Laura Dern is certainly no stranger to film sets.
“Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd birthed me and bred me on cinema,” she said on Tuesday night in New York City, as she accepted honors at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Film Benefit, presented by Chanel. “I was conceived on a Roger Corman movie called ‘Wild Angels.’ At eight days old, I went on location for the first time, and a chest of drawers in the Mojave Desert became my crib.”
She continued, “The sound of filmmaking has been my own personal score.”
Dern — whose acting career has spanned 40 years, more than 80 onscreen credits and many unbound, unpredictable women who’ve challenged the status quo of gender parity and performance on screen — was feted by friends and collaborators including Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach.
“You can’t put this lady in a box,” Watts — a longtime friend of Dern’s and fellow “David Lynch girl” — said. “From a nimble and brilliant paleo-botanist that helped save the world, to an outlandish, grotesque businesswoman. From a sophisticated, intergalactic space admiral, to a self-destructive, hell-bent data processor, acclaimed documentary filmmaker to cutthroat, high-profile divorce lawyer. And let’s not forget about the rebellious nymphomaniac, and throw in a few complex mothers, druggies and booze bags,” she laughed.
Driver added, “All of her characters seem to only exist in the moment that we just happened to see them, and then will disappear forever. They don’t feel calculated or contrived, but three dimensional and breathing. From ‘Blue Velvet’ to ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Citizen Ruth’ to ‘Marriage Story,’ [in which Driver stars opposite Dern] you’d be correct in assuming that she’s someone more interested in navigating different worlds than being defined by them.”
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On the red carpet, Christie told Variety, “She’s embodied people, she’s embodied women, and shown us all sides of them. She’s shown us the mess, the confusion, the very deep conflict, the abstraction. But she always shows us the truth.”
And that fearlessness Dern has possessed in her characters — choosing often and notably to exalt the disordered, unlikeable, nymphomaniacal or paradoxically tender edges of womanhood, the kind of capaciousness that has made her at home in David Lynch’s world (the pair worked together no less than four times) — she also has in life, leading, as Christie highlighted, the movement for equity and gender justice in Hollywood.
“It was Laura who first told me about the start of a new movement that would become the legal defense fund, Times Up, an organization that insists on safe, fair and dignified work for women at all times,” Christie said on stage. “I had never explored these topics with another actress before that moment, and in telling me how I could specifically make a difference, she opened my mind further, yet again, to how our world could be. Laura is unafraid, and that is incredibly liberating for us to witness in a woman.”
“I feel like we — all who are working right now — have a central role in that change,” Dern told Variety on the benefit’s red carpet. “Because the tides are changing, and there’ve been so many revolutionaries who’ve attempted to change it, but by themselves, in the 40s, in the 60s and 70s, and now again. But now audiences are demanding the change.”
While accepting the honor, Dern shared, “A journalist said to me today, “‘Interesting. You’ve played two women who are in positions of power this year [Dern stars as Norah Famshaw in “Marriage Story and Marmee March in “Little Women,” as well as Renata Klein in HBO’s “Big Little Lies”]. Do you think they’re similar since they’re both in positions of power?”
“And I said ‘No,’” Dern insisted, defiantly. “They’re completely different. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There’s no character trait that’s similar, except they’re women in positions of power, and we haven’t seen them in movies before because there haven’t been women in positions of power to tell their stores.”