with Jurassic Park III, Dern would return to TV for Within These Walls, another politically motivated piece. Here she'd play a nun who hopes to rehabilitate women prisoners by teaching them to train dogs, and has to convince a tough warden and tougher jailbirds like Ellen Burstyn. Following this would come Novocaine where dentist Steve Martin was drawn into a seedy underworld of drugs and deception by femme fatale Helena Bonham Carter. Dern would play Martin's apparently perfect partner, aiding him in his business, vampishly servicing him yet all the while betraying him, added comedy coming from her admirably straight-faced martial arts routines. Next would be Focus, concerning growing tensions between Jews and anti-Semites in Brooklyn towards the end of WW2, William H. Macy playing a good guy who's afraid to make a stand against burly, crazy Jew-haters like Meat Loaf. But he's forced to step forward when he marries Laura's Gertrude, a woman who's mistakenly thought to be Jewish herself. The movie was chilling, truly intense.

After this - in true Dern fashion - came another movie with a big, big heart. This was I Am Sam, where an Oscar-nominated Sean Penn played a man with a mental age of 7, whose child, Dakota Fanning, is taken from him and handed to foster parents. In desperation, he hires beastly, hard-nosed lawyer, Michelle Pfeiffer, the film's emotional weight lying in Pfeiffer's and foster mother Dern's gradual realisation that Penn and Fanning are indeed an effective family. There'd also be a high-profile TV role, when she'd play US Poet Laureate Tabatha Fortis, causing a stir when she visits the White House in huge hit The West Wing.

2002 would see Dern continue on her crusading way when she reunited with mum Diane Ladd for Damaged Care. Here'd she'd play real-life campaigner Linda Peeno, a doctor in the managed care industry who blew the whistle when she saw medical treatment being denied to those who couldn't afford it. Meanwhile, her cheating husband James LeGros causes her home life to crash down around her. And there'd be plenty more infidelity in her next cinematic release, We Don't Live Here Anymore. Based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (In The Bedroom had been based on another), this saw Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause as small-town college professors, married to Dern and Naomi Watts respectively. When Ruffalo begins an affair with Watts, Dern is pushed into a half-hearted tryst with serial womaniser Krause, real love seeming absent from all their lives. It was painful viewing, particularly as there were kids involved, and Dern was excellent as the hard-drinking Terry, especially intense in her arguments with Ruffalo.

American ennui and emotional confusion would also play a large part in Dern's next project, Happy Endings, an intriguing piece which mixed several stories of gay lover, blackmail and pregnancy. In one, gay Steve Coogan would obsess over the parentage of a child born to his lesbian friends, Dern and Sarah Clarke. Following this would come The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio, written by Jane Anderson who'd earlier penned Dern's 1999 outing, The Baby Dance. Set in the 1950s, this would see Julianne Moore raising ten kids on the money she makes from competitions to provide jingles and slogans for commercial products. Trapped in a marriage to drunken, jealous Woody Harrelson, she dreams of visiting Goshen, Indiana, where famed competition winner Dern runs a Contestor Club, Dern's appearance being brief but, as ever, charming.

There'd be another bit part in Lonely Hearts, where Dern would bring joy back into the life of jaded detective John Travolta as he grieves over his suicide wife and hunts the real-life Lonely Hearts killers in the 1940s. Then Dern would produce some of her most satisfying work in years when reuniting with David Lynch and Diane Ladd for Inland Empire. Here Dern would star as an actress hired by director Jeremy Irons and conducting an affair with co-star Justin Theroux. Now things get strange as her life begins to blend with that of her character, the two realities merging in a most menacing fashion. Strange Poles and weird rabbits (one being played by recent co-star Naomi Watts) would appear as Dern, both a spectator and protagonist, would be taunted, threatened and driven to paranoia. Even by Lynch's standards, it was highly experimental stuff and was only kept from collapse by a stunning performance by Dern, who was in almost every scene of this three-hour movie.

The next year, 2007, would see Dern join a cast of eccentrics in Year Of The Dog, where a lonely Molly Shannon would suffer the death of her beloved beagle and attempt to fill the void in her life with human rather than canine contact. Useless advice would be given by Dern, playing Shannon's sister-in-law, a super-mum ludicrously over-protective of her daughter, as the film slipped between comedy and tragedy - as you'd expect from director and writer Mike White, who'd earlier penned The Good Girl. Year Of The Dog would be followed by the psychological thriller Tenderness, where cop Russell Crowe would seek to prove that a teenager just released from jail was a raging psycho and a terrible threat to a runaway girl who's attracted to him. Dern would play the girl's alcoholic mother, whose string of annoying boyfriends helps to drive the girl into the arms of the suspected loon.

Dern is still growing - practising yoga, studying theology. She could go anywhere. Perhaps she'll direct. While filming A Perfect World, she made a 30 minute short called The Gift, about a woman enduring terrible self-examination after a Thornton-like split, and starring Isabella Rossellini. Maybe she'll try the theatre - in 1990 she starred with Glenn Close in Brooklyn Laundry, one of a few stage roles. Far more likely, you'll see her continue to switch between major studio movies and small, heartfelt works dealing with social injustice. Her dad killed John Wayne, after all, and Laura Dern is set on making things a-right.

Dominic Wills


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