Entertainment Weekly - April 25, 1997
By Tim Appelo
"You smell like sandalwood," murmurs Jeff Goldblum as he sniffs Laura Dern's hair in the rather restrained resturant of L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel. Dern - her leopard-spotted Dolce & Gabbana pants pressed against his lanky frame - responds softly: "Do you like my manicure? I did it with my teeth." The former lovers and Jurassic Park costars smooch noisily, hamming it up. "I love Jeff," says the 30-year-old Dern after he exits. Does this mean their on-again, off-again wedding is back on? "You never know, " she teases. "Thats where he's going now, to get his tux, but don't tell him I told you. Doesn't that pique your curiosity?" Well, yes. After all, in recent days, the actress is reported to have been similarly (i.e., publicly) demonstrative with Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton, sparking speculation that she is the cause of the breakup with his wife, Pietra. (Dern's publicist denies any involvement.) But the timing of this piquant heterosexual moment with Goldblum may be no accident. Dern is about to play a historic part, as the gay TV producer who rings Ellen DeGeneres' chimes on the much-trumpeted coming-out episode of ABC'c Ellen. The message seems clear: Laura Dern is only acting with real-life buddy DeGeneres.
Perhaps this isn't surprising, given the reaction of some of her dearest friends. "It's shocking, the responses I got from people supposedly cool with homosexuality," says Dern. "You know, like "I don't judge it, but don't you think America is going to think you guys are lovers?'" Dern and DeGeneres were friends at first sight. Their bond was cemented at DeGeneres' birthday party in January. "Ellen invited all her friends over to watch Citizen Ruth," says Dern. "We were cracking each other up so much. Several Ellen writers who were there said: "Omigod, you guys have such a connection. It's great to see two people click like that.'" When DeGeneres was looking to cast her TV crush, she needed the support od an actress she felt comfortable with. "The issue isn't homosexuality, but people who care about each other. (The emphasis should be) 'These two people are great together,' as opposed to 'Oh, she's with a woman!'" says Dern, who, in solidarity with DeGeneres, is joined in the episode by Thornton, Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, k.d. Lang, and Melissa Etheridge.
Dern has never questioned her own sexuality for a second. "I'm so straight - unfortunately, probably, for me," she says with a laugh. "I like the whole package, if you know what I'm saying. Gotta have those boys. Oh, I can't say this - this is a magazine! Can I turn (the tape recorder) off for one second?" She clarifies just what it is she likes about men, then snaps the recorder back on. "Oh, God, I love being a girl - a 'human girl person.'" Dern is lifting a line from her Oscar-nominated title role in 1991's Rambling Rose, a pure-hearted nymphomaniac who protests, "I am only a human girl person, and I ain't always perfect." Which is precisely what makes her perfect for the Ellen part: Throughout her career, she's made sexually daring, even outrageous, characters seem fully human. "Sex is utterly fascinating to me because so much of (a woman's) self-worth is based on it," muses Dern, who is working toward a psychology degree. "In my (films) - Smooth Talk, Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose - all of those characters are deeply affected by their sexuality."
Current case in point: the critically acclaimed Citizen Ruth, which Miramax is in the process of rereleasing. The black comedy stars Dern as a pregnant, glue-sniffing derelict cought between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces - a character with virtually no redeeming qualities, and yet the actress makes her compelling through sheer, spontaneous emotion. Goldblum first brought her the script, and, says Dern, "I've never laughed so hard in my life." Despite having read the text aload with her, Goldblum was unprepared for how brillant she pulled the role off: "Like a souffle, she rises to the occasion." "It's as if her soul pours through the pores of her skin," says actress Diane Ladd, Dern's mother and sometime co-star (Rambling Rose, Ruth). "When she first acted, at age 11 (in the 1980 feature film Foxes), director Adrian Lyne said to me, 'Your daughter has the same cinematic magnetism as Katharine Hepburn.'" Ladd remembers being furious. "I didn't want her to be an actress; I wanted her to have a good, normal life!"
Ladd and her husband, actor Bruce Dern, divorced when Laura was 2. After some estrangement, Bruce and Laura have grown close, and the younger Dern staunchly defends her upbringing. "Just like the (antigay) mind-set, there's some idea that divorce is wrong," says Dern. "But I'm grateful that my parents divorced. They shouldn't have been married anymore." Ladd is no longer concerned about her daughter's career choices. Although she has yet to see the Ellen episode, she says she's "sure whatever Laura chooses to do is good. I've raised her as a bird to fly, not to clip her wings. She's got a good, solid foundation.
With playwright Tennessee Williams for a cousin and Shelly Winters for a godmother, one might say Dern was born to ruffle feathers. "All things that are dangerous territory are highly interesting to me," says Dern. "We're so afraid of being wrong and making mistakes. I see my grandmother in her 80s saying 'I should've married Joe Murphy when I was 18.' To this day, my greatest fear is based on my grandmother not having married Joe Murphy.