Last weekend, LGBTQ movie fans rejoiced when Laura Dern received a musical tribute at the Independent Spirit Awards from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
The segment — a roundup of the unsung queer moments from the year’s best independent films — included mentions of the “cursed bird” from The Lighthouse and Idina Menzel in Uncut Gems. However, it was the over-minute-long ode to the Marriage Story actress, which included a surprise gospel finale from Glee’s Alex Newell, that set social media ablaze.
It was a joyful celebration of a modern-day gay icon. The lyricist of the song, Jordan Firstman, is still amazed it actually happened.
The origins of the Laura Dern anthem were unlikely enough. Firstman — whose writing résumé includes TBS's Search Party and Comedy Central's The Other Two — was initially hired by the Spirit Awards to pen jokes for Aubrey Plaza, the host who ultimately introduced the segment.
While brainstorming ideas for Plaza's opening monologue, Firstman was inspired to create a musical number that involved the GMCLA. To this end, he created a Google document and began compiling the scenes that would have resonated with LGBTQ people but may have escaped the notice of a straight audience. A listing of these campy, off-center, and queer moments through song could be comedy gold, Firstman realized.
Firstman expected the idea to be shot down when he pitched it during a planning meeting for the awards ceremony. “I was like, ‘OK, guys, I have a pitch that I'm very passionate about, but everyone's going to say no.’ And then I pitched it and Aubrey was like, ‘Let's do it.’”
The Parks and Recreation star, it should be noted, is also queer.
After Plaza’s blessing, the proceedings went quickly. Within hours, the host and Firstman were on a call with the head of GMCLA, who signed on to the project. The next day, Firstman began collaborating with Emmy-winning composer Greg O'Connor on the arrangement.
Obstacles still remained. Firstman was the only gay writer involved in the Spirit Awards production. As a result, the straight members of the team sometimes needed reassurance about his creative decisions and explanations of his references. (Who is FKA Twigs? one wondered. Or what’s gay about Awkwafina receiving a rejection letter from the Guggenheim?) But ultimately, they put their trust in his queer sensibilities. The team even made Firstman a segment producer — the first time he held this position at an awards show.
“They were like, ‘Jordan, this is your baby, this is your thing, go do it all,’” Firstman recounted.
Originally, Firstman planned to include only one lyrical mention of Dern from Marriage Story — in keeping with the pattern of the other queer references from the year’s Spirit-nominated films. But after reviewing the Noah Baumbach-directed film, Firstman realized one was just not sufficient.
“There's so many moments,” Firstman said. In a flash of inspiration, he realized that the comedy would be in the enumeration of these many moments. "Laura Dern kicking her feet on the couch, Laura Dern ordering a kale salad, Laura Dern dressed slutty in court," declared the final lyrics, which then crescendoed into a repetition of her name. O'Connor, as the composer of the song, wrote the music to Firstman's lyrics.
But even after the song came together, Firstman was doubtful it would be included in the ceremony, which aired live Saturday on IFC. “Two days before I was like, there's no way that they're going to let this be this weird and gay and on TV. And then they did,” Firstman marveled.
The rest is gay icon history.
This is not the first time Firstman has made headlines for his Dern fandom. In 2017, he wrote about his early love of Dern in a commentary for The Advocate. That same year, the actress wore a T-shirt he created emblazoned with her blown-up, tear-streaked visage from her lead role in HBO’s Enlightened. She posted it on Instagram — a meta move, as her cry-face is a widely used meme.) And as a show of her gratitude, Dern gave love to Firstman on social media.
“It was my birthday that day. So as a gift to me, Laura Dern commented on my Instagram, ‘Happy birthday!’ I thought that was going to be the peak Laura Dern moment of my life. And then cut to five years later this happened," he said.
So why does Dern resonate so deeply with Firstman and many other queer people? For one, she helped make LGBTQ television history when she portrayed Ellen DeGeneres’s love interest on her coming-out episode of Ellen over two decades ago. She recently spoke about the intense backlash sparked by the role, which required her to enlist a “full security detail” after it aired. The acting opportunities in Hollywood dried up for a time as well.
But more than on-air activism, Dern also brings a “commitment” to her roles that is unique to her, said Firstman. Dern has been acting since the '70s in a wide range of productions, including Mask, Rambling Rose, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Jurassic Park, Citizen Ruth, and TV’s Enlightened and Big Little Lies. ("I will not, not be rich!" her character Renada screamed in BLL season 2, an unhinged line that has been immortalized in memes and gay brunch ever since.)
“She’s just constantly had this fearlessness in her career to do weird shit and make mainstream shit feel weird. The fact that she's the lead of Jurassic Park is crazy. I just feel like now they would never even take a chance with actors as interesting as her for the female lead of a [blockbuster] movie,” Firstman said.
Thus, Dern represents a subversive element that is embraced by many gay men, in particular. Like the Golden Girls or the divas of Old Hollywood before her, Dern brings a coded queerness to an industry that often demands conformity and heteronormativity. Even in 2020, LGBTQ stories — and out actors portraying them — were few and far between during awards season, which Firstman’s musical segment also highlights.
“We didn't have enough queer movies this year. There are never enough queer movies. But we are still able as gay men to observe and take things from culture and claim them as ours because it's the least we can do and it's the least culture can do for us,” Firstman said.
During the Spirit Awards ceremony, Dern was clearly overjoyed to receive the tribute. By the end, she was on her feet dancing to it. It was a reaction that Firstman will never forget. “It was like truly a full-circle moment for me. I was like, 'Whoa, to care about this person so much for so long and then in some way give them joy? I can't believe I got to do that,'" he said.
After the performance, Firstman approached Dern and came out as a fan. He wrote the song — and made the shirt, he confided. In response, Dern was at once "gracious" to Firstman and also "freaking out."
“She literally was like, ‘You made the shirt! Oh, my God, you made the shirt!’ It must have been such a weird experience for her to be like, who is this fanboy who also is in the industry. … I think she was confused about my status as a human being,” Firstman said with a laugh.
The next day, Dern went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a divorce attorney in Marriage Story. To the world, she gave an emotional speech that honored her actor parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, for inspiring her in her career. (Interestingly, that ceremony also opened with a musical number from a queer artist, Janelle Monáe, holding a mirror to the lack of diversity in the Academy's nominees.)
However, the Saturday musical tribute was also a moment that Dern will never forget, as confirmed by a chance encounter. Plaza ran into Dern at the Vanity Fair Oscars party where they discussed the Spirit Awards tribute. She conveyed Dern’s true sentiments to Firstman via text message on Monday.
“She said it was the highlight of her weekend — more than winning an Oscar,” Firstman recounted. “So I think it did make an impact on her.”