‘Nebraska’ isn’t about getting an Oscar

Alexander Payne has had it with snooty critics who think his film is condescending

Merie W. Wallace / Paramount

Just to be clear, Nebraska the movie has nothing to do with Nebraska the Springsteen album. And don’t expect to hear the Boss on the soundtrack, though it would be an obvious hook. That would make the movie, well, less Nebraskan, and not at all typical of Alexander Payne. The 52-year-old writer and director still lives half the year in Omaha, where he was born, and Nebraska, his sixth feature, is the fourth that he’s shot there. He insists that shouldn’t seem strange. After all, it took Woody Allen decades to get out of Manhattan. Nebraska, he says with modest pride, “is the Canada of the United States.”

Payne is among a handful of filmmakers in America—along with the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson—who have won serious acclaim by crafting wry, idiosyncratic comedies on a small canvas. He’s won two screenwriting Oscars (for Sideways and The Descendants), and his films have reaped another 11 nominations. Which may explain why a major studio let him make a black-and-white road movie about a deranged old coot, starring a 77-year-old character actor who had all but vanished off Hollywood’s radar.

Bruce Dern, who won best actor in Cannes this year, gives the performance of his life in his first lead role—as Woody, a grumpy old alcoholic afflicted with dementia who starts walking from Montana to Lincoln, Neb., to claim a million-dollar marketing sweepstakes prize. Unable to convince him it’s a scam, his son, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte, decides to drive him.

This is Payne’s second road movie about an old man on a quixotic mission; he also directed Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. “I was asked if I wanted to cast him a second time, and I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” says Payne, on the phone from L.A. “In history, I would have cast Walter Brennan. Or Henry Fonda—he was also a Nebraskan. He had that distant, repressed Nebraska thing, and by the time he made On Golden Pond, that’s very close to what Woody is.”

Dern’s reputation for wild-eyed, oversized performances seems an unlikely match for Payne’s deadpan style. “But nothing in Mr. Nicholson’s work might have suggested he could be a repressed white Republican in About Schmidt,” says Payne. “I cast Mr. Dern, if nothing else, for his hair. He looks like an old Midwestern guy. I didn’t want him to act too much. You want actors who work on behaviour, not performance.”

Riding a fine line between pathos and satire, Nebraska unfolds as a comedy of Midwestern manners, an almost anthropological portrait of small-town rubes in diners, bars and living rooms that some critics have found condescending. That touches a nerve with Payne. “I cannot control how another human being reads the text,” he says. “I love my characters.” The Coen brothers get a similar rap, he adds. “A good example is Fargo. The same snooty critics say they’re making fun of Minnesotans. But people in Minnesota peed in their pants it was so funny.”

Dern’s cagey portrayal of senility is likely to win hearts, and a best actor nod. But that, too, is a delicate subject. “I don’t want everything to be about the f–king Oscars,” says Payne, while conceding he owes his career to Oscar buzz. “Does it keep me in business? Yes. The thing I lament is that we see good films only in the light of whether they get an Oscar. Where are those films throughout the year? Not just eight of them bunched up at the end, expected to gird for battle.”

Payne gets to cast who he wants and reserve final cut because he keeps his budgets low: Nebraska cost just $13.5 million. But he wants to make larger pictures—a period piece with a generous shooting schedule. “The $25-to-40-million grown-up movie is almost extinct,” he says. “Where is today’s Out of Africa? Where is The English Patient? We can’t just have the large cartoons and then the shrink-wrapped human films which aren’t allowed a lot of embroidery or period feel.”

The answer may lie beyond Hollywood. Just back from Greece, his parents’ homeland, Payne says he’s “very seriously thinking” of making a film there. Who knows? He may become the first Nebraskan to win a foreign-language Oscar.

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