An Appreciation of Bruce Dern's Illustrious Film Career

An Appreciation of Bruce Dern's Illustrious Film Career

Over his extensive career spanning six decades, Bruce Dern has delivered an astonishing array of memorable performances across a diverse range of films. From deranged villains to offbeat eccentrics, Dern's nuanced acting has brought complexity and humanity to both leading and supporting roles. This retrospective looks back on some of Dern's most impactful films and characters.

Now I know this is meant to be a Top 10 listing as with previous Actors we have covered, but looking back through Dern's remarkable career we had to narrow it down to 15. Bonus right? With that being said let's begin!

15. Family Plot (1976)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Genre: Thriller/Mystery

Actors: Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, William Devane


Dern shows his incredible versatility as a fast-talking phony psychic trying to locate a missing heir in Hitchcock's final film. With quirky charisma, Dern's scheming, eccentric performance adds intrigue and humor to the suspenseful mystery. His atypical, energetic portrayal highlights Dern's talent for unconventional characters who upend audiences' expectations.

Family Plot

14. The 'Burbs (1989)

Director: Joe Dante

Genre: Comedy/Thriller

Actors: Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern


Dern hilariously satirizes paranoid, gun-ho suburbanites in this comedy-thriller, starring as a gung-ho military vet who becomes convinced his new neighbors are murderers. With his committed, increasingly unhinged performance, Dern pokes fun at notions of neighborhood watches and suspicion of outsiders taken to absurd extremes. His delusional vigilante represents the film's wry skewering of suburban mentalities.

The Burbs

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13. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre: Drama

Actors: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Bruce Dern


As a poverty-stricken farmer competing in a grueling, dangerous 1930s dance marathon, Dern poignantly captures the despair of those struggling for survival in the Depression era. He elicits the era's disillusionment as characters pursue an absurd spectacle in hopes of a cash prize. Dern's wearied performance represents the futile folly of chasing hollow dreams in a callous world.

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

12. After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

Director: James Foley

Genre: Neo-Noir

Actors: Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, Bruce Dern


As the manipulative uncle of the femme fatale, Dern oozes smarmy charm that barely masks his underlying sinister intent. He epitomizes the film's murky morality as he cunningly ropes the protagonists into a dangerous kidnapping scheme. Dern's nuanced performance drives the twists and turns of this neo-noir, ratcheting up the intrigue and air of doom pervading the story.

After Dark My Sweet

11. The Cowboys (1972)

Director: Mark Rydell

Genre: Western

Actors: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern


Dern steals his scenes as the gleefully menacing leader of a group of wanted cattle thieves in this Western. Most shockingly, his dastardly character kills an unarmed John Wayne, an unthinkable subversion of genre tropes at the time. Audiences loved to hate Dern's sneering, murderous villain, who represented a new breed of cynical outlaw in contrast to Wayne's old-school heroic cowboy.

The Cowboys

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10. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre: Western/Mystery

Actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern


As a former Confederate general turned bounty hunter, Dern stirs up plenty of suspicion and trouble amongst the film's untrustworthy band of characters. He represents the post-war era's enduring racial conflicts and societal corruption. Dern inhabits the unethical role with a natural swagger, sparking tensions that drive the plot while offering social commentary about the Reconstruction period.

The Hateful Eight

9. Silent Running (1972)

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Genre: Sci-Fi

Actors: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin


Dern carries this poignant sci-fi film largely solo, with a nuanced portrayal of a botanist nurturing Earth's last plant life in a spacecraft greenhouse. His subtle acting conveys big themes of environmentalism, humanity's connections to nature, and ethical questions around preserving life. Though the minimalist film rests heavily on Dern's performance, he more than rises to the challenge.

Silent Running

8. Drive, He Said (1971)

Director: Jack Nicholson

Genre: Drama

Actors: William Tepper, Karen Black, Bruce Dern


As a hotheaded college basketball coach who cares only about winning at all costs, Dern represents misguided priorities in college athletics. His intense, bullish performance provides a comic edge to the film's exploration of unrest on campuses during the Vietnam era. Dern excels at capturing his character's obsessive tunnel vision, heedless of the bigger picture.

Drive, He Said

7. Smile (1975)

Director: Michael Ritchie

Genre: Comedy/Drama

Actors: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd


Dern shines in a hilarious supporting role as a sleazy car salesman who serves as the head judge of a small-town beauty pageant. He fully embodies his creepy, lecherous character, satirising the superficial nature of the pageant scene. With his brilliant comedic timing and commitment to the outlandish role, Dern epitomises the film's critique of the questionable characters such contests attract.


6. The Great Gatsby (1974)

Director: Jack Clayton

Genre: Drama/Romance

Actors: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern


As the arrogant and bullying millionaire Tom Buchanan, Dern delivers a standout performance oozing with privilege and old money cockiness. Acting against Robert Redford's more enigmatic Jay Gatsby, Dern's sneering swagger epitomises F. Scott Fitzgerald's critique of the selfishness and snobbery of the callous wealthy class. His embodiment of an arrogant brute compounds the book's themes.

The Great Gatsby

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5. The King of Marvin Gardens (1974)

Director: Bob Rafelson

Genre: Drama

Actors: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn


Dern steals numerous scenes as a gregarious, scheming con man in this moody character drama. Acting opposite a subdued Jack Nicholson, Dern's flashy, charming scammer provides an intriguing contrast while fueling the film's plot. His enthusiastic portrayals of various cons highlights the story's themes of illusion versus gritty reality. Overall, Dern's vivacious performance adds comic edge and thematic depth.

The King of Marvin Gardens

4. Black Sunday (1977)

Director: John Frankenheimer

Genre: Thriller

Actors: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller


As a former Vietnam POW left mentally and emotionally scarred by his experience, Dern delivers an intense and chilling performance as a terrorist plotting to blow up the Super Bowl. Teaming up with a Palestinian group to exact revenge, Dern's deranged yet eerily focused intensity drives the apocalyptic tension around the race to stop the attack. His portrayal of a man warped beyond repair by wartime trauma makes him a truly terrifying villain.

Black Sunday

3. Coming Home (1978)

Director: Hal Ashby

Genre: Drama/Romance

Actors: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern


Dern earned his first Oscar nomination for his explosive portrayal of a deeply damaged Vietnam veteran whose wife falls in love with another paralysed vet while he's deployed. His emotional performance captures the societal rejection and intense trauma experienced by soldiers returning from the war, unable to reintegrate into normal life. As his character spirals between rage and despair, Dern powerfully depicts the human wreckage left in the war's aftermath.

Coming Home

2. Monster (2003)

Director: Patty Jenkins

Genre: Drama/Crime

Actors: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern


As the only prominent male role in this gritty biopic, Dern stands out in a critical supporting role as the one true friend to Charlize Theron's Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute turned serial killer. His gentle and non-judgmental character provides a stark contrast to the trauma and violence inflicted on Wuornos by other predatory men throughout her life. Dern's nuanced performance highlights his character's basic humanity as he supports Wuornos even as her life spirals into murder.


1. Nebraska (2013)

Director: Alexander Payne

Genre: Drama

Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb


In one of his most acclaimed roles, Dern delivers a masterful performance as an ageing, dishevelled father who believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. This prompts a melancholy road trip with his estranged son, during which Dern conveys his character's lifetime of hardship and regret with nuance and pathos. His powerful acting anchors the film's bittersweet tone and poignant themes of family, father-son relationships, mortality, and the struggle of ordinary working folks.



Throughout his prolific career, Bruce Dern has delivered powerhouse performances across a stunning array of films, seamlessly inhabiting both antagonists and anti-heroes. His risk-taking acting continually subverts expectations, bringing raw humanity to characters on the fringes of society. Whether conveying trauma, corruption, delusion, or despair, Dern's nuanced work has enriched some of the most compelling dramas and genre films of the past fifty years. His chameleon-like skills and fearless choices cement Dern's legacy as one of Hollywood's most captivating character actors.

Happy viewing!