Growing up in Haw Thorne

Monday, December 9, 2013

In November 2013, the new Alexander Payne movie, "Nebraska" had its Nebraska Premier showing in Norfolk, to an appreciative audience, including a large delegation from Plainview. One of the towns featured in that movie was called "Hawthorne," but they couldn't fool Plainview-ites.

There for all to see was my home town of Plainview, despite the movie name change. I have always been proud of the fact that I was from Plainview, and have fond memories of growing up there in the '30s and '40s. But now, since my hometown has become famous, because of that movie, perhaps I need to change my story and begin claiming Hawthorne as my old stomping grounds.

In 2012 there was great excitement in Plainview over the news that Omaha native, Alexander Payne was making a major Hollywood film, in which several Nebraska towns, including Plainview, would be featured. Part of that excitement, I'm sure, was the hope that local citizens would be included in the film -- their first step to a glamorous Hollywood career, but probably more realistically, that Plainview would get well-deserved attention and its 15 minutes of fame and glory.

Alexander Payne is a well-respected Hollywood director, and has used Nebraska as the backdrop for his movies several times before. He likes stories about journeys and in this film has used Nebraska localities as the scene of action, bringing his entire crew on location.

His movies have been well-received -- "About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson, comes to mind.

During this period the Plainview News was full of pictures of the director, the stars of the film, and the familiar landmarks of town, done up in their new "Hawthorne" trappings.

But there was also a huge dose of reality. For one thing, the movie, entitled "Nebraska," would be shot in stark black and white -- and Plainview was not pictured as a glamorous place, but rather as a typical small town rather in a cycle of decline.

The signs on the buildings were changed, so it was not always easy to pick out familiar landmarks.

I know that some of the businesses in town were hoping to profit by the presence of a large film crew in town. The new Plainview Steak House had been created by local civic boosters, after a long-time popular restaurant was sold and subsequently torn down. The manager of the Steak House related how he had prepared to feed the film crew during the time of shooting in Plainview.

Instead, what happened was that the film crew brought their own, huge, catering trailer to town and took care of all meals. By the end of the day everyone was tired, to the extent that they did not even stop in for "Happy Hour" -- instead, choosing to return to the accommodations they had left in Norfolk.

Despite carping about the details, which some in Plainview certainly did, it is generally agreed that Alexander Payne made a very fine movie, and most of the people in Plainview are positive about the experience.

This past week the Plainview City Manager had a glowing account about his experiences with the movie crew. They had fulfilled all of their promises -- including restoring any changes they had made while filming, leaving things better than they had been. More, which seemed to be very important to the city manager, the movie company had duly given Plainview credits and thanks at the end of the picture. He said they would be welcome to come back any time.

Nebraska has had a long relationship with Hollywood and the film industry, and is viewed as a place where making a picture is a positive experience. In Hollywood, the Nebraskans in the industry have their own organization, numbering in the hundreds, where actors, directors, crew members, with Nebraska connections, come together on a regular basis to share experiences, and help one another to advance their individual careers. At a recent meeting Alexander Payne was the guest speaker. He told about his latest picture, "Nebraska," and some of the experiences they had had filming the film on location in Nebraska. Then he pointed to the long list of prominent film players who could claim roots in Nebraska. Just part of that list: Fred Astaire (who was born in Omaha, but frequently visited is grandparents in Plainview, before he and his sister, Adele left to wow audiences on two continents with their dancing. When Adele broke up their duo to marry a British Nobleman, Fred returned to the U.S. and continued on with Ginger Rogers); Marlon Brando; Montgomery Clift; James Coburn, Sandy Dennis (who had relatives in McCook and used to visit frequently.); Henry Fonda, David Janssen; Harold Lloyd; Dorothy McGuire; Nick Nolte; Robert Taylor; Larry the Cable Guy; Darryl Zanuck, the great director from Wahoo.

These individuals and many others have given many hours of pleasure to millions via their films -- and in many cases have brought a bit of Nebraska common sense to the make-believe world of Hollywood.

Payne's story, in 'Nebraska,' tells of crusty, old, slightly demented, alcoholic, Woodrow T. Grant. Woody is on a mission from his home in Billings, Montana.

He has gotten a letter saying that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake -- the same kind of letter we have all gotten. Most of us realize that is just a come-on, a lead in to a scheme of some sort, in this case a plan for selling magazine subscriptions.

His family and friends attempt to convince him that the letter is nothing, but Woody is determined to claim his prize, by making the trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, the headquarters of company issuing the letter.

"I'm not trusting the mail with my million dollars. I'm picking it up myself!" Woody's sharp-tongued wife and older son think the old man has really gone off the deep end and have washed their hands of the plan (His wife remarks, "I never knew the dumb cluck even wanted to be a millionaire!")

But his younger son, Will agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln -- to keep Woody from getting lost or hurt. On the way, the two are able to clear up some misunderstandings, and Will is able to forget, or at least forgive Woody's absences from his life while he was growing up.

The movie is listed as a comedy, which it is, but Payne takes the opportunity to explore some complicated feelings that the characters harbor.

Bruce Dern, who plays Woody, has long been a presence in Hollywood films, playing quirky characters, and frequently the villain---notably in the 1972 film "The Cowboys," when Dern's character shot the John Wayne character in the back and killed him. His role in "Nebraska," Dern feels, is the role of a lifetime -- clearly the best of his long career so far.

Seventy-seven-year-old Bruce Dern was certainly born with the proverbial "silver spoon in his mouth."

His father was a prominent Chicago attorney; his paternal grandfather was a former governor of Utah and later the Secretary of War in Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet.

On his mother's side, Dern's Great Uncle was the poet, Archibald MacLeish. His godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. There were always high-powered people at the dinner table and Dern remembers that he had to raise his hand to speak. Needless to say, his family was dead set against an acting career for young Bruce -- but he, too was headstrong, and followed his heart, first to the stage, and then to Hollywood.

Will Forte, best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, makes a successful transition to his more dramatic role as David, Woody's long-suffering younger son.

"Nebraska" has been enthusiastically received since it came out. It was nominated for outstanding picture at the Cannes Film Festival, and has received much favorable attention from film critics in the United States since it was released.

But it seems that actor Bruce Dern has received the most attention. He was named Best Actor at Cannes for his role in "Nebraska" and apparently is one of the front runners for this year's Oscar Award for Best Actor. We hope he wins. It's fun to see Nebraska and your old hometown on the silver screen -- even if they did change the name.

Source Los Angeles Times; Sacramento Bee; Bruce Dern bio; The Plainview News

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