Bruce Dern did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Asa Watts also known as "Long Hair" in The Cowboys.
Bruce Dern first appears just after Wil has started off on the trail with his cow herding boys, and being Bruce Dern it seems unlikely this will be a good thing for the cattle drive. This does necessarily seem to be the case though as Asa Watts first approaches with a few other men just claiming to be looking for a job. Dern presents such an earnestness in Asa as he first inquires about the work and proceeds to claim previous experience with cattle drives. Dern's quite good in the moment and the eagerness he brings to the part would probably fool a man softer than Wil, or at least one less informed about the cattle industry. Wil calls him out on his lie about his experience leaving Asa to admit that he and the other men have recently been released from prison and because of that have not found work anywhere else. Although Dern conveys that there is more to Asa than he is projecting, but he's a terrific sneak here as he seems so genuinely heartbroken as Asa asks if Wil is going to reject them like all the rest did due to their criminal record.
After Wil ignores Asa and his group due to Asa's lying he disappears for some time though the impact Dern makes in his first scene ensures that you know that won't be the last we see of old Asa Watts and his longer hair. Well that comes well into the drive when one of the boys wanders away from the others and walks right into Asa and his men. Dern is great in this scene as he first is so perfectly patronizing to the boy greeting him with a pleasant smile and a rather warm introduction as he greets the boy explaining that he's been following their group in secret the whole time. Obviously the men are not following the drive just looking for a job and the boy needs to be silenced, though apparently child murder is not quite in Asa's line. Dern is particularly proficient in this scene as he's a master of turning a smile of a welcoming man to that of a psychotic in an instance. Dern is incredibly chilling as he brings such a vicious intensity into Asa as he threatens to find and kill the boy no matter what if the boy speaks a word of their presence to Wil. There is no question that the boy will keep his word as Dern makes it something to be assumed through how frightening he is in the scene.
The boy stays silent as he should leaving Asa to eventually make his move to steal the cattle as he successfully catches Wil and the boys off guard. Dern is brilliant in this scene as he moves about in such a cocky stride as Asa as Wil exactly where he wants him. There is such a slimy confidence Dern brings as shows that Asa is quite enjoying the fact that he's gotten one over on one man. Dern also carries a considerable menace, not necessarily physically as the film even seems to clothe him in a certain way to diminish his frame as much as possible, but Dern effectively keeps that psychotic undercurrent in Asa creating a sense of the unpredictability of the man. Dern's good in building this around as he control the scene with him showing Asa soaking up the moment perhaps as much as he can as he acts as though he's a far greater man than he is. Eventually Wil does test Asa by punching him which Asa goes along with until it is obvious he won't win. Asa in turn takes a gun and does the unthinkable in a western he spoilers shoots John Wayne to death. Dern performs the scene so well by making Asa such a weasel as he pulls the trigger in a fearful rage at having lost in a fight with a man who is so many years older than him.
After having done the unthinkable Asa goes off with the cattle leaving Wil mortally wounded with his cowboys. This leaves only one thing the young boys to get brutal violent revenge against Asa and his men, with heroic music playing while they do it. Now to be fair Asa has it coming but still the boys all becoming killers at once is still treated a bit too lightly. Anyway Dern still offers some great love to hate moments for Asa particularly when he captures the only other adult who was with Wil the cook (Roscoe Lee Browne). Dern again brings such unwarranted smug satisfaction in Asa as prepares the cook for a hanging, only to have that look so perfectly wiped off his face when the boys come to the rescue. As much as this is a case where you want to see the villain get his comeuppance Dern actually made me feel a bit sorry for Asa when he does. Asa is injured and Dern retreats to the Asa we saw at the beginning and Dern does the duplicity of his pathetic nature so well that he can fool you into thinking his demise is sad. I rather loved Dern's performance here actually as he creates a memorable villain in just a few scenes, and does so not by being some overly cunning figure, rather by being such low down rotten scum instead.