How the Oscar-Winning Laura Dern Made Us Fall in Love With Unlikeable Women

Kahini Iyer

“DSince her days as Dr Satler, Dern has managed to build an extraordinary career out of the most despised feminine emotions.

For a long time, all was quiet on the Laura Dern front. When she played the lesbian love interest in Ellen Degeneres’ coming out episode on her eponymous show, she was blackballed in the industry. Today, more than 25 years after she won hearts in Jurassic Park, we are fortunate to be living in a glorious renaissance of Laura Dern — celebrated joyfully at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday that saw a choir perform a hilarious song that pays a tribute to everything Laura Dern – the woman who makes ordering a kale salad and dressing “slutty in court” appear like a power move. In the now viral video from the award show, you can see the actress in the crowd, delighted and completely owning the song. And why not? Dern was probably having the best weekend in the world. On Sunday, she bagged the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Marriage Story.

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Suddenly, Dern is everywhere. She appears in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, another massive franchise, as the stern and uncompromising Vice Admiral Holdo. She crops up in Marriage Story with her Oscar-winning turn as a super-sharky divorce lawyer Nora, dripping with sympathy for Nicole, an unhappy woman who will become her client. On the small screen, she’s the fearsome Renata Klein of Big Little Lies, a woman scorned whose fury knows absolutely no bounds. And in Little Women, she channels these shades into Marmee, the gentle, warmhearted matriarch who confesses that she, like the Hulk, is angry every day of her life.

Since her days as Dr Satler, Dern has managed to build an extraordinary career out of the most despised feminine emotions. Her characters revel in being indifferent, autocratic, and sometimes downright crazy. Look at Renata Klein, a terrifying figure who, in a memorable scene, chews out her cheating, good-for-nothing husband with more F-bombs than you’d hear in The Wolf of Wall Street before throwing him out of her car. She threatens her fellow neighbourhood moms with a chilling ferocity and when she’s having a bad day, can make innocent baristas wish they were never born. Renata is, by any metric, a thoroughly unpleasant woman.

And yet, for all her madness, Dern makes sure that Renata moves beyond the caricature of a shrew. Beneath her justifiable rage is the impotence of a woman who has done everything right but whose life is nevertheless going horribly wrong. Similarly, as Vice Admiral Holdo, Dern at first seems like the hidebound commander standing in the way of pilot Poe’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme. But when Poe defies Holdo, he ends up not as a hero but a chastened junior officer. Holdo, it turns out, is in charge for a reason and has bigger plans than Poe could conceive. She ends up sacrificing herself and going down with her ship to save everyone else. In short, the real hero of the story is Dern’s Holdo.

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What Dern does so often is flip an unlikeable woman on her head and reveal what lies beneath.

Laura Dern's characters revel in being indifferent, autocratic, and sometimes downright crazy.

In Marriage Story, she’s just as effective as the ruthless Nora, gobbling the scene when she sweetly consoles Nicole with tissues and tea, but also insisting on “winning” divorce assets even when Nicole doesn’t care. (It’s a unique gift of Dern’s that she feels like the Hollywood star in a quiet film like Marriage Story and the indie artist in a Star Wars blockbuster.) Nora is easily the film’s most commanding presence, calculating and ambitious, always prepared to weaponise emotions. Has her own divorce hardened her, or is that a convenient story she tells potential clients? Dern leaves that interpretation up to us.

This is, after all, her art: subverting how we see women, deflecting our gaze until she shows us her character in full bloom — complicated, layered, and never what it seems. For years now, Dern has unerringly humanised all the feminine traits that have traditionally been portrayed as unacceptable. Her characters aren’t just female versions of flawed men. Instead they’re selfish women who do it all alone, manipulative women who get their way, aggressive women who wield sharp words and blunt force in equal measure. Dern is forever forcing us to reach new conclusions about women we’ve dared to judge too soon. And along with the Academy, on her 53rd birthday, Laura Dern has more than earned her title as 100 per cent that bitch.