Village Voice, August 21, 1990, p. 35-39

Wild Child

Laura Dern´s Tales of Sex, Mom, and David Lynch

By Jan Hoffman

Laura Dern VIllage Voice

The story begins at the beginning - in the womb itself. Two decades before David Lynch hatched his new film, Wild at Heart, a Roger Corman protégé named Martin Cohen made Rebel Rousers - a 1967 biker-outlaw spectacle featuring "the townspeople of Chloride, Arizona," as well as Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Dern, his then-wife Diane Ladd, and her real-life eight-months-pregnant belly.

"I couldn´t wait for that picture to be over, honey!" says Diane Ladd with her faint Mississippi drawl. "People out there told me, `Don´t worry, we got a good ol´ doctor when he´s sober!" She has called collect to chat about her daughter, herself, and their first movie together. But now she is remebering its primitive ancestor.

Violent, shocking, ludicrous, and sexually terrifying, Rebel Rousers was a low-rent Lynch film of its time. In one scene, Diane Ladd, as a single pregnant woman who refuses to marry, is arguing over her lover in a white Ford overlooking a sea cliff; suddenly, they feel a vicious rocking. Holding her belly, Ladd starts shrieking: on the car roof is Harry Dean Stanton, in sunglasses and a porkpie hat, tap-dancing in his biker boots, as his companion leer at her and smash a window, blowing marijuana smoke at the couple.

"As soon as we finished shooting that scene I jumped out of the car and started screaming at Harry Dean, `Y´all are taking too many chances with my baby, you´re gonna kill it!` recounts Ladd.

Gang leader Bruce Dern breaks up the attack. Instead, he proposes, they should all go down the beach for a picnic. "Don´t forget the potato salad!" sings out Harry Dean with a twisted grin.

Waiting for them at the campfire are the rest of the gang, most notably Jack Nicholson as Bunny, wearing a knitted wool cap, shades, leather jacket, and a splendiferous pair of horizontally striped black and white pants. The Rebel Rousers offhandedly pistol-whip Ladd´s companion, kicking him in the crotch till he passes out. Running his hands up and down a trembling Ladd, Nicholson sneers, "We got a chick here - it´s the first thing that´s happened to us all day!" The bikers drag race and Bunny wins; Ladd will be his trophy for the night. As darkness settles on the beach and the gang´s girl groupies set up a languid bongo rhythm, Bruce Dern pulls out The Harley Davidson Service Manual and performs a biker wedding ceremony for Bunny and his pregnant, horrified bride. "Regular lubrication and maintenance will help you operate at peak performance," he reads, his voice climbing into frenzied overdrive, "and give you longer life and GREATER RIDING PLEASURE!"

It would be 23 years before Diane Ladd worked again with Harry Dean Stanton. They were reunited by that 1990s rebel rouser, David Lynch.

In Wild at Heart, Lynch´s latest, Harry Dean plays Ladd´s adoring boyfriend, private detective Johnnie Farragut, who she sends across country in pursuit of her cherished, runaway daughter. The role of the daughter, Lula Pace Fortune, is played, in fact, by the very same baby Harry Dean nearly stomped out 23 years ago in Rebel Rousers. With that auspicious beginning, the baby has grown up just fine and weird, thanks, becoming the perfect actress to offer David Lynch´s peculiar vision of American paradise in Blue Velvet; now, once again, she´s his standard-bearer, the erotic, beautiful, true believer in Wild at Heart: Laura Dern.

"Lula only wears clothes that make her think she has nothing on," says Laura Dern during lunch at a casually expensive Santa Monica restaurant around the corner from her apartment. With blond hair that falls softly below her shoulder blades, and an oval face, swan neck, and sharp, surprising features, she looks like a Southern California Modigliani.

"There´s a lot of similarities between us, because there´s a side of me that loves the idea of being a girl, and getting inside my body and feeling wild, warm, sticky, and a dance freak," she amplifies, sucking on a piece of arichoke and waving it for emphasis. "Except I intellectualize things and Lula feels it all from the bottom of her heart. She and I could look at the same dress and I´ll think, 'Oh, that style is so great, it´s so ´40s,' while Lula will think, `Oh, the texture feels like bunny fur, which feels like pussy.` Either way, " she shrugs happily, "we´d both buy it."

Her own outfit is sly, rather than explicit, both hiding and setting off her five foot ten, balletic figure: billowy blue and white polka-dot pants and an unbuttoned blue and white striped shirt that reveals her bare midriff and a tiny strapless polka-dot bikini top. And on her feet, a pair of Keds.

Promoted as "Elvis and Marilyn on the Road to Oz," Wild at Heart is about the insatiable but oddly innocent love between Lula and her boyfriend Sailor (Nicolas Cage), who´s just been paroled for killing the assassin set upon him by Lula´s wicked-witch mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd).

("Manslaughterer, not murderer, honey," Lula chides Sailor. "Don´t exaggerate.")

Fleeing Marietta´s voracious maternal embrace, as well as her new hit men, Sailor and Lula leave home and start traveling across a strange, violent America peopled with crazies played by Willem Dafoe, Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, and seemingly half the cast of Twin Peaks, only to crash-land in ultimate darkness - Big Tuna, Texas. (See Georgia Brown´s review page 55.)

You may remember Laura Dern from her portrayals of radiant child-women in her films, a light who attracts all kinds of moths: the sweet, gentle blind girl who befriends the deformed Rocky Dennis in Mask; Connie, the fevered teenager in Smooth Talk (for which she won the Los Angeles Film Critics New Generation Award) who unwittingly draws in the lubricious Treat Williams; and Sandy, the blushing high schooler who glows as she describes a dream of robins to erstwhile Hardy Boy Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet.

If so, the you will not at all recognize her here in this breakout role as Lula the Lingerie Queen. Though reactions to the film itself have been mixed, word of mouth says this is her star-making performance. Speaking in her maternal family´s playful Southern lilt, Dern chain-smokes Merits, snaps her gum, and adopts a vacant, distracted tone as she tells of being raped at 13 by her Uncle Pooch; when the news on the car radio gets too damn bad, she leaps out to dance off the blues on the side of the road, her long body coiling and uncoiling as she flings her voluminous blond hair over her head, thrusting out her hips in ecstacy. It´s a performance that´s both hot and somehow cheery, knowing and childlike. Sailor comments to her wonderingly, "The way your mind works is God´s own private mystery." David Lynch could be speaking about himself when he says that Lula has "both the mundane and the spectacular swimming inside her."

With its matter-of-fact nudity and wanton undertow, this is not exactly the demure performance that most parents might prefer to see from their "beloved treasure," as Diane Ladd calls her only child. But given that Dern´s third cousin is the man who created Blanche du Bois and Big Daddy, that her father made a handsome career of playing drug freaks and psychos, and that in Wild at Heart her mother smears carmine lipstick all over her own face as if it were night cream, Laura Dern´s extraordinary portrayal of Lula Pace Fortune is, in its own fashion, a triumph of good breeding.

It takes nothing away from Dern´s estimable gifts to cast her as the child of a generation og highly principled, bohemian actors who made their mark in New York and Hollywood in the late ´50s and ´60. On the New York stage, Actors Studio graduates eschewed popular Broadway musicals and paved the way for Off-Off-Broadway: Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern met during their acclaimed 1960 Off-Broadway production of Diane´s cousin Tennessee´s Orpheus Descending. They were actors´ actors - acting for them was a higher calling that required training and intellectual rigor; the Method taught them to collaborate with the text by summoning up private, sensory memories. The theater for them was not elitist art, but populist, and the plays they acted in explored the grime of American life.

And many of them brought these ideas to the film business. In California, Bruce Dern and his peers - Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and later Peter Fonda - no less serious about their craft, sought out the nasty roles, celebrating an edgy, outlaw sensibility. Their god was James Dean. "They were the nihilist brat pack of their day," notes Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey.

Adds New York Post critic David Edelstein: "They put cobwebs around their lines, their timing is strange, delayed, and their rhythms are usually offbeat. None of them seem comfortable playing unambiguous winners. They have a different sort of vanity: they´re drawn to scuzziness and believe they can be far more attractive if they´re unattractive."

Laura Dern´s extended Hollywood family included weird uncles Nicholson and Stanton, pals of her father who knew her as an infant, and especially her mother´s staunch Method actress friends Susan Strasberg, Lee Grant, Colleen Dewhurst, and her godmother, Shelley Winters. "Those women are about as eccentric and wonderful as it gets," Derns says warmly, "though some people might have thought they were over-the-top."

Thoughtful, witty, remarkably level-headed, though certainly, by her own admission, quirky - her homeopathic veterinarian calls her at the restaurant with a sick-cat update - Dern remembers watching her mother´s friends ride the actor´s endless rollercoaster of winning and losing jobs. "But the greatest lesson those women taught me was to remain an idealist despite the fact that you could easily become cynical about it."

"And not that you can´t become bitter! My parents have both been nominated for Oscars " - Ladd for Alice Doesn´t Live Here Anymore, Dern for Coming Home - "but they´ve still had hard times, too. But meanwhile they believe in the comedy of it all.

"They understand it´s a business and that actors are bought and sold, but just love acting. They have a lot of morals about what they do, and I was raised with all that," says Laura, who has been taking acting classes since she was nine.

Like her parents, Laura Dern has come to attention in independent films - Smooth Talk, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart - rather than major studio productions, points out Carrie Rickey. And all three are continuing in that vein: Bruce Dern appears next in After Dark, My Sweet, based on the noirish Jim Thompson novel, Diane Ladd will be producing Martha and starring in it as Martha Mitchell, and Laura is set to play a maid in a small Southern town who´s castigated for her sexual confidence in Ramblin´ Rose, directed by Martha Coolidge (Real Genius) and produced by Dern´s new beau, director Renny Harlin.

But among her contemporaries who went into the family business - Donald Sutherland´s son Kiefer, Martin Sheen´s boys Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, even Eric Robert´s baby sister Julia - Dern belongs inside the circle that includes only Vanessa Redgrave´s daughter Natasha Richardson, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott´s son Campbell, and possibly Peter Fonda´s daughter Bridget, as actors who choose adventurous, socially responsive films. "I don´t have traditional commercial instincts," shrugs Laura Dern.

She is especially pulled towards roles that explore sexuality and relationships. "My mother´s friends taught me to stop and think: why is the character naked here? They made me realize I have to be madly in love with the role and the movie to do it. And to believe on some level that the movie will make a difference.

"And I believe in Lula: she could have been seen as a bimbette, but in a way she´s also incredibly pure, and I think of her as good example of female sexuality and independence."

Unlike her parents, Dern has little background in the theater; that´s not such a detriment because the scale of film acting is so different. "Both of Laura´s parents are very stagey on screen," says Rickey. "Laura´s not - she can be as small as life. In Blue Velvet she behaved as is she really believed in the script; while everyone else was acting grotestque or bizarre, she was dewy and fresh - and that´s what made the movie so creepy."

Notes Edelstein: "Laura has a way of trancing out in a role that reminds me of her father, but it doesn´t stick out, it´s much more modulated. Both she and Bridget Fonda don´t appear to be trying hard, like other young actors do. They radiate natural comfort, so they hold the camera almost because they don´t need to. Laura Dern is like a young Jessica Lange or a Debra Winger - you never catch any of them 'acting'".

In both her mother´s rendition and her own, the tales of Laura´s precocious life as an actress have a fond, oft-told feel. There is, of course, the Rebel Rousers debut ("My parents played lovers in the biker film before it, The Wild Angels, but that was before I was conceived," says Dern; they divorced when she was two, so the only time she´s seen them be romantic together is on the videotape of Angels). Then there were the two-frame flashes of her as a toddler-extra while visiting Diane on the set of Burt Reynold´s White Lightning, and as a seven-year-old while her mother was working as Flo the waitress in Alice Doesn´t Live Here Anymore. On that set, reports Ladd, little Laura licked ice cream cones through a zillion takes, until her mother protested to the director that her child was going to get sick. "`No she´s not,` Marty [Scorsese] said, `she´s gonna be an actress.`"

But these early stories all take place in her mother´s camp; until Laura became a teenager and her relationship with her father began to solidify, Bruce Dern, who moved to Malibu after the divorce, was largely absent from her life. Schoolkids teased her unmercifully because her dad shot John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys and his head landed in a hatbox in Bette Davis´s arms in Hush Hush... Sweet Charlotte, it was impossible to make them understand that her father was just a regular guy who really did leave his work at the office.

In fact, while her mother´s family features a roster of antic Southern characters liek Great Aunt Johnnie B., her Choate-educated father is the black sheep of a wealthy Illinois blueblood clan of department-store magnates and statesmen. Her great-grandfather was governor of Utah and the secretary of war under Roosevelt who rejected Einstein´s advice to develop the atomic bomb (one of the reasons why Laura took a modest role in the antinuclear film, Fat Man and Little Boy). Poet laureate Archibald MacLeish was a great-uncle.

Particularly because Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd had lost their first daughter, a toddler, in a drowning accident, Laura was never away from her mother for more than one week at a time - Ladd took her out of school and flew her to a set if she was on a long shoot. Otherwise, she was cared for by her grandmother, not a nanny.

Diane Ladd´s a bit over-the-top herself, and her conversation is revved up with asides about the Aquarian Age, spirituality and nutrition, and the Holy Grail of pure acting. "Long before Shirley MacLaine was out on a limb," she chuckles, "I was out on a branch!" Even David Lynch´s remarks, "Diane´s a piece of work, isn´t she?" (About Lynch, she says, "When David shows violence, you get sick, and that is fiiiine by me.")

But the devotion between mother and daughter is incontrovertible. Ladd "was a bohemian, but she was also a basic mom," says her daughter, who has just finished a three-day juice-fast taught to her by her basic mom. "The kind of mom, who, when you´re a sick little kid and you´d have to stay home from school, she´d bring" - and Dern begins to tick off a list in a deliberate childlike singsong - "coloring books, and crayons, and something new for my dollhouse, and a bone for my dog that I could give him on my bed, and the Bhagavad-Gita, and a book on yoga for children..."

In the wake of her mother´s career, Laura moved around metropolitan Los Angeles and spent a few years in New York, when Ladd was doing the soap The Secret Storm. But by the time she was in the fourth grade, they were parked in California, and Laura attended a San Fernando Valley private school were she flourished, graduating a semester early with an impressive file of brownie points: debate team, top grades, student-boy president, homecoming princess.

And, to her mother´s pride and chagrin, she had also become a professional working actress. She had gotten bitten by the bug hard and early, so Ladd insisted that she study the profession before flinging herself around on auditions: "I told Laura, 'The w in wisdom stands for willpower! And if you drop the w, all you have left of the word ìs dumb`.`"

So when Laura was nine, she gave up the next two years of horseback riding and playing with girlfriends on Saturdays and Sunday mornings for acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. At 11, she won over an agent she´d met at a Hollywood party, and the lied about her age to first-time director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction), who was casting for Foxes, produced by novice David Puttnam (later to be ex-head of Columbia Pictures): The part went to older woman Jodie Foster, but Dern got a small role, which required her to talk about birth control and diaphragm at a party. "I thought a diaphragm was something you breathed with inside, so David Puttnam had to tell me some facts very quickly."

Though Bruce Dern´s films include The Trip and Psych-Out, drugs were not an integral part of family life, and says Laura, "I was never chemically rebellious, only emotionally rebellious." She was taught an aversion to substance abuse by the experts: when she was 12 going on 13, she spent four months in Vancouver filming Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, a rock´n´roll movie starring members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

"I went from my eighth-grade English class, where the teacher was reading a section of The Diary of Anne Frank aloud that talks about Anne getting her period for the first time and all the boys giggling in embarrassment, to having my head shaved, dyed jet-black with a white stripe down the middle, and playing the part of a bass guitarist.

"When people were passing joints, the musicians actually pushed them away from me. Once, as some people from the film were snorting, this one musician said to me, `Don´t do what I´ve done, I´ve destroyed my life.` And when the Sex Pistols tell you not to get involved in drugs..."

After she graduated from high school and moved out of her mother´s house, Dern played in quick succession a high school teen whose gym teacher gets her pregnant in Teachers and the blind girl in Mask. On the second day of her freshman semester at UCLA, where she´d intended to major in psychology and minor in the arts, she landed the part of Connie in Joyce Chopra´s small, disturbing film, Smooth Talk.

With Mary Kay Place as her well-meaning but nagging mother, Laura is a restless 15-year-old who invites and runs from the attention of boys, without a clue as to what she´s getting herself into. Her performance is layered and continually unfolding, as Connie starts out a cocksure child who eventually collapses in tears when an adult man indeed comes lusting.

Only two years older than the character herself, Dern understood Connie completely. "Connie didn´t really want sex - she had that need for men to think she´s pretty and to make her feel that she´s a woman. I think boys´ fantasy life is much more about sex, and girls is much more about kissing. I mean, when you were 14, did you ever fantasize about the actual...? I didn´t.

"So the guy [Treat Williams] pulls up to her house and says he wants to take her for a drive because, `you´re the one.` Isn´t that just what she was waiting to hear?

"Once I asked my dead, `What does it mean when you men say, "You´re the one?"` And Dad says, `Well, really what they´re saying is, "You´re one of the ones." It´s not that you´re a fabulous one, but there are going to be other ones, and there have already been ones before.`"

After Smooth Talk, Dern registered at the University of Southern California. This time, she lasted a full semester, and then she was finished for good: David Lynch had beckoned her for Blue Velvet.

"I told her that if she dropped out of college, she´d be rich, famous, and stupid!" says Diane Ladd.

As for Lynch, when asked why he cast her, he says simply, "She was the one."

David Lynch had observed, with apparent sincerity, that the speech he most closely identifies with in Blue Velvet is Sandy´s (Dern´s) monologue about a world set free for love by robins. In Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Dern becomes a stand-in for Lynch´s unabashed if self-conscious longings for a beatific world. Though Sandy and Lula present themselves quite differently, there´s an untarnishable center, a clarity and sweet hopefulness common to both, their love for their men is challenged in the most baroque and savage ways, but the more firmly they hang in there, the more dignity they acquire.

And in each film, Dern is Lynch´s earnest commentator. "Are you a detective or a pervert?" she asks Kyle MacLachlan (whose four-year relationship with Dern ended around the time he turned into detective-pervert Agent Dale Cooper), which could be exactly the kind of question that the director might ask of himself. And she sounds the anthem for the new film when she says to Nick Cage, "This whole world´s wild at heart and weird on top."

In the course of working with Lynch over two films, Dern has come to trust him implicitly: "I went to the College of David Lynch. And he´s getting progressivel more intuitive with me. He used to use whole sentences, now he uses just a word or a phrase: "`More bubblegum,`or `a little more myster`. Or he´ll talk about colors. When we were at Cannes, a reporter asked him what Wild at Heart was about and he said, `Well, it starts out sort of green and it end up... tan-brown.` And you know, that basically sums up the experience for us."

Lynch, who has become fast friends with Dern, says, "She used to be more like Sandy. But she´s going through a lot of changes, and then she became ready for Lula." Indeed, in Dern´s own telling, the role of Lula was something of a catharsis - "I needed to find a part of me that was her instead of making her up." Doing Lula, she says, gave her permission to own up to her erotic nature. "Now I´ve got the largest G-string collection in America."

Dern´s willingness to open herself up to the role was matched in intensity only by her mother, says Lynch. "If you can find a way to make something happen within the realm of human behavior," he remarks, "both Diane and Laura will do it,"

"Laura is so open and honest," raves Diane Ladd. "Of course I put it all out there, too."

"I´ve had a few great artistic experiences in my life. The first one was when Bruce and I were babies, and we did Orpheus Descending and made my cousin´s play a hit. And now acting with Laura has made me feel like a true artist again. It´s a long time between drinks, honey, let me tell you."

"It was a dream come true to work with Mom," says Laura. "She went completely out there and it blew my mind."

There is an emotional scene near the end of the film where Marietta finally catches up to her daughter. Outside a dusty small-town jail, they embrace each other, sobbing. as Dern was getting ready to go in front of the camera, concentrating, she dimly heard someone trying to get her attention. Then she heard Diane Ladd´s sharp reprimand, "Leave Laura alone! She´s preparing!"

Ladd recounts fondly: "Well, the scene started and we looked in each other´s eyes."

Two generations of Method actresses meeting in Lynchland. "We both have been through a lot of stuff together and we both just really lost it, looking at each other cry."

"And I knew what memory Laura was using to get the tears and she knew which one I was using," says Ladd. "What were they? Honey, we´ll never tell.

"So we went right at it. And after the scene was over, we hugged each other, and everybody was so moved."

"Then," says Laura, "we just started howling with laughter. The crew looked at us like we were both crazy."

Before shooting on Wild at Heart had commenced last summer, Lynch suggested that Cage and Dern take her black Jeep Cherokee on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas to get into the campy-Americana swing of things. By the time they returned, enthusing about their mutual appreciation for tacky souvenirs, Caesars Palace, and beef jerky, "We agreed that Sailor and Lula needed to be one person, one character, and we would each share it. I got the sexual, wild, Marilyn, gum-chewing, fantasy, female side; Nick got the snakeskin, Elvis, raw, combustible, masculine side. And David was the watcher."

As Dern got deeper into the film, Lula stayed with her off the set too. On one delirious New Orleans night that her pal Nick Cage describes as "a lot of lighter fluid and vomit," about 14 of the cast and crew stormed into the venerable Antoine´s. "I guess we upset a tux ´n´ pearls crowd," Dern recalls, "because we were in a Wild at Heart mood, and we made a lot of toasts to `hard sex.`" Adds Cage, "I remember waiters pouring flaming drinks on our various private parts to warm them up."

Lula the Lingerie Queen allowed Dern to work up the kind of positive if raunchy image of female sexuality that she thinks is missing from most films. To some extent, the character could be described as what happened to Connie, five years and 10 lovers down the line. In the most sexually charged, complex scene in Wild at Heart, reminiscent of the terrifying seduction in Smooth Talk, a slimy hoodlum (Willem Dafoe) traps Lula in an airless motel room, advancing on her with lewd, relentless menace, committing to what amounts to verbal rape. She backs away, she screams, she shoves him - but she chooses to stay.

Though her character ends the scene in tears, Dern, somewhat surprisingly, prefers to think of the duel as a covert triumph for Lula: "That scene is about titillation versus repulsion, about Lula´s attraction to the dark side. But in the end she is in control of the sexuality, because although he leaves thinking he was in charge, I had the orgasm and he had nothing."

But Dern thinks the real accomplishment of the film is that it suggests passion is durable: Lula and Sailor´s desire for each other survives two jail terms and eight years, at least three murders, single parenthood, and her own mother. "You know, I´m so tired of love and committment being presented as a bore in the movies. Nicolas and I wanted to prove that Sailor and Lula´s love could be cool and sexy, that committment could be hot."

She responds to a quizzical look. "Hey! Doing dishes with someone can be a sensual experience; the hot water, the suds, the feel of the cold plate against your hand, the grease, the butter on the edge of the dish."

She laughs at her own excess, but she stays in character: "And darlin´, I try my darndest to put that in my own relationships."