Championing Bruce Dern: The King of Marvin Gardens

With Bruce Dern back in the limelight in Alexander Payne’s forthcoming Nebraska, the rerelease of 1970s classic The King of Marvin Gardens, starring Dern and Jack Nicholson as two brothers striving to get rich quick, is a chance to reappraise an early career highlight from one of that decade’s most magnetic performers.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Writing here in Cannes, at the 2013 edition of the festival, Bruce Dern is on my mind. Why, you may well ask? Well, two of the reasons are festival-related, and the other is a little more long-term.

First, since it’s currently virtually impossible to avoid the subject of The Great Gatsby, I have been trying to remember the earlier, 1970s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel written by Francis Ford Coppola (why do so few people omit to mention that credit when attributing the film’s stodginess to director Jack Clayton?) and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

What stuck in my mind, however – and I haven’t seen the film since it was first released – is not those two stars but the aforementioned Mr Dern, who played Tom Buchanan (the role played by Joel Edgerton in Baz Luhrmann’s film). It must, I think, have been the first time I saw Dern in a movie, and there was something sufficiently unusual about him – for one thing, unlike Redford’s Gatsby and Farrow’s Daisy, he certainly didn’t look like a Hollywood star – to leave a mark. And I’ve enjoyed watching him ever since.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Nebraska (2013)

Which brings me to the other Cannes-related reason for mentioning Dern. He’s in Nebraska, by Alexander Payne, a director who’s done pretty well at making movies with men who don’t look like stars. Yes, I know he cast Clooney in The Descendants (2011), but even George looked a little less perfectly suave and square-jawed in that film; remember his ungainly running down the hill to quiz his neighbours about his wife’s affair? And Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 2004) is hardly hunk material, while Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002) is as unstarry as he’s ever managed to be. Anyway, Nebraska is clearly cause for celebration, if only for offering us another opportunity to see Dern back on screen.

Bruce Dern in Smile (1975)

He doesn’t get that many meaty roles these days, more’s the pity – and no, we can’t really count Django Unchained (2012) as a significant exception.

But while he was seldom billed in the top spot, Dern in the late 60s and the 70s was someone to be depended upon: think Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Bloody Mama (1970), Drive, He Said (1971), The Cowboys (1972), Silent Running (1972), Posse (1975), Smile (1975), Family Plot (1976), Coming Home (1978), The Driver (1978)…

And the very best of the bunch was Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), where he got to appear opposite Jack Nicholson (in another of his distinctly unglamorous roles – dig those long johns!).

The pair respectively play Jason and David Staebler, brothers still very close in many ways despite their obvious differences. David’s a somewhat retiring late-night radio DJ given to spinning yarns about his past, and Jason’s basically a hustler, always dreaming up some far-fetched get-rich-quick scheme. This time it’s about a casino resort in Hawaii, but since he’s stuck in jail in Atlantic City, he needs his brother to come from Philadelphia and get him out – and while he’s at it, do a little of his sweet-talking for some Japanese investors Jason has in his sights.

That’s just the skeleton of a story which has all the resonance, wit and vivid characterisation of a fine novel. For me, it’s one of the great American films of the early 70s, up there with Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, made a couple of years earlier. Nicholson is at his very best in the movie, but he’s given excellent support by Ellen Burstyn, and Dern is just as good as his now far better-known co-star.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Watch him closely as Jason deploys what he evidently believes passes as charm and an aura of business savvy to seduce his brother into his hot-shot long-shot plans, gradually teasing out and drawing upon the boyish fantasist that still just about survives in the prematurely middle-aged David.

Dern manages to make Jason utterly credible, not only as a loser but as that canny charmer; it’s there in the way he wears his coat, cape-like, over his shoulders, in the way he cajoles everyone he comes across, in the wheedling vocal intonation and the rascally smile and the winking ratty eyes. It’s a performance of surprising subtlety and complete, unflashy assurance, which reminds us, for once, that Jack wasn’t the only player in town who would, and could, be king.

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