Death Becomes Bruce

Death Becomes Bruce

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jun 4th 2018

As IMDB tells it, he’s quite alive and kicking on screen with a vengeance, with no less than a dozen 2018 projects listed in various stages of completion and release, pre- and post-production. But two-time Academy Award® nominee and character actor extraordinaire Bruce Dern, celebrating his 82nd birthday today and recently seen as both an ornery small-town character with former The Great Gatsby compadre Robert Redford and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Coming Home castmate Jane Fonda in Our Souls at Night (2017) and as an enfeebled but still ferocious Old Joseph Kennedy in Chappaquiddick (2018), doesn’t catch a break in his terrific trio of more vintage Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray outings, all of which kill him off in spectacularly memorable fashion. In Dern’s foxy hands, we’re all suckers for his wicked way with death scenes. 

As the married lover of young Southern belle Bette Davis in the flashback prologue of director Robert Aldrich’s gothic chiller Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), his plan for a romantic liaison with her during a New Year’s Eve Party at her family mansion are cut short – decisively so, when a shadowy figure shows up at the rendezvous spot wielding a meat cleaver that dismembers his hand and subsequently his head, jolting the bejeezus out of viewers then and now. Give your fright reflex a jumpstart by watching it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJqcjLtbtg. Needless to say, his gruesome murder casts a pall over the spooky and sultry subsequent events undergone by Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead and the rest of the classic thriller’s illustrious cast. The next instance of extermination was a matter of good timing for a nice, much needed payday for minimal work, and bad timing for the unlucky auto mechanic character he played. As Dern related in his 2007 memoir Things I’ve Said, but Probably Shouldn’t Have (written with Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane): “Roger Corman did a major motion picture called The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) for Fox. It was a million-dollar movie. He had to use the contract players at the studio. Jason Robards played the lead [Al Capone], and George Segal [Peter Gusenberg], David Canary [Frank Gusenberg] and Clint Ritchie [Machine Gun Jack McGurn] were under contract. Roger had to use Jack Nicholson and me because we were his guys. Jack and I got $550 a week instead of scale, which was $375 a week. We knew we could act as good as those other guys. Roger does a great thing for Jack and me. He says, ‘Both of you work three days. Jack, you’re going to play the cab driver, and Bruce, you’re going to play John May, one of the seven who lined up against the wall and gets shot. So you guys will get paid $2,500 because I’m going to have you both work the first two days of the movie and the last day of the movie.’ Roger carried us for five weeks. That was sensational of him to do that for us.” Check out Dern/May’s bloody, headline-making end here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ-gYx7hXZg

Eighteen years later on screen, though set decades earlier in the 1870s Wild West of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Dern would go down proudly and defiantly, albeit inevitably, because his embittered geezer sought retribution for a brother’s death and his own crippled, wheelchair-bound fate against one of the era’s gunslinging legends, Wild Bill (1995), rivetingly played by Jeff Bridges for director Walter Hill. Though Wild Bill Hickok obliges by equaling the dueling field planted like his challenger in a chair, Dern is distinctly outmatched. Give his sequence a shot here, as narrated by co-star John Hurt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAORGJKfEcU. Dern would more happily elude death in his later screen encounter with the sharp-shooting lawman, in 2017’s Hickok, starring Luke Hemsworth and set around Wild Bill’s 1871 tenure as the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper declaring: “My favorite performance in the film comes from Bruce Dern, enthusiastically loopy as the booze-soaked town doctor. You can rarely accuse Bruce Dern of phoning it in.” 

Admirers of the ongoing screen legacy of today’s birthday honoree would heartily agree. Catch him and the delicious death-dealing company he keeps in the TT discs of Wild Bill, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (exclusively available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/32214/HUSH-HUSH-SWEET-CHARLOTTE-1964/) and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (offered here: https://www4.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28535/THE-ST-VALENTINES-DAY-MASSACRE-1967/). Despite our nefarious curatorial efforts, he’s one prolific and mercurial actor you can’t keep down.