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Photography by Tony Duran

Lane Change!

by By Sam Wasson | Jezebel magazine | March 3, 2011

Diane Lane’s eyes are bouncing around the room, searching for an analogy. “This place is like…” She’s always doing this. And she’s always getting it right. “This place is like a dollhouse.”
It’s true. This Beverly Hills café is so cozy it’s hard to believe it isn’t snowing outside. Wearing a comfy sweater and sipping peppermint tea with a drop of honey, Lane looks ready for a bedtime story. But really, she’s just getting started.
“Seventies America had no real image of itself coming through the television. Nobody was talking about what was going on behind…”—her eyes are bouncing again—“…behind the curtain of Oz. We actually believed what was coming off the conveyor belt.”
She’s talking about her new project, HBO’s much-heralded original film Cinema Verite, co-starring Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini. Debuting in April, Cinema Verite reveals the behind-the-scenes story of An American Family, the dream-breaking 1973 PBS documentary and first-ever reality TV show. As Pat Loud, the family’s linchpin, Lane sees her home—and all the illusions it represents—crumble under the pressures of living with a camera crew 24/7 as her dirty laundry is aired before the entire nation.
“Pat Loud leapt into the volcano and all of America was thrown in after her,” Lane says. “There is one thing about the way it really happened that the movie doesn’t go into: The truth was Pat knew that her husband was a full-blown philanderer. And yet she invited the cameras in, hoping he would straighten up and fly right. It was a manipulative ploy. She says so in her book [Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story, which she wrote in 1974]. He would talk to her about his philandering and she would sit there and listen. That’s what was going on under the hood before the cameras even got there.”
An American Family was reality television before “reality” devolved into dance-offs and mating games. “It was the first domino,” Lane says. “It’s how we got into this, what we call ‘culture’ of reality TV. But this was real reality. It was brave and crazy the first time they did it, which gave it an implied level of integrity. But now everyone jumps on the bandwagon.” She rolls her eyes and groans. “The trajectory we’re on in Hollywood is more of the same because people are still buying it. That’s the problem.”
When the subject is Hollywood, Lane, 45, speaks without guessing. Tenuous observers ask with their eyes before making an absolute statement, but Lane doesn’t have to test the waters. She knows. Born in New York City to a show business family (her father was an acting coach; her mother was a model), Lane came of age in an urban fairy tale, A Star Is Born meets Taxi Driver. “As a kid, I remember going to the Colony Record Store in Times Square,” she says. “I used to walk down there around midnight, past Deep Throat and all those pornos, on my way to buy blank tapes. I’d go once a week to buy a box of them so I could record music off the radio.”
Her father, Burt Lane, shared his workshop in the late ’50s with filmmaker John Cassavetes. “People went there if they didn’t get into The [Actor’s] Studio,” she says. “At the time, my dad was dating Gena Rowlands, who was an usherette at Carnegie Hall. She was about 19, walking people to their seats in her little white gloves. Then John stole Gena from my dad.” Lane raises an eyebrow, still impressed after all these years. “When I worked with Gena in my Hallmark Hall of Shame… I mean Fame”—she quips about 1998’s Grace & Glorie—“I said to her, ‘All my life I’ve secretly had this alternate life where...’ and Gena finished my thought: ‘Where you could have been my daughter? Yes, I thought it too.’”
Growing up in a world of actors, performing was second nature for Lane. At 7, she was touring with La MaMa, one of New York’s leading avant-garde companies; at 13, she landed her first film role starring opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance. At that point, the great actor was 72, working for the money, and in bad health. “During the shoot, he was in a lot of physical pain,” Lane remembers. “People who are in physical pain should be given a hall pass. They’re not themselves. They’re in an occupied country.” Meanwhile, Olivier’s son, probably not the first to try to charm Lane, bought her clothing and a bottle of Chloé perfume. “That I’ll never forget,” she says. “A boy had never bought me perfume before.”
A few years later, Francis Ford Coppola cast Lane in back-to-back adaptations of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and then again in The Cotton Club, his opulent box-office calamity of 1984. After that, the right parts were hard to come by. Lane had grown out of girlhood, but she wasn’t yet a leading lady. “The cruel truth of being in this business as a child is that the statistical likelihood that you’re going to grow up to be what they want to photograph—when you’re past your cute phase—is bad. It’s tough. But hey, it’s called show business. Not show ‘cuddles.’”
In 1989, Lane drifted, quite seamlessly, out of her cute phase: The epic TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (co-starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones) showcased her serene, open beauty and easygoing presence, earning her an Emmy nomination and her pick of deeper, more elaborate roles. Roles like Pearl Kantrowitz in 1999’s A Walk on the Moon. “It was one of those scripts that was a full meal,” she says of the film in which she was cast as a 1969 housewife engaged in a steamy love affair with Viggo Mortensen. “Just to be cast in it was great, but making movies is really about the people. It actually winds up becoming about that. They keep it fun and give you the will to do your best. Sometimes there can be mutiny on film sets when people don’t have respect for their collaborators. But [director/producer] Tony Goldwyn made it all so exciting. He left no stone unturned.” Apparently, the feeling is mutual.
“You just get a feeling as a director,” Goldwyn says. “I looked at Diane’s work and saw someone I felt was so underappreciated and had so much extraordinary potential. She’s always been one of our greatest actresses, but to see her blossom was a real privilege.”
After Moon, the doors to blockbuster filmmaking flew open and Lane found herself in 2000’s The Perfect Storm, her biggest movie to date. But it wasn’t exactly the acting challenge she had in mind. “I spent that whole movie on a barstool, crying.”
It was Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne’s darkly playful ronde of grownup passions, that brought Lane the opportunity to do her greatest, most surprising work. A scene on the train, which sees her sitting alone, grappling with a recent bout of very hot, very unfaithful sex, is a classic. In quick strokes, Lane mixes colors most would keep on opposite ends of the palette. Funny/scared, guilty/hungry. The full catalogue is here. She was nominated for an Oscar for the role in 2003.
After some 50 films, a piece of every character Lane has ever played, from Lauren King in A Little Romance to Pat Loud in Cinema Verite, has stayed with her. “I just have an empathy for them that never leaves me,” she says, “an understanding of their life experience that I carry around in my heart. I don’t know if it’s healthy or smart, but I don’t really care! It feels really good in my chest.”
Shari Springer Berman, who co-directed Cinema Verite with her partner Robert Pulcini, had been a fan of Lane’s ever since seeing her as a young girl in A Little Romance and instantly drew similarities between Loud and Lane. “She and Pat have a remarkable physical resemblance. Pat is gorgeous. So is Diane. But there is also an incredible strength they share,” Berman says. “Pat had this ability to be strong and likable, sympathetic but not weak—which was very unusual for a woman in the ’70s when characters were finally allowed to be these strong women.”
Lane didn’t meet with Loud as she did with Penny Chenery, the subject of Secretariat, but she didn’t feel she had to. Loud’s book (“the bible,” as Lane calls it) gave her heaps of information and having lived through the ’70s, she came to the part more than prepared. “What were we thinking then?” she asks, squeezing a wedge of lemon into her water. “We were so cool… because of what, exactly? The ’60s?” If she weren’t an actress, Lane could have made an astute sociologist. In Cinema Verite, she’s both. “I hope Pat likes the movie,” she says, adding, “and I hope she never sees it. For her peace of mind. Our movie is like the silt that’s settled at the bottom of the river and here we’ve come to stir it up again.”
Putting the pieces together, reaching an understanding—Lane loves to do this. It’s how her brain works. Switching from thought to thought, the way she did on the train in Unfaithful, Lane draws equations between seemingly disparate notions:
The Internet?
“It’s an X-ray. Everyone’s psychic innards are on view, squirming around like worms.”
New York?
“I think I’m jealous of it since I left. It’s the feeling like someone just told me my ex had a lot of fun. She didn’t wait around for me.”
Hollywood?
“It’s like, when you buy a car, you’re not buying a car, you’re buying the way you feel when you drive it. They’ve commoditized your feelings. They know what it’s like in there.”
Unprompted, a waitress appears with a small tart and sets it down on the table. It’s on the house. Thanking her, Lane grabs a fork and pulls the plate toward her. “We’re not fighting over this.”
For now, Lane is taking it easy. With her daughter about to start college, she and her actor husband Josh Brolin (W., Milk, True Grit) have bought the Central California ranch where they married in 2004. She’ll relax. She’s thinking about getting another horse up at the ranch, of wanting to watch when it’s born. “We’re staring down the barrel of the empty nest,” she laughs. “It’s not a tunnel for me, it’s a barrel.”
In the meantime, maybe she’ll paint and, whenever she’s moved to, she’ll pick up a script. But there’s no upcoming project. Not right now. “I know that sounds terrifying,” she admits. “But I like room for spontaneity in my life, for mystery. I’m addicted to the gamble of not knowing what I’m doing next.”
The conversation turns back to A Little Romance and Thelonious Bernard, the very gifted young actor who played opposite her.
“Bobby Duvall wanted to know who that boy in A Little Romance was. He was the one that got away. I told him, ‘I don’t know!’” Laughing, she leans back in her chair. “After the kissing scene we had under the Bridge of Sighs, that boy, who started off the film not liking me, became my best friend. I was shocked. All of a sudden he wanted to hang out. I became the bee’s knees to him. It’s still shocking to me that a kiss works, chemically, you know? That’s it! That’s why we’re here.” She puts down her napkin. “If I leaned over and kissed you right now, it would f**k you up.”
Worse than that.