Somewhere near the middle of Alexander Payne’s new movie Nebraska, a young boy rides up on a bicycle to take a photo of Woody Grant for the local newspaper. Woody has, or so he believes, won a million dollars in a merchandising sweepstakes. He has become a celebrity in Hawthorne, the small fictional Nebraska town he left years ago to move to Billings, Montana, to open an auto repair shop. Driven by his younger son, David, he is on his way to Lincoln to pick up his winnings, and they have stopped for a few days for a family reunion of sorts.
When this youngster appeared on screen with his camera, I wanted to step into the frame and call out, “Grow up fast, young man, and get out of this town!” But his moment in the movie was too fleeting. Assignment completed, he was on his way, perhaps already heeding my unspoken advice.
Nebraska is yet another indication that older actors are not only getting great parts but playing them with enormous skill and imagination. Bruce Dern (77) as Woody, Judy Squibb (83) as his wife Kate, Stacy Keach (72) as Ed Peagram, Woody’s former business partner—all create memorable portrayals of individuals aging in place but not particularly happy about it. Of the younger actors, David (Will Forte) holds his own with the veterans.
Filmmakers typically name their characters purposefully. Woody Grant is obviously a reference to Grant Wood, whose painting “American Gothic” of an Iowa farmer and his daughter is both iconic and mysterious. It has been seen as a satire on the rigidity of rural American life, an ode to Midwestern values of hard work and domesticity, a reflection of a dying American past, a mourning picture, and many other interpretations. Alexander Payne, who is from Nebraska and lives in Omaha half-time, knows the territory. Some parts of his film can be seen as satire, while other parts reflect his affection for the area.
Exquisitely filmed in black and white, the bleak landscape of decaying towns, abandoned farms, and endless flat roads is like a character in the movie. But the landscape is no bleaker than the people who inhabit it—Woody, old and an alcoholic, bent on what seems to be a fool’s errand; his sharp-tongued and feisty wife, Kate; their baffled and helpless sons, David and Ross. On the outer circle are Woody’s grim and laconic family and the elderly townspeople—all the people who never left and who both envy and covet Woody’s supposed good fortune. Some are faux-friendly; a few are mean or at least willing to have a laugh at Woody’s expense.
Dern portrays Woody as a shambling wreck of a man but, at least in my view, one who is not above some manipulating to get where he wants to go. He doesn’t wander in the conventional sense of dementia behavior, but sets out on foot to get to Lincoln. The police pick him up and bring him to the station where David retrieves him. Woody is the one who suggests—was this his plan all along?—that David drive him if he’s so determined to keep him from walking. Woody is a bit of a trickster, and maybe he knows that the letter from the sweepstakes company is also a trick.
Nebraska is a road movie of a different sort—the companions are Woody and David, accompanied at some points by Kate and older son Ross. And it is in David’s attempts to establish a connection with his father that the movie moves beyond its specific setting and achieves some universality. Woody is totally uncommunicative about his past, even when David asks pointed questions about his early life and decision to get married and have children. In Hawthorne, David gets brief glimpses of the man his father was—a soldier, an attractive man sought by two women, a generous brother (or maybe not), a cheating business partner (or maybe not)—from Woody’s family and the townspeople. But nothing from Woody himself. David is at a loss to know what to make of his own life, and so he searches for clues from his father’s life.
Don’t we all in some way try to understand our lives in relation to our parents? Sometimes that means emulating them, and sometimes it means distancing ourselves from them. Although I am nothing like my mother (I keep telling myself), I sometimes stop short and hear her words coming from my mouth, especially about clothing and proper behavior. Like David in the movie, I tried in vain to learn more about my parents’ meeting and courtship (apparently there was another woman in the picture). How did my immigrant grandparents get to the small town where I grew up? Why did my grandfather go to Russia in the 1930s for a few years? No one would talk about these things. And what of my children? Do they have unanswered questions about my life—or my late husband’s? Or our marriage? Have I given them what they want to know, while keeping certain aspects private?
Despite all odds, Nebraska has a rather sweet if improbable ending. Woody gets what he wanted after all, and one hopes that David did, too.
Carol Levine, 78, is director of the Families and Health Care Project of the United Hospital Fund and a Hastings Center Fellow. She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1993 for her work in AIDS policy and ethics.