Bruce Dern may well be Hollywood's leading actor in dramas about age-related dementia. While being too wide-ranging (and busy) to be typecast in such roles — since turning 80 in 2016, Dern has worked in 36 movies and shows — the actor has thoughtfully mined roles on both the patient and caregiver sides of dementia.
Consider that Dern got his first Emmy nomination at 75 playing a caregiver to someone with dementia on the HBO series Big Love. In 2013, he received his second Oscar nomination for his depiction of a man with dementia in Alexander Payne's Nebraska (2013). Last year, Dern played Charles Manson's dementia-affected landlord in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019). And now in the prolific actor's new film, The Artist's Wife, he portrays a painter partly inspired by Alzheimer's patient Ray Dolby, whose sound systems are found in many U.S. theaters and in 7 billion other devices. (Ray was also the father of the movie's writer and director, Tom Dolby, who's no relation to the singer Thomas Dolby.)
Like the celebrated inventor Dolby, Dern's character is a genius losing touch with his gift. “He has something to say but can't remember the ABCs of painting,” Dern says. The film shows how personality and relationships, as well as art, can persist in the disease's early phases. “Are they aware of what they forget?” Dern asks. “Or are they made aware by the people around them? I can't imagine what that would be like. It would be devastating. It would be like me forgetting how to act."
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Authentic and just a little unpredictable
Dern thinks he's good for such parts because of a life-changing 1961 conversation he had with his mentor, director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront). “Mr. Kazan told me, ‘No one's ever going to know who you are until your 60s.’ I was 25. ‘Because you're not a conventional leading man. You're gonna be the fifth cowboy from the right for about 30 to 40 years. Just be the most unique third cowboy from the right any godd--- person has ever seen!'"
"And that was why I stopped rehearsing.” Instead of rehearsing lines, he began making his characters unique by going off script and improvising lines, scenes that pal Jack Nicholson called “doing Dernsies.” He says Brad Pitt liked the “Dernsy” dialogue Dern improvised for his Alzheimer's-afflicted character better than what director Quentin Tarantino had written, because it made him sound more like a person behaving spontaneously.
In The Artist's Wife, which is about a famous painter (Dern) and his wife (Oscar nominee Lena Olin), who struggles to find her own identity while helping him hold onto his, Olin says such “Dernsies” were the key to their performance together. “Bruce goes for the authenticity — he demands that you just have to work the way he does, unplanned. You really don't know what's going to happen. With his memory issues, his character is somebody who must live in the moment."
Capturing genius as it slips away
To play the artist's wife, Olin had long conversations with Dolby's widow, Dagmar, who gave $21 million to cofound San Francisco's Ray Dolby Brain Health Center. Though the movie isn't about Ray, it does contain scenes inspired by his illness — Dern's character shares Ray's obsessive habit of buying timepieces as his sense of time goes haywire. “He was a tremendous man, larger than life, and for someone who's been in control and sort of leading the crowd his whole life, it's very strange to suddenly be helpless. Dagmar told me, ‘I felt like I was losing my best friend.’ I think she's very brave.”
The film poignantly traces the artist's decline, his ambiguously odd behavior — which he's good at disguising as ordinary, ornery artistic eccentricity — and his wife's journey from denial to understanding. It's about the challenges millions of us will face, the crucial impact of support groups, the pressure families feel to be perfect under pressure, the way a long, strong relationship can tether a patient to reality — or fail to. It's also a brilliant technical challenge for the actors. “He's aware of the past, but not always — is he just improvising?” says Dern. “Sometimes he's making it up as he goes along, and that's what I like to do as an actor."
Though it doesn't shy away from the pain of dementia, The Artist's Wife is not a tale of despair, but of heroism, even hope. Ray Dolby's neurologist has estimated that his healthy diet, exercise regimen and habit of reading to keep his mind active may have staved off his dementia by three or four years. The impact of healthy choices on a patient's condition is incalculable, but you feel it in the film influenced by his family.
Dagmar Dolby saw it and said, “People facing this disease absolutely have to see this film."