Small Screen Berkeley: Bruce Dern and Lena Olin shine in ‘The Artist’s Wife’

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin give terrific performances in a film about decline and dementia; while ‘Native Sun, long unseen, is now restored and available to stream.

Bruce Dern plays an artist with a well-earned reputation for being unpleasant and ornery in The Artist’s Wife. Photo: Courtesy Strand Releasing

It seems that, eventually, every working actor over 70 gets cast as a character stricken with Alzheimer’s. It happened to Nick Nolte in Head Full of Honey (2018), it happened to Julie Christie in Away From Her (2006), and it’s happened to Donald Sutherland twice, first in Aurora Borealis (2006) and again in The Leisure Seeker (2017).

And now it’s happened to Bruce Dern. Dern played the LSD guru in Roger Corman’s 1967 classic The Trip, appeared in Sydney Pollack’s allegorical mind-bender Castle Keep (1969), and has played countless hippies, bikers and societal rejects over the last 50 years. He is clearly comfortable playing characters who, by choice or otherwise, slip in and out of objective reality.

The Artist’s Wife (now streaming at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Roxie Theater) suggests that Dern remains at the top of his game. He plays Richard Smythson, an abstract artist with a well-earned reputation for being unpleasant and ornery. Living a reclusive life far from the city, he’s burned most of his bridges — including the one to his daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance) — and seems disinclined to rebuild them.

Wife Claire (Lena Olin) is used to his fits of temper and bad behavior but can’t see the wood for the trees: Richard is slipping in numerous ways, has lost his college job because of anger management issues in the classroom, and is unable to deliver a coherent speech at an awards ceremony. Though his dementia diagnosis comes as a shock, it compels Claire to try and reunite him with Angela before it’s too late.


She also wants to help him stage one last art exhibit, because — in a plot device perhaps borrowed from The Burnt Orange Heresy — no one’s seen any of his work in years. Totally dedicated to Richard and his legacy, Claire will go to any lengths to help him conclude his professional career with dignity.

Though writer-director Tom Dolby’s screenplay doesn’t score big points for originality, he gets absolutely terrific performances from both Dern and Olin. Dern is alternately sweet and combustible — the scene of him interrogating his grandson after meeting him for the first time is priceless — while Olin perfectly balances exasperation with a steely determination to protect Richard from himself. They’re a great onscreen team.

If you’re wondering about Mr. Dolby — no, he isn’t the pop performer Thomas Dolby (whose birth name is the rather less interesting Thomas Robertson); he is, however, the son of Ray Dolby, founder of San Francisco’s pioneering Dolby Laboratories. He’s better known as the producer of the Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name (2017) and 2018’s excellent documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.

Long unseen and restored: ‘Native Sun’ now streaming

If you’d told me a week ago that author Richard Wright had once portrayed Bigger Thomas in a film adaptation of his novel Native Son, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s true, though: in 1951, Wright appeared in an Argentina-lensed production of his story helmed by Belgian director Pierre Chenal. This long unseen film has now been restored and is available for streaming via San Francisco’s Balboa and Vogue Theaters. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to screen Native Son, but for a variety of reasons (including its current unavailability on DVD or Blu-ray) it’s an absolute must-see.