In 2020, Laura Dern celebrated with her very first Oscar win for “Marriage Story”! It was a fitting gift to the veteran actress, who has starred in dozens of quality films throughout her lengthy career. Let’s take a look back at her career by ranking her 16 greatest film performances.
Dern began her career as a teenager close to four decades ago. She 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 settle into an acting career isn’t surprising since her father Bruce Dern is a two time Oscar nominee (“Coming Home”, “Nebraska”) and her mother Diane Ladd a three time contender (“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” (1991) and “Wild” (2014), 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 (not to mention her many collaborations with David Lynch), she has also had her fair share of blockbusters, including “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
She’s also had great success on the small screen, winning an Emmy for playing the fiery-tongued Renata Klein on “Big Little Lies,” which also brought her a Golden Globe victory and a SAG bid. She returned to the role for the show’s second season this past year, which earned her a SAG Awards ensemble nomination.
Her role as a tough-as-nails divorce attorney in Baumbach’s domestic drama also earned her victories at the Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice. So it seems like the third time was the charm for this Hollywood legend.
16. CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)
Director and writer: Kelly Reichardt. Starring Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone.
This film was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival and with critics. It has a very favorable 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes but failed to find much of an audience. While Dern’s costars 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.
15. A PERFECT WORLD (1993)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Writer: John Lee Hancock. Starring Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, T.J. Lowther.
This Clint Eastwood film made a lot of news upon its release due mostly to the fact that it featured Kevin Costner in a rare villainous role. He plays 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.
14. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)
Director and writer: Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher.
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.
13. SMOOTH TALK (1985)
Director: Joyce Chopra. Writer: Tom Cole based on the short story by Joyce Carol Oates. Starring Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place, Elizabeth Berridge.
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.
12. 99 HOMES (2014)
Director and writer: Ramin Bahrani. Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Tim Guinee.
This timely film about the mortgage crisis that affected the US 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.
11. THE SON (2022)
Director: Florian Zeller. Writers: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton, based on Zeller’s play “Les Files.” Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins.
In desperate need to help her teenage son whose severe depression seems to be worsening, a mother (Dern) turns to her ex-husband (Hugh Jackman) who now has a family of his own, to help her rescue the boy. Though the film received mixed reviews, Dern earned critical praise for her work as a mother who has come to realize that the only way she can save her son is to swallow her pride and ask for help from the man who wronged her so many years ago. It’s a wonderfully complex character that Dern plays to the hilt.
10. THE MASTER (2012)
Director and writer: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s controversial film “The Master” 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 leads (Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix, Best Supporting Actor for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Best Supporting Actress for Amy Adams) but Dern is also quite compelling in her small role in this film. She plays a disciple of the religion who begins to question her devotion.
9. MASK (1985)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich. Writer: Anna Hamilton Phelan. Starring Cher, Eric Stoltz, Sam Elliott.
While a college student at the University of Southern California 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 since she can’t see his face which repels most people. Dern is quite touching and sensitive in this film that unfortunately got bogged down in off screen controversy regarding the soundtrack. The controversy is thought to be a main reason why Cher and Eric Stoltz were left out of Oscar nominations when they had been considered likely nominees.
8. LITTLE WOMEN (2019)
Writer and director: Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan, Timothee Chalamet.
In bringing Louisa May Alcott’s oft-adapted novel to the big screen once again, Greta Gerwig manages to find modern day themes in the Civil War-era story. “Little Women” centers on the March sisters – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlan) – who deal with issues of feminism and womanhood while growing up in their quaint Massachusetts home. Dern costars as their loving mother Marmee, who raises her daughters while their father fights in the war.
7. WILD AT HEART (1990)
Director and writer: David Lynch. Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe.
Dern reteamed with David 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. Dern’s real-life mother Diane Ladd played her mother and earned an Oscar nomination for her work.
6. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg. Writer: Michael Crichton. Starring Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough.
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.
5. CITIZEN RUTH (1996)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writer: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Starring Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston.
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. Dern is particularly funny in a scene where news crews are shooting outside her house and her giddy reaction is seen both from the inside and outside of the home. The scene also shows Payne’s ability for comic storytelling that would become apparent in his later films.
4. WILD (2014)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Writer: Nick Hornby. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Thomas Sadowski, Cliff de Young.
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.
3. BLUE VELVET (1986)
Director and writer: David Lynch. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini.
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. She is almost always dressed in whites and pinks and she brings a genuine brightness to what is a very dark film.
2. MARRIAGE STORY (2019)
Writer and director: Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Driver, Scarlet Johansson, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta.
Dern won her career-first Oscar for her fiery turn as a ball-busting divorce attorney in Noah Baumbach’s searing domestic drama. “Marriage Story” charts the breakup of a New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his actress wife (Scarlett Johansson), who hopes to move to LA with their son. She hires the manipulative Nora Fanshaw (Dern) to assist her, and things escalate from their. The role brought Dern Best Supporting Actress victories at the Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA and Critics Choice on her way to her Oscar victory, which took place on February 9, 2020 – just one day before her birthday.
1. RAMBLING ROSE (1991)
Director: Martha Coolidge. Writer: Calder Willingham. Starring Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd, Lukas Haas.
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. This was the first and only time that a mother and daughter where nominated for Oscars in the same year.