When HBO was assembling it’s all-star cast for Big Little Lies (2017–19), it was stacked with names: Academy Award-winners Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon had top listing. Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz represented the next generation of stars, while fifth-billed was critically acclaimed actress Laura Dern as Renata Klein. Born into a Hollywood legacy with parents Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, she’d been working in the industry for more than 30 years when she joined the limited series ensemble. With two Academy Award nominations to her name and a seminal franchise under her belt –Jurassic Park (1993) – Dern was better known for her critically acclaimed work with directors like David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Yet 2017 was her year and by the time the calendar flipped over to 2018, the character of Renata Klein had not only became the breakout of Big Little Lies but Dern had started to cement her status with Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) and a hellacious appearance in Lynch’s revamped Twin Peaks (2017). A few short years later, she would win a Best Actress In a Supporting Role Oscar for her part as a divorce lawyer in Marriage Story (2019), a character not dissimilar to the cut-throatery of Renata. She’d also win a Golden Globe in 2018 for playing Renata in the adaptation of Australian author Liane Moriaty’s best-selling work.
Meanwhile Dern as an entity – and Renata as a character – became queer icons, with drag shows dedicated to the “tantrum queen”, campaigns for her own spin-off, merchandise proudly worn by the likes of husband-and-wife filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig at the Gotham Awards honouring Dern herself. The origin point of much of this Dernaissance is the first season of Big Little Lies and her swings from sad and neglected, to outraged and outrageous. “Have I become tragically un-fun?” she asks her adulterous husband at one point. Not just “have I become un-fun?”, it has the added extra of “tragically un-fun” – everything has to be extra with Renata and this line is a representation of that. From an over-the-top child’s birthday party and aggressive pantsuits, to her choice of Audrey Hepburn costume in the season one finale – My Fair Lady (1964) – to meltdown after meltdown, everything about Renata Klein is extra. Ironically, that’s exactly what makes her the most “tragically” fun – and memorable - of the Monterey Five.
– Maria Lewis