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« Goya Awards and Gowns | Main | Beauty vs Beast: Direct to the Death »
Monday
Feb062017

Laura Dern Week: "Smooth Talk" and "Mask" 

Surprise -- It's Laura Dern Week!

With HBO's event miniseries Big Little Lies arriving in less than two weeks (February 19th - wooo) and with Laura Dern's 50th birthday happening even sooner (this Friday!) Team Experience will be celebrating the freakishly expressive Laura Dern, aka "The Face," every afternoon this week.

Though some of her earliest revelatory performances are not as readily available as they should be (none are streaming) let's talk about a few of them with an emphasis on Mask (1985) after the jump...

Baby Laura Dern with an ice cream cone in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)

First Appearances!
Laura Dern's first two features were uncredited extra roles in her mom Diane Ladd's films...

The most famous of these was Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974). She's just that little girl eating an ice cream cone at the end of the counter in the still above. Ladd (not pictured) was behind the counter with Ellen Burstyn (pictured) in their Oscar-nominated roles as waitresses (just discussed in our Scorsese post).

After Alice Dern didn't return to screens until she was a credited actor with small roles in features like Foxes (1980... an early Jodie Foster vehicle) and the adult comedy Teachers (1984).

Laura with an ice cream cone again in her first leading role in SMOOTH TALK (1985)

1985 -- The Breakthrough Year
But however you come at Laura's career, the year that revealed that we had a revelatory Oscar calibre actress on our hands, one who had inherited both of her parent's gifts (and then some) was 1985...

That year she appeared in a leading role in the critical darling  indie Smooth Talk and a supporting role in a studio hit called Mask. Smooth Talk would be the performance people always cited as Dern's "arrival" IF anyone had seen it. But at least the Independent Spirit Awards did, and she received her first major award nomination for Lead Actress as a confused teenage girl experimenting with her sexuality and starting a dangerous affair with an older man (Treat Williams, who was also Spirit nominated). It's the kind of multi-layered shockingly "full" characterization you only see from a teenage actress about once a decade or so (the peer group for this type of performance is small but includes Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear and Evan Rachel Wood in thirteen). If you ever have a chance to see this movie, take it. 

Laura Dern's first scene in MASK (1985)

But for most moviegoers the "introduction" to Laura Dern was in the Cher hit Mask (the 15th biggest hit of 1985), which ws famously snubbed by Oscar but for an understandable "Makeup" win for turning then also-newish actor Eric Stoltz into a boy with a rare genetic disorder which gave his face a "lion-like" appearance. The two films won Laura Dern the "New Generation" award that year from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (beating Whoopi Goldberg from The Color Purple, who was also the runner up in the lead actress category, losing to Meryl Streep)

Mask (1985)
Confession: I had never seen Mask (!!!) until this week, despite its infamous Oscar history. I am not at all sure how this confession is possible but it is true (and why I chose to cover the film for this Laura Dern week). It's the only film I'm aware of that ever prompted an actor to publicly chastise the Academy for not nominating them from the Oscar stage as Cher did when she presented at the ceremony in Bob Mackie headriff/midriff flamboyance and quipped "as you can see I've received my booklet from the Academy on how to dress like a serious actress."

Stolz, Cher, and director Peter Bogdanovich on set

But in the true-story based Mask, all that Cher fabulousness is of a different kind. The icon's external grandiosity turns inward to become warrior confidence of the soul as her Rusty Dennis is at all times a formidable lioness. Cher is so inside the woman that she easily conveys that this woman has been fighting everyone on everything -- even when fights were hardly necessary, sometimes as mere warning -- even before her son was born with a rare genetic disease that caused his strange appearance via calcium formations in his face. The doctors gave him mere months to live but we meet him as a vibrant 16 year old with his own self-deprecating humor and inner armor. Unlike his mother, he's not as gifted at covering up or denying his vulnerability. It's easy to see why she's fiercely protective but the movie, and Cher's performance, is smart enough to offer a three dimensional take. Yes she's fiercely protective but she's also incongruously irresponsible and absent (plagued by drug problems) and he parents her as much as she parents him.

The movie, which is well worth a rental, is the kind we don't get much of anymore: warm funny resonant stories about every day folks (albeit with non-regular life stories) that don't sand off their edges and enchant the public enough to become big hits. 

But, oh yes, Laura Dern. 

Introducing Laura DernTheir first kiss

The young promising actress arrives late into the film as Diana, a blind girl and something of an equestrian. Rocky has left his mother alone (for obviously the first time in his life) in order to work as an assistant at a summer youth camp for the blind. When Rocky sees her (and by extension when the camera gets a good look at her) he's a goner. 

Instantly Dern's open distinctive face, which has always been the opposite of a mask, incapable of hiding humanity, plays to the unusually specific strength of this particular movie. Because Mask is dimensional enough to allow for conflicting feelings about its characters, Dern is able to really shine in a role that would be merely decorative in a lesser film. And because Bogdanovich and his actors have created such rounded people we find ourselves suddenly split in two, protective of Rocky but also worried for this innocent girl who Rocky pursues as if he's suddenly a threat. Through Dern's sensitive careful work, we understand that she has as little experience and confidence about romance as he does but we also intuit that she's yet more vulnerable, and sheltered in a way he never has been by his hard-living mother.

this is blue. this is green

She doesn't care what he looks like though he's honest with her about his face, after a brief temptation to lie. They both spark to the other's tenderness and fall hard. The scene wherein he concocts a way to explain colors to her in a kitchen -- a concept she warns him has always eluded her -- is a beauty. Dern risks playing this one scene very broadly though she's completely understated elsewhere.

OH ROCKY, I UNDERSTAND!"

Instead of taking you out of the scene, her emphatic line reading underlines how eager this young woman has been for someone to take this much care with understanding her. This, we see, is why Diana jumps in with this complete stranger with all the innocence and defenseless curiousity of first love.

And yet, when we meet her parents a few scenes later and she returns to her horse ranch, she's given you such a clear window into how sheltered she's been that you can't help but feel for her parents. This is a tough play the movie makes. Like so many characters, her parents cruelly reject Rocky, judging him by his looks. And yet, we know that this is from their love for their own child, assuming she needs protection from him. It's another example of how dimensional the actors help Mask to become where most films would merely paint people as good or bad and be done with it as they race towards their "inspirational true story!" finish.

meeting the parents

Dern proves invaluable to Mask's beating wounded heart, even though her role is in a way a short film within a much different film. Whatever the size of the roles to come, she'll keep doing this in film after film. She'll keep serving her movies in all sorts of ordinary and extraordinary ways, all while her acting becomes yet more complex and daring. 

To be continued... 

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Reader Comments (20)

A lovely write-up.

I really need to see Mask again.

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Love this! Love you. (You always have the most delightful surprises up your sleeve.)

Dern has been fantastic so many times, in so many things—from Smooth Talk to Certain Women just last year—it's hard to believe she's not yet 50. Happiest of...and many more.

P.S. How great is it that you found such a beautiful shot of the trio that doesn't include Shailene Woodley. I mean, no offense to her, but one of these things is not like the other when you have Dern on board, too.

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Whoa!!!! Where's Ladies & Gentlemen... We're the Fabulous Stains?

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I loved reading this. Hope to see Mask again soon!

Laura Dern truly makes anything better, if you ask me. We need more and more of her.

For me, she's "peaked" twice: Citizen Ruth and Inland Empire. Which means we're now overdue for another!

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Smooth Talk is a masterpiece - the scene with Treat Williams is unforgettable.

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Mask holds up pretty well. Before I saw it a couple of years ago, I thought it would be hacky and maudlin. I was so wrong. Cher, Stolz, and Dern are all great at fleshing out their characters' internal struggles, and the script keeps them believably flawed but lovable.

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Soo...do you think Cher should've been nominated? lol

Also, I seriously cannot WAIT for Big Little Lies. I can't forget how amazing that trailer looked

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

should have been nominated for Smooth Talk

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

And Mary Kay Place is FANTASTIC in Smooth Talk

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

It's a shame Bogdnovich doesn't work more. He's so talented with actors, like Mike Nichols was.

Anne Bancroft was the weak one in that year, IIRC. And it's not like they hadn't just nominated Cher 2 years earlier. It was a very memorable snub, and a very memorable dress, too!

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

1985 was a very competitive year but i probably woulda gone some 5 of these 6

BROWNE - Dreamchild
CHER - Mask
DERN - Smooth Talk
FARROW - Purple Rose of Cairo
GOLDBERG - Color Purple
PAGE - Trip to Bountiful

With apologies to STREEP in Plenty (which i think she's stronger in than Out of Africa) and TURNER in Prizzi's Honor

February 6, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Why not a picture of Just Dern?? I think I know the answer!

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Dern is so expressive (The Face). I loved being able to see her featured in 'Enlightened' as well, such a treat to see such a great actress in a binge-worthy series.

As far as movies, my favorites are 'Citizen Ruth', 'Wild'/'99 Homes' (2014 combo), and 'Blue Velvet'.

The first place I think I noticed her was 'Jurassic Park' at 13, still love her performance in that - not that great compared to her other work, but interesting in comparison to other blockbusters. She is more prickly and confrontational than other female characters in blockbusters.

February 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

LOOOOVE that we're having an entire series dedicated to one of the most underrated actresses. Her Wild Oscar nomination still gives me so much joy.

Also, to your comment about Cher being the only one to throw shade from the Oscar stage for a snub. Jim Carrey did it too, quite brilliantly in the 1999 ceremony when he was snubbed for The Truman Show.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

Cher invited Rusty Dennis to come visit her, so Cher could get to know the real woman she was playing. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

"The movie, which is well worth a rental" I'd say more than just well worth it. It's one of my favourite films. I think it just works on every level that a film like that can and it's my favourite Cher performance.

Also: THE FACE!

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Ugh. Mask is so good but it also kinda destroyed me. That whole cast is fantastic and what an interesting group of people among which to set that story (sorry for the awkward phrasing).

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Xoxoxoxox

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

1985 was so brutally competitive for Actress. Bancroft is definitely the weak link. It could have been Browne, Turner, Cher, Alejandro, or Farrow (who should have won) in Bancroft 's slot. I probably would replace Jessica Lange with one of the previously listed ladies.

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Max -- really? What is the answer as its a question i dont quite follow

February 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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