June 2000
                                     Dern for the Better

                                                  By Allison Adato

                                                  Photographs by Patrik Andersson for GEORGE
 

                                                  Laura Dern isn't just another bleeding-heart Hollywood liberal.
                                                  Unlike most celebrity do-gooders, this soft-spoken, steely
                                                  actress doesn't lie down when it comes to a good fight.

                                                  Can Laura Dern save the world? Can she liberate Afghanistan from the
                                                  Taliban? Protect abused women and molested children? Save the elderly from
                                                  neglect? Shield animals from inhumane treatment? Keep abortion safe, legal,
                                                  and available in America? Can she save the whales, the seals, the spotted owls, the rain forest?

                                                  Tall order, yes. But Dern, don't forget, is an
                                                  actress. A tall, photogenic, well-spoken, and deeply
                                                  concerned actress. So as long as the public prefers
                                                  to get its news of Tibet from the hunky star of
                                                  American Gigolo and not, say, the secretary of
                                                  state, people like herself or Richard Gere are
                                                  perfectly placed to shine a spotlight on the issues
                                                  that trigger their compassion.

                                                  "I don't have any more reason to talk about this
                                                  than anybody else," Dern says with a bluntness that
                                                  is part of her otherwise earnest demeanor.
                                                  "Certainly a lot less than people who have been
                                                  through it. But if I have an opportunity to talk
                                                  about it when other people don't have a voice, then it's my obligation to do it,
                                                  because my outrage is there."

                                                  Celebrity perks at the beginning of the century include not only a personal
                                                  assistant, a Web domain, and the private reservations line at Nobu, but also a
                                                  platform from which to speak one's conscience. "There's an appreciation that
                                                  you should give back, a sense that you should consider doing something," says
                                                  Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant for, among others, actor Richard
                                                  Dreyfuss. To optimize the pulpit fame affords them, some in the industry
                                                  (including Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner, and David Geffen) retain people like
                                                  Bojarsky to set up foundations, coordinate events, and advise them on when
                                                  and how to speak out. With her assistance,
                                                  Dreyfuss has appeared in Congress on behalf of environmental and health
                                                  issues. "Actors don't pretend they are experts, and every statement isn't
                                                  perfect," Bojarsky acknowledges. "They don't expect to be making policy, but
                                                  when they go to an event, it gets covered."

                                                  To that end, Oscar podiums become soapboxes and movie junkets sometimes
                                                  sound like Meet the Press. As long as they've got a reporter asking
                                                  questions about what it was like to work with Robert Altman, they may as well
                                                  mention labor abuses in sweatshops. If more people pay attention to where
                                                  their tennis shoes are made, terrific. If they have a warm feeling about the
                                                  star's benevolence and decide to see his movie, that's great, too.

                                                  Laura Dern has done something unusual by Hollywood standards: She has
                                                  consented to have a reporter trail her for three days, and she has no movie to
                                                  promote. She is allowing a glimpse into the life of a celebrity activist and, in
                                                  doing so, generating press for some of the causes that are dear to her. At
                                                  present, that list includes women's rights, reproductive choice, am nesty for
                                                  political prisoners, animal rights, environmental protection, hunger,
                                                  domestic abuse, and conditions for the elderly. Not long ago, her then-fiance,
                                                  actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, a father of three from his previous
                                                  marriages, introduced her to two children's charities he supports.

                                                  "I spent my twenties wanting to participate any time something upset me,"
                                                  says Dern, now 33. "I've done a little bit of good for a lot of different causes.
                                                  As much as I've been happy to do that, I'm still a very scattered person who
                                                  really needs to focus."

                                                  Because she has yet to commit wholly to one or two issues, Dern isn't a
                                                  political powerhouse like Streisand or Gere. "You can't do everything well,"
                                                  says Bojarsky, who advises her clients to "focus on one issue and create a
                                                  depth of activism."

                                                  But Dern's heart is in the right place, even if it is all over the map. As a
                                                  result, she's become a magnet. Several times each week, she is called by some
                                                  group seeking her involvement. Sometimes the request is as simple as wanting
                                                  an article autographed for a charity auction. "What chaps my ass a little bit is
                                                  fundraisers where people talk about their latest deal while drinking
                                                  champagne," said Thornton before his split from Dern. "They're just there
                                                  for the publicity. But Laura's genuine. It's not like she's doing what her
                                                  publicist tells her to do."

                                                  On a Monday night, Dern goes to New York's W hotel for a Feminist Majority
                                                  Foundation event publicizing the plight of Afghan women living under gender
                                                  apartheid. The real powers behind the evening, which will feature music,
                                                  speakers, and a documentary shot in Afghanistan, are Feminist Majority
                                                  president Eleanor Smeal and Mavis Leno, wife of the Tonight Show host, who
                                                  have tirelessly lobbied Washington on this issue. But the photographers and
                                                  reporters stalk the glossier names, and an evening like this draws a strange
                                                  mix: Dern, Meryl Streep, Al Franken, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows,
                                                  Melissa Etheridge, and Marlo Thomas. "At least if I'm in the picture," notes
                                                  Smeal, who frequently jumps into the frame, "they will have to identify me,
                                                  mention Feminist Majority, and, hopefully, mention the event."

                                                  As each new celebrity emerges from the greenroom, the press gets a chance to
                                                  elicit bite-size quotes on the heinous treatment of women by the extremist
                                                  Muslim Taliban regime. After a few interviews, Dern escapes to join a circle
                                                  made up of Streep, Etheridge, and singer Joan Osborne. They chat about
                                                  Osborne's upcoming album and how Streep's teenage daughter can't stop
                                                  playing Etheridge's last CD. But they're also trying to fathom how this chic
                                                  gathering in this trendy hotel will aid oppressed women. It is not a fundraiser.
                                                  Besides, it's nearly impossible to get aid into Afghanistan. So far the only U.S.
                                                  action has been to ban trade with the country. Somehow the stars can't help
                                                  wondering just what they're doing here.

                                                  "We're amplifying," says Streep, who says Smeal told her the publicity will
                                                  prompt people to pressure the government to act.

                                                  "Amplifying!" repeats Etheridge, nodding rhythmically and psyching up her
                                                  huddle of famous teammates.

                                                  "Amplify," says Dern, smiling. She knows why she's here. She is angered by
                                                  stories of Afghan women and girls being beaten for wearing nail polish or
                                                  accidentally showing an ankle; of women being forbidden to work, study in
                                                  school, or see a male doctor; and of girls being forbidden to sing, play, or feel
                                                  the sun on faces perpetually covered by full-body burkas. She seems to
                                                  operate on the "it can't hurt" theory of activism: Her presence might help,
                                                  she says, and "it's not some difficult offering."

                                                  Later, Streep will deadpan from the stage, "I'm a celebrity. I'm pretty sure
                                                  that's why I was asked here tonight." But her quip raises the question: What is
                                                  the impact of an actress reading a letter in which a 12-year-old Afghan girl
                                                  asks, "Is it a crime to be a woman?" Wrenching, yes, but constructive?

                                                  "When a celebrity has taken a stand on what's right," says Bojarsky, "that
                                                  sets a tone for the country, and I think that's enough. Even if it seems
                                                  hopeless, you want an issue on the table."

                                                  But good intentions can be tainted by the slightest whiff of scandal. When Rosie
                                                  O'Donnell denounced the gun industry, she was forced to resign her job
                                                  shilling for Kmart, which sells firearms. Campaign for animal rights, and
                                                  you'll be skewered for eating meat. "I'll say it now: I am a hypocrite," Dern
                                                  announces over a sea bass lunch the next day. "I love animals, and will
                                                  dedicate part of my life to animals. Am I a vegetarian? No. I was for six years,
                                                  and I became anemic. I started eating meat, and I feel good. I'm sorry if I
                                                  offend people."

                                                  Like such sensitive souls as Rush Limbaugh. "I heard he was talking about me
                                                  on his show," she reports with some pride. "Saying how gross it is that Laura
                                                  Dern's worrying about animals. 'What about children? What about cancer?' I
                                                  was like, 'You know what, man? I wouldn't want to be your dog! You don't even
                                                  know what I spend my life doing.'"

                                                  Two days later, Dern is the lone celebrity at a New York luncheon for NARAL,
                                                  the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. At the start of
                                                  the decade, abortion was a hot issue, evidenced by a chorus line of stars,
                                                  including Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg, leading a march on Washington.
                                                  But seven years into a pro-choice administration, NARAL president Kate
                                                  Michelman now sees "a complacency" that makes it difficult to line up famous
                                                  names. She expects interest to pick up if George W. Bush wins the White
                                                  House, because he would likely appoint conservative Supreme Court justices,
                                                  who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

                                                  "This is not an easy issue," says Michelman, who asserts that most actors fear
                                                  violent pro-lifers. "Some people get scared when they see the radical
                                                  convictions of the other side. But Laura is a woman who lives her principles."
                                                  That she could be considered brave for reading a prepared speech strikes Dern
                                                  as ridiculous; on the same stage with her is a nurse who suffered severe
                                                  injuries in a clinic bombing.

                                                  Dern's role at the NARAL luncheon is far less vague than at Monday night's
                                                  event. Guests have ponied up to $1,000 each to eat grilled chicken with the
                                                  actress who played the title character in Citizen Ruth. The 1996 film, a
                                                  poignant black comedy about a pregnant, glue-sniffing addict volleyed between
                                                  zealous pro-choice and pro-life groups, will forever link Dern's name to the
                                                  abortion debate.

                                                  "I love that it's so radically offensive," she says of the cult film. "You want to
                                                  inflict abortion on Ruth, because she's going to destroy her infant. But she has
                                                  as much right to make a choice as anybody else, and we have to honor that."

                                                  After the NARAL lunch, Dern decides that we should see a show at the
                                                  International Center of Photography. Inside are Work Projects Administration
                                                  pictures by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and, Dern's favorite, Marion
                                                  Post-Wolcott. Their subjects are poor Americans, photographed to elicit
                                                  government aid during the Depression. Isn't it remarkable, she notes, that out
                                                  of an appeal for social justice such beauty can result?

                                                  Before she ever made a film of her own, Dern saw how the medium could
                                                  influence public opinion. "Growing up, I would go to screenings of my parents'
                                                  friends' movies." Her parents are the actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who
                                                  separated when Laura was two months old. "I was seeing Network and
                                                  Norma Rae and Silkwood. And I thought, Wow, films about social
                                                  injustice! This is what I want to do with my life."

                                                  Dern has done just that. Although she isn't ideologically above a blockbuster
                                                  like Jurassic Park, her work often underscores her commitment to various
                                                  causes. Down Came a Blackbird dealt with human rights abuses, and
                                                  Rambling Rose, for which she and her mother received Oscar nominations,
                                                  was a subversively feminist Depression-era piece. Last year the Sundance
                                                  Institute honored her for roles such as the glue sniffer in Citizen Ruth and
                                                  the trailer-park mother in The Baby Dance. "A lot of white trash, yeah,"
                                                  she says, laughing. "But sometimes when we see simple people telling us the
                                                  truth, we relate to it more."

                                                  Dern has been an actress since childhood and an activist for nearly as long.
                                                  She was first seen at age seven, eating an ice cream cone in Ladd's film Alice
                                                  Doesn't Live Here Anymore. In 1983, when Dern was 16, her mother
                                                  toured Central America with a group that hoped to end the U.S. military
                                                  presence there. "My mom saw things that were devastating: mutilation, rapes.
                                                  That really affected me." In high school, Dern recalls, "we started this
                                                  wannabe Peace Corps. Everybody brought their own cause to it, and we all had
                                                  to participate in one another's."

                                                  But the early 1980s offered slim pickings for well-off liberal kids reared on
                                                  their parents' stories of the civil rights movement and anti-war marches.
                                                  Besides protesting U.S. involvement in Central America, she says, "'No Nukes'
                                                  was it. I believed that we were going to blow ourselves up." (Later, while
                                                  working on a film about the Manhattan project, Fat Man and Little Boy,
                                                  Dern learned that her great-grandfather, George Dern, was Franklin
                                                  Roosevelt's secretary of war and an opponent of the bomb.)

                                                  Dern went to the University of Southern California but dropped out in order to
                                                  work with directors David Lynch on Blue Velvet and Peter Bogdonivich on
                                                  Mask. Now she is slowly trying to earn a degree in psychology and religion at
                                                  UCLA.
 

 

                                                                                Raised as a Catholic, Dern still attends Christmas mass,
                                                                                 but only in deference to her 87-year-old
                                                                                             maternal grandmother. "I love Mary, and I love
                                                                                             Jesus, and I love the rituals. Christianity gave me a
                                                                                             framework for a spiritual practice and a
                                                                                             connection to God," she explains thoughtfully. "But
                                                                                             I will not consider myself a Catholic until women
                                                                                             are priests, [reproductive] choice is honored,
                                                                                             birth control is honored, divorce is honored. They
                                                                                             can call me when they do that."

                                                                                             Three years ago, when Ellen DeGeneres's TV alter
                                                                                             ego came out as a lesbian, Dern played her
                                                                                             prospective lover. While taping the episode, she
                                                  met Thornton, who appeared in a cameo. After relationships with actors Kyle
                                                  MacLachlan and Jeff Goldblum and director Renny Harlin, Dern seemed to have
                                                  found a strong match in Thornton, who shared her dedication to good works.
                                                  The couple announced their engagement in early 1999. "I don't think I could
                                                  share my life with someone who wasn't a humanist," she says.

                                                  Midway through their relationship, which ended in April with Thornton
                                                  reportedly linked to Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter offered
                                                  Dern the ultimate Hollywood valentine: He wrote her a movie. "He really is a
                                                  remarkable godsend in that he cares so much about integrity and honesty,"
                                                  Dern said of her fiance just after they had finished shooting the dark comedy
                                                  Daddy and Them. "He knows that I so desire doing these kinds of movies. And
                                                  he saw my frustration that they're so rare to find."

                                                  Thornton was equally smitten when he spoke about Dern just before they
                                                  broke up. He insisted that, of the two, she was clearly the more committed to
                                                  causes. "She's watching the news," he said, "and I'm thinking about pie. I don't
                                                  know if I would have survived if I hadn't met her. She's like Clara Barton, my
                                                  personal Red Cross."

                                                  And, from time to time, the world's. Maybe her East Coast tour hasn't secured
                                                  abortion rights or markedly improved the situation in Afghanistan, but has it
                                                  at least enhanced her own public image? "That's just so gross!" says Laura
                                                  Dern. "If you ever get to that point, you need to just take yourself out of this
                                                  world for a little while."