Laura Dern has been acting since she was a small child. Her first big break came in 1980, with Adrian Lyne’s Foxes, a teen movie that starred Jodie Foster. She proved her dedication to acting when she was just 13 and sued her mother for emancipation so she could be in Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains.
Since then, she’s been known for working with David Lynch, though her most recognizable part is probably as Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III. Her career has spanned four decades, and during it, she has won 22 major awards and garnered 57 nominations. Laura Dern is a powerhouse of talent, and she shows no signs of slowing down. So here are her top 10 best roles—so far.
(Beware, there are spoilers in here!)
10 Rose — Rambling Rose (1991)
In 1991 Laura Dern played the titular Rose, a sexually-adventurous housemaid in the South in the 1930s. The story is quite sad—Rose was orphaned and forced into prostitution before escaping to Georgia where the Hillyer family takes her in. There she develops a crush on the father Mr. Hillyer, and from there, her carefully constructed life begins to fall apart.
There are parts of the movie that read uncomfortably today but for the most part, her journey bucking gender norms and her ultimate refusal to give in to a crushing patriarchy that seeks to control her body is still inspiring today. She received an Oscar nomination for her pitch-perfect performance.
9 Ruth Stoops — Citizen Ruth (1996)
This gutsy and strange mid-nineties comedy tackles the abortion issue with Laura Dern playing the central character. She is poor and addicted to drugs, and has already had four children that have been taken away from her. When she’s arrested on drug charges again, the judge says he’ll go easy on her…if she gets an abortion.
The ensuing fight over the future of her fetus between pro-life and pro-choice groups takes an outrageous and hilarious turn as both sides promise her money to commit to their beliefs. Dern manages to keep what could turn dark, especially if it was made today, funny. She won Best Actress at the Montreal World Film Festival for her role.
8 Amy Jellicoe — Enlightened (2011-2013)
Laura Dern stars as Amy Jellicoe, a previously self-destructive woman who has a spiritual awakening and becomes determined to live an enlightened life, no matter how much havoc her decision creates. The tag line of the show was “Meet the new face of tranquility,” which pairs perfectly with how stressed her character remained as she tried to reform from controlling executive to whistleblower against the corrupt company she works for.
Each episode of the dramedy puts Laura Dern in a position to show her chameleon-like ability to transform into many facets of a single character. She won a Golden Globe for her performance. Enlightened was canceled for low ratings despite critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Series in 2012.
7 Sandy Williams — Blue Velvet (1986)
Despite struggling to be made and receiving mixed responses from critics at release, Blue Velvet has gone on to become a cult classic. Its exploration of the loss of innocence, good versus evil, sexuality, violence, and the hidden dangers of a Reaganesque paradise has been a topic of discussion for over 30 years.
Laura Dern plays Sandy Williams, a young girl who plays one of the main character’s love interests. In it, she has a prophetic dream that of a robin eating insects—a symbol for good triumphing over evil.
While she wasn’t nominated, Dern’s role in Blue Velvet was seen as her first major role and the one that put her name on the map.
6 Bobbi Grey — Wild (2014)
Laura Dern’s portrayal of Bobbi, Cheryl Strayed’s mother, is absolutely on point for the part the character plays in Strayed’s memoir. She exists mostly in flashbacks since she died at age 45 before Strayed went on her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail that inspired the book and subsequent movie. Bobbi’s death had sent Strayed on the depressive spiral that ultimately ended in her hike toward redemption.
Bobbi did her best to protect Strayed from the dangers of domestic abuse and then poverty that Bobbi experienced. Her best lines include “I've always been someone's daughter or mother or wife. I never got to be in the driver's seat of my own life.” It’s a moving performance, especially if you think Bobbi is also appearing to Strayed as a red fox she sees periodically along the trail. Dern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her part.
5 Susan Richmond — Ellen (1994-1998)
Laura Dern was a guest star on Ellen in 1997. In the “The Puppy Episode” Dern played Susan Richmond, a woman that Ellen finds attractive. After an old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Richard, enlightens Ellen about her sexuality, he introduces her to Susan. It ultimately leads to the moment when Ellen formally and officially comes out on the show, which was a watershed moment in television history. The episode is still one of the most highly rated of the series.
Dern was nominated for an Emmy for the role but unfortunately shared in some of the religious and social backlash that Ellen DeGeneres suffered after the episode aired. The show was canceled after one more season, but it doesn’t change how important the show—and Dern’s part in it—was for LGBT people and representation.
4 Renata Klein — Big Little Lies (2017 - )
In the critically acclaimed and wildly popular Big Little Lies, Laura Dern plays Renata Klein, a powerful mother who wants the absolute best for her daughter, everyone else be damned. She lives a luxurious life in Monterey and has every intention of continuing to do so—her most memorable line in the show is, “I will not not be rich!”
But she’s so much more than a meme of rich white women—Renata is a brilliant professional and has a shark-like ability to zero in on a problem. Dern’s richly delivered one-liners and breathtaking rants elevate the performance to heady heights. No wonder she won a Golden Globe for this role.
3 Dr. Ellie Sattler — Jurassic Park (1993 & 2001)
Paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler is probably Laura Dern’s single most recognizable role. Jurassic Park was such an insanely huge blockbuster that Dern’s central role made her a household name for all the people who hadn’t been paying attention while she’d starred in David Lynch movies. It’s possible that Jurassic Park’s only flaw is that it doesn’t include more Ellie Sattler.
In Dr. Sattler Dern manages to balance the cerebral intellect of a professional scientist with unassailable charm and cutting wit to make a scientist that no one could forget after watching her performance. Dern will always be remembered for her perfect response to Dr. Ian Malcolm’s timeline of man creating dinosaurs: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”
2 Miss Riley — October Sky (1999)
In the 1999 movie October Sky, Laura Dern plays Miss Riley, the science teacher who helps four boys who are interested in rocket science. Though everyone else in their small mining town in Coalwood, West Virginia, believes that the boys are wasting their time, Miss Riley gives them advanced science books and encourages them to keep trying.
Who didn’t cheer when Miss Riley stood up to Principal Turner and promise that she would watch out for “the unlucky ones”? Laura Dern makes sure we know the entire movie how much Miss Riley loves her students. It’s a loving and inspiring performance that just about everyone will feel moved by.
1 Jennifer Fox — The Tale (2018)
The Tale deals with the true story of the sexual abuse that documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox endured as a child. One of director Jennifer Fox’s first narrative stories, it follows her life as a thirteen-year-old who was repeatedly abused by her “boyfriend,” who was in fact married to a woman that had sought Jennifer out.
Laura Dern straddles a difficult place as an adult woman who is reluctant to recognize herself as a victim but is also grappling with the idea that her memories are not as they seem. Dern carefully navigates choppy waters, portraying with grace and empathy a woman who is, for the first time in her life, recognizing the childhood of abuse she had repressed. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.