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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Laura Dern is at the peak of her powers

    Laura Dern had two wildly different fillm roles this year: a cutthroat divorce lawyer in "Marriage Story" and a patient matriarch in "Little Women." (Jessica Pons/The Washington Post)

    Laura Dern sashays in, dressed for success in form-fitting blue jeans, red heels and a cascade of perfectly situated blond hair. "Sorry I look so schleppy," she says. "I had an event at my kid's school." 

    Dern is Nora, the cutthroat divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story," out on Netflix. Beautiful but spiky, heartless but hilarious, the role is the culmination of a career full of fierce feminists and rebels. Midway through the film, she stops texting for a moment to rail against the misguided, Judeo-Christian double standards that Western society holds against mothers.

    But in the (metaphorical) theater next door this month, Dern is Marmee, the ever-patient, ever-loving matriarch in Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women." Buttoned up in the finery of a proud poor woman in 1860s New England, Marmee is the radiant, nurturing nucleus of a house spinning with four rambunctious girls, led by Saoirse Ronan's Jo.

    "It's interesting to have these two women, two characters, who have, honestly, the greatest feminist writing ever — in two completely different worlds," Dern said recently over lunch in Santa Monica. "Between some of the lines I say to Saoirse — that are directly from the book, these lines that Louisa (May Alcott) wrote in the 1860s — about 'I'm angry nearly every day of my life,' and to talk about what it is to be an artist, and what it is to be a woman, and not to need to marry, and to love who you choose to love. I mean, it's some really radical thinking."

    "And then, enter Century City divorce lawyer," she laughed, "and to have this monologue — that's absolutely accurate, you know, how mothers are measured differently than fathers — and with such sass, but also this sort of modern poetry of Noah's writing."

    There was something "almost divine" about getting to play these two connected but wildly different roles in the same year, written by the two halves of a real-life couple.

    "They really have a very similar rhythm in how they hear language," Dern said. "The words are so precise, but the mess they want to bring them forth, and the rhythm they need, is really amazing."

    Baumbach and Gerwig are simply the latest filmmakers who are dying to work with Dern after watching her chart an adventurous and calibrated career over 40 years with directors such as David Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Alexander Payne. Before her 25th birthday, she had played a pregnant teenager, a blind girl, a wide-eyed innocent and an outlaw's libidinous lover.

    "What she was doing felt dangerous to me, in the best way," said Gerwig. "Because it felt like it was always at the very edge of what we can consider to be in good taste — which is the most wonderful acting and art of all. She was so committed to the truth of the thing that she completely stopped worrying about how she, Laura Dern, was coming across. It was just completely committed to the character, and committed to the extremities of the character."

    Dern, 52, has been patiently planting a garden of great roles, coupling with auteur collaborators — but she has often been taken for granted.

    "She's just now becoming a movie star," said her father, actor Bruce Dern, who noted both he and Laura's mother, Diane Ladd, toiled without stardom for years. "I'm somebody who has finally got to a place where I have opportunities to do things with my abilities. And Laura is finally getting that. She got it before, but in supporting kind of roles."

    "Careers are long, and complicated," Laura Dern said. "There definitely were periods of time where I either wasn't working, or wasn't getting offered things that I wanted to do."

    Her connection with film quite literally goes back to the beginning: She was conceived on the set of "The Wild Angels," a 1966 motorcycle movie in which her parents both starred. Their first daughter had drowned in a swimming pool a few years prior, and Bruce Dern keenly remembers a moment in 1974, when he was driving with 7-year-old Laura: "She turned to me and she said, 'Daddy, I miss my sister.' I pulled the car over, and I just had to say to myself, 'Where did that come from?' "

    "That was the first time I noticed that there was caring beyond the level of the age she was," he said.

    Dern grew up in the heart of Hollywood, rubbing shoulders with Alfred Hitchcock as a kid, and felt she was destined to act after Martin Scorsese complimented her ice-cream-eating endurance as an extra in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

    She grew up fast, finishing high school early and being legally emancipated from her parents when she was 16 so she could have grown-up working freedom. (Her first roommate was the family's "street minister" friend, Marianne Williamson.)

    Bruce Dern gave his daughter two pieces of advice at the outset: "Learn how to dance" — i.e., don't let behind-the-scenes drama bother you — and "take risks." "You've got to go to the edge of the cliff," he told her, "and do roles other girls won't do."

    When Dern was 18, Lynch cast her in his twisted suburban nightmare, "Blue Velvet," as the almost painfully innocent Sandy, who dreams of robins in a world gone to hell.

    "I always thought she was wise beyond her years," said her co-star, Kyle MacLachlan. "She was just very intuitive and thoughtful and very aware. And she's never lost it."

    Dern and MacLachlan, who dated for four years, reunited on camera more than 30 years later for Lynch's "Twin Peaks" revival on Showtime — which cast Dern as Sandy's polar opposite: the almost painfully acid-tonged Diane.

    "She had talent from the very beginning," MacLachlan said. "But she also had a deeper drive, I think, to pursue work that was meaningful."

    Laura Dern as Marmee, a proud poor woman in 1860s New England, in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women." (Wilson Webb, Columbia Pictures)

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