Laura Dern returns to HBO this weekend with her film “The Tale,” a big hit in early 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival where the premium network purchased it. Dern’s last collaboration with HBO proved quite successful for both of them. “Big Little Lies” was a major winner during at the 2017 Emmy Awards (her first trophy) and 2018 Golden Globes (her fourth following “Afterburn”, “Recount” and “Enlightened”).
Dern began her career as a teenager more than 30 years ago. Dern seemed to initially aspire to a more normal life but her attempts to finish her college degree at the University of Southern California were continually interrupted by obtaining plum film roles. That she’d eventually settled into an acting career isn’t surprising since her father Bruce Dern (“Coming Home”, “Nebraska”) is a two time Oscar nominee and her mother Diane Ladd a three time nominee (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Wild at Heart”, “Rambling Rose”).
Dern would go on to earn two Oscar nominations of her own for “Rambling Rose” and “Wild” plus work steadily in both film and television and become one of the rare second generation Hollywood actors who would achieve as much success as her parents. In addition to the independent movies mentioned above, she has also had her fair share of blockbusters, including “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Should “The Tale” be met with the same amount of acclaim that it did it Sundance and with the successful track record HBO has with the Emmys, Dern could emerge once again as a prime Emmy contender this fall.
Leaving behind TV for a moment, let’s take a tour in our photo gallery above of Dern’s greatest 15 film performances, ranked from worst to best.
15. CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)
This film was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival and with critics. While Dern’s co-stars Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone each won film critics awards for their work Dern also excels as a lawyer dealing with a disgruntled client who gets in trouble with the law.
14. OCTOBER SKY (1999)
Dern is quite beguiling as a young teacher who inspires her students to pursue their dreams. A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays one of her students who is inspired by the launch of the Sputnik rocket to take up rocketry. This film received quite positive reviews and became a sleeper hit of 1999.
13. THE MASTER (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s controversial film is a fictionalized version of the life of L. Ron Hubbard and his creation of Scientology. The film received Oscar nominations for all three of its stars (Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams) but Dern is also quite compelling as a disciple of the religion who begins to question her devotion.
12. A PERFECT WORLD (1993)
This Clint Eastwood film featured Kevin Costner in a rare villainous role, playing an escaped convict who kidnaps a young boy. The twist in the story is that the young boy actually begins to like his captor and the life he is being shown with him. Dern plays a criminologist trying to solve the case.
11. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS (1982)
Dern’s first major role in a feature film came in this little seen gem. The film about three young women’s attempt to form a punk rock band was barely shown in theaters when it was first made. Called “Night Flight” for television, it catered to films that dealt with the world of music.
10. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)
2017 was a big year for Dern. Not only did she win her first Emmy Award for “Big Little Lies,” she got to join the ensemble of the Star Wars franchise with her role as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. Dern only had a pivotal role in the franchise, with audiences guessing whether she was good or evil.
9. MASK (1985)
While a college student at USC, Dern was cast in this true-life story of Rocky Dennis, a boy born with a disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia which causes his face to be severely disfigured. Dern plays Rocky’s first love, a young blind girl who is able to get to know the real boy.
8. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster is about dinosaurs being brought back into existence as part of a theme park. Dern plays a paleobotanist studying the creatures. While her role isn’t really a big dramatic stretch for her, it is a breakthrough role in that she is not cast as the damsel in distress that is usually how women were cast in these types of adventure films.
7. BLUE VELVET (1986)
Love it or hate it “Blue Velvet” remains one of the most talked about and debated films in movie history. Dern functions as the personification of goodness in the film from David Lynch. She is almost always dressed in whites and pinks and she brings a genuine brightness to what is a very dark film.
6. WILD AT HEART (1990)
Dern reteamed with Lynch for an entirely different type of role in this chase film. Where Dern was innocent and sweet in “Blue Velvet” here she is quite sexual. Her lustful proclamation that costar Nicolas Cage makes her “hotter than Georgia asphalt” stands out in memory. Cage and Dern play lovers on the run from killers whom Dern’s characters mother has hired to kill Cage.
5. CITIZEN RUTH (1996)
Dern had a plum role as the lead in Alexander Payne’s first film. The story is a satire of the abortion controversy with Dern cast as a young woman who inadvertently comes to national attention due to her inability to stop getting pregnant and then take care of those kids once she gives birth.
4. 99 HOMES (2014)
This timely film about the mortgage crisis that affected the U.S. and particularly the state of Florida after the economic downturn of about 10 years ago won a lot of critic’s awards for Michael Shannon. But Dern is equally strong as the mother of a young man who gets caught up with a shady real estate agent who is evicting downtrodden homeowners for profit. Dern’s growing horror at what her son is doing is quite compelling.
3. SMOOTH TALK (1985)
Dern earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her first lead role in this film that was initially done for PBS but was released in theaters due to its high quality. Dern got very strong reviews for her role as a teenage girl anxious to explore her sexuality. Her desires lead her into a relationship with a dangerous older man played by Treat Williams.
2. RAMBLING ROSE (1991)
Dern plays a troubled woman who is taken in as a servant by a wealthy family so she can escape her desperate life where she is being forced into prostitution. The film found a place in Oscar history when Dern received a Best Actress Oscar nomination and her mother Diane Ladd also received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film.
1. WILD (2014)
Dern scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Reese Witherspoon’s mother in a film that also earned Witherspoon a Best Actress nomination. The film depicts the complicated relationship between the mother and daughter and how the daughter only comes to understand her mother after the mother’s death. Witherspoon comes to peace with her mother and her grief by taking a days long hike in the wild. Dern is simply incandescent as the caring mother trying to connect with her child.