Top 10 Greatest Laura Dern Performances
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
2019 saw her finally attain Oscar glory, but there were already so many great Laura Dern performances to choose from. For this list, we'll be looking at the very best performances delivered by this talented star over the course of her career. Our countdown includes “Big Little Lies,” “Marriage Story,” “Jurassic Park,” and more!
2019 saw her finally attain Oscar glory, but this actor has been blowing critics away for decades. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Laura Dern Performances.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the very best performances delivered by this talented star over the course of her career.
#10: Renata Klein
“Big Little Lies” (2017-)
In this critically acclaimed HBO series (an adaptation of the novel by the same name), Laura Dern plays Renata Klein, a powerful, career-driven woman. Unafraid of speaking her mind, she’s fiercely protective of her daughter, Annabelle, and won’t hesitate to go to war for her. Juggling so many things at once, Renata tends to be very high-strung, and while she can be difficult to get along with, she’s not unsympathetic. It’s a complex character to play, but Dern navigates the task admirably; in one scene, she plays Renata as an unflappable alpha with razor-sharp wit who can rant with the best of them, the next, she’s showing genuine vulnerability, forcing an audience who hated the character just a few episodes earlier to empathize with her.
#9: Laura Wells
“Certain Women” (2016)
Even when performing alongside a cast of talented actors like Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern stands out. 2016’s “Certain Women” investigates the overlapping personal and professional lives of three women. Dern plays Laura Wells, an attorney in small town Montana, who finds herself dragged into a life-and-death altercation by one of her clients, who has suffered a workplace injury and been treated unfairly. It’s a tightly crafted and beautiful film, small in scope but big in terms of emotional impact. Wells finds herself in a no-win situation. Her client’s life is spiralling out of control, and while he’s chosen a self-destructive path, Wells is forced to grapple with her own complicity in his plight. It’s an understated but evocative performance.
#8: Katherine Harris
A woefully underrated film, largely overlooked by the general public because it was released on television, “Recount” dramatically retells the Bush vs. Gore case that unfolded as a result of the 2000 presidential election. Directed by Jay Roach (who would later helm 2019’s “Bombshell”), the film did receive some criticism for the liberties it took with the story in fictionalizing events, but the performances were universally acclaimed. Dern plays Katherine Harris, then Secretary of State in Florida, who played a major role in the controversial recount proceedings. Dern was nominated for both an Emmy and SAG award, and walked away with a Golden Globe for her performance. Dern wholly inhabits the role, playing Harris as seemingly aloof and uninformed, but also incredibly shrewd and decisive.
#7: Dr. Ellie Sattler
“Jurassic Park” (1993)
If we were making a list simply of Laura Dern’s most iconic or beloved roles, this would probably be at the top of our list. What relegates this performance to seventh place is that, with “Jurassic Park” being a blockbuster sci-fi/adventure film, Dern isn’t given as much opportunity to flex her dramatic abilities as she does in other films. But even sharing the screen with the likes of Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough and T.Rex, she shines bright. Dern plays paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Satler, who’s brilliant and a natural problem solver. While Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant is all business, Satler is more naturally curious, outwardly caring and relatable. The performance is over 25 years old, but we’re still quoting it: “Woman inherits the earth.”
#6: Lula Pace Fortune
“Wild at Heart” (1990)
This 1990 black comedy/romantic crime film is a wild ride. But what else would you expect from a movie straddling that many genres and directed by master of the weird, David Lynch? In the film, Dern plays Lula, a young woman on the run with her boyfriend, Sailor, from the thugs that her mother has hired to kill the latter. Lula and Sailor are the very definition of ‘young and reckless’- they live fast and rarely think of tomorrow. Cage leans into the larger-than-life role (as he is wont to do), and somehow Dern manages to keep pace. She plays Lula as naive but fiercely willful — a creature of passion who veers into manic territory without ever coming across as a parody of youth.
#5: Sandy Williams
“Blue Velvet” (1986)
Before Lula the wild child, Dern played the polar opposite character for David Lynch in “Blue Velvet”. Sandy Williams is the innocent daughter of Detective John Williams and pretty much the quintessential All-American love interest. In fact, she’s intended as the embodiment of good, a pillar of morality in Lynch’s cinematic world that is otherwise rife with corruption and skewed lust. Under the guidance of any other director this would have likely resulted in her character being two-dimensional, but Dern manages to play Sandy as both moral and complex. Sandy proved to be Dern’s breakout role, in no small part thanks to her unforgettable delivery of this monologue(monologue). Dern would much later again reunite with Lynch as Nikki/Susan in 2006’s “Inland Empire”.
#4: Ruth Stoops
“Citizen Ruth” (1996)
This darkly satirical comedy places Dern front and center as the titular Ruth Stoops. A young addict and mother of four, Ruth has casual sex in unsavory places, huffs inhalants, regularly gets arrested and has had her children taken away from her by the state. When she finds herself facing felony charges and pregnant for the fifth time, she’s suddenly thrust into the spotlight of the abortion debate. Playing against type, Dern really makes you believe in her portrayal of the wayward and desperate Ruth, who is lost and understandably overwhelmed, but also not one to pass up an opportunity. It’s a nicely balanced performance; even as she navigates the serious minefield that is the film’s subject, Dern manages to bring humor to Ruth’s situation.
#3: Jennifer Fox
“The Tale” (2018)
Another television film, another Laura Dern performance that far too few people have seen! In 2018’s “The Tale”, Dern plays Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker who unexpectedly finds herself revisiting the trauma of a sexual abuse in her childhood. Adding to the impact of this film is the fact that it’s a true story, written and directed by the real Jennifer Fox. Dern earned a number of nominations for her performance, but not nearly enough attention considering the power of her acting. Dern is tasked with conveying a myriad of strong and conflicting emotions as the character reappraises past events from her life, and Dern does a formidable job of portraying the complexity of processing this trauma. It’s a staggering performance.
#2: Nora Fanshaw
“Marriage Story” (2019)
In Noah Baumbach’s 2019 dissection of modern love and divorce, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both turn in captivating performances. But, despite being relegated to a supporting role, Laura Dern absolutely steals every scene in which she appears. As Nora Fanshaw, the lawyer representing Johansson’s character Nicole, Dern is a force. She is exceedingly charming, sympathetic and approachable, not to be underestimated. She can deliver a compliment and make a scathing implication in the same breath. Nora Fanshaw is the definition of unflappable; no matter what life throws at her, she greets with a smile, all the while dancing circles around her adversaries. It’s a juggling act few actors could manage, but Dern does it with grace, winning an Academy Award for her performance.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Little Women” (2019)
“The Master” (2012)
“Rambling Rose” (1991)
As in “Wild at Heart”, “Rambling Rose” once again saw Laura Dern acting opposite her real life mother, Diane Ladd; for their efforts, mother and daughter were nominated in the categories of Best Supporting Actress (Ladd) and Best Actress (Dern). A period piece, the film is set during the Great Depression. In it, Dern plays the titular Rose, a young woman and orphan who goes to work for a more affluent family. Once there, she becomes sexually involved with both the patriarch, Mr Hillyer, and his 13-year-old son, Buddy. A tale of morality, promiscuity, gender roles and ownership over one’s body, “Rambling Rose” makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience, but Dern is absolutely captivating in a tour de force performance.