Bruce Dern. Picture: Supplied

Bruce Dern runs. Almost every day. He has run most of his life. A former track star at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois, in the late 1950s, he tried out for the Olympic team in 1956 (but finished ninth in his division). On camera, Dern, who is 77, is much more poky.

In Nebraska, the new Alexander Payne movie for which Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring, he moves with a paradoxical mix of tentativeness and inertia, the loose jocularity of his 1970s oddballs replaced by an elderly man who appears determined to get somewhere,and just as determined not to reveal the strain on him.

Dern plays Woody Grant, a Midwestern octogenarian crank who insists on travelling from Montana to Nebraska to collect $1 million promised by a junk-mail sweepstakes. Woody will walk if no one will drive. No one will.

His wife (June Squibb) tells him he's nuts; his eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) wants no part of it. But then his youngest (Will Forte) gives in, considering it an opportunity to bond.

During the brief road trip there's a scene in which Dern ambles across the empty bedroom of an old farmhouse. The home was owned by Woody's parents. He seems haunted, crosses to an upstairs window, stares out and says if his parents knew he was there he'd be whipped. But there's no one to whip him now.

It is moments like these, ripe with memory, regret and ache, that earned Dern his first best actor Oscar nomination in a year of great performances.

Asked about the scene, Dern's blue eyes misted. "The most honest parallel between my life and my career is that scene," he said.

As a child, Dern wore white gloves to dinner. He raised his hand before being acknowledged by his parents. He lived in Glencoe, Illinois. His home was built by renowned architect Louis Sullivan.

His bedroom overlooked Lake Michigan. He has a pedigree. The last time Dern spoke to his mother, in the early 70s (she died soon after), she was still trying to get him to move back to Chicago, he said. "I think I was being groomed to take over the store," he said.

The store is the Carson Pirie Scott department store chain which his great-grandfather founded.

Though it was still relatively early in his career, Dern was established. With close friend Jack Nicholson, he made Drive, He Said (1971) and was shooting The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). He had a sci-fi blockbuster in theatres, Silent Running (1972).

By the end of the decade, he would be a best supporting actor Oscar nominee for Coming Home (1978). He would be reunited with his Marnie director, Alfred Hitchcock, for Family Plot. But he made his reputation working with low-budget king Roger Corman. He lost his head in a movie. Ate a baby. Tried bombing the Super Bowl (Black Sunday). He had a knack for playing the unhinged. And it stuck.

Even his mother asked: Hadn't he shot John Wayne in the back and killed him? He had, in The Cowboys (1972): "I said 'But it's a movie, Mother'. And she said 'Oh, Bruce, your grandfather will never understand'."

Indeed, talk to Dern long enough and you realise that his role as Tom Buchanan, son of privilege in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby - one of the few times he was cast against type - was eerily spot-on.

"Dad's history is incredible," said actress Laura Dern, his daughter with first wife Diane Ladd. "When you come from that kind of money, there is a classism you are raised around and a pressure to continue the lineage. But he prided himself on going against it."

When Dern told his family he was leaving to be an actor, "They told me, 'Give up acting or don't bother staying'." He attended the University of Pennsylvania to run track but he left after two years and was accepted into the famed Actors Studio in New York City. His father died the week he started classes.

By the 70s, Dern was known for what Nicholson later coined "Dernsies" - off-kilter little twitches and improvisations. But Nebraska, not unlike the landscape on which it unfolds, contains few Dernsies.

"Those only used to come - the overacting, the pushing, the selling - because maybe the dialogue was not as good as I had wanted," Dern said.

Payne, however, is a three-time Academy Award nominee for best adapted screenplay (Election, Sideways, The Descendants) and a two-time winner. Early into the production of Nebraska, Payne pulled Dern aside. Anticipating the scene-stealing instincts of his lead actor, he said: "I want you to do something you haven't done: Let me do my job. Don't show us anything. I am the director - trust me to find you in this picture."

The picture, which was shot in black and white, opens on Dern trudging along a highway, eyes bewildered, chest thrust forward, pushing ahead as though walking against a gale-force wind.

His hair curls away in white waves, his awareness of his surroundings looks questionable; a fog of age has settled on Woody, whose watchfulness and persistence suggests more scarecrow than man. "Bruce has been around so long he knows how a simple look registers on camera," Squibb said.

The West Australian

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