Diane Lane Is a Lane Changer

A producer of the new documentary "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" asked Diane Lane to help expose the abuse of women in Somaliland, she leapt at the chance. Here, the Oscar-nominated actress talks about what she learned, the newly empty nest she shares with husband Josh Brolin and the difficult childhood that led to her extraordinary career

by Margot Dougherty
diane lane image
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Robert Duvall considers Lonesome Dove, the acclaimed 1989 Western miniseries he made with Lane, one of his favorite projects. Duvall played Gus McCrae, a cattleman who takes Lane’s prostitute under his wing. “I’ll always think of her as ‘Lorie darlin’,’ ” he admits. -Although Gus repeatedly asked Lorie for “a poke,” Duvall didn’t do the same. “Diane was with her French Tarzan husband [Christopher Lambert] at the time,” he says, laughing. “So it was platonic, with good, warm feelings.”

Despite decades of stardom, Lane seems devoted to keeping her own light at a more manageable level. She arrives at Red O, a snazzy Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, dressed in white jeans, a rumpled man’s-style linen shirt, flat sandals and no perceptible makeup; her only jewelry is a thick, etched wedding band. Jet-lagged after a vacation in Scotland with her husband, actor Josh Brolin, she is still thinking about Somaliland. “I’m daunted and humbled,” she says, “by the amount of work there is to do.”

Lane’s segment in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide centers on 74-year-old Edna Adan Ismail and the hospital she founded in Har-geisa, the capital of Somaliland (originally northwestern Somalia). At an age when most people retire, Ismail, a former first lady of -Somalia and an outspoken critic of FGM, sold her Mercedes and her jewelry and raised money around the world to provide a hospital and a midwife education program to support the women of her homeland. Somali women and their babies have among the highest mortality rates in the world. Delivering, not to mention conceiving, a child when the tissue surrounding the vagina has been radically excised and sewn shut is fraught with complication. “How would you have a baby around a chastity belt?” asks Lane. It was Ismail, Somalia’s first British-trained nurse and midwife, who recorded the FGM video and, decades later, showed it to Lane.

“When we knew that a Hollywood star would be coming for the documentary, many of us, including me, were expecting the stereotype: an artificial, self-centered and fragile person,” Ismail says. “Instead, I found a warm, intelligent and naturally beautiful woman who was genuinely concerned about the poverty and ill health of the people she met.”

At the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, Lane donned hand-me-down scrubs (most of the equipment and uniforms are donated) and attended the birth of a baby girl. She cut the cord and delivered the bundled new-born to her father, an experience she recalls as “the biggest goose bump I’ll ever have. You feel like you’re part of the blessing of life.” Dressed in caftans and headscarves, she rode with Ismail and Kristof over miles of tracks (so bumpy, “they rattle the fillings right out of your teeth,” she says) to remote villages to visit Ismail’s midwives and check in on pregnant women who needed attention. “Edna was training me, because she can’t help herself,” Lane says with a smile. “She took me by the hand, and a woman let me feel her belly. Now I can tell some things about how the baby is positioned and where the head is. It is something to see these women. Some are on their 12th child. They’ve lost several others, either in childbirth or later.” She and Kristof also interviewed “cutters,” the women who make a living performing FGM in the villages. “We were talking about some delicate issues,” says Kristof. “Diane was fine crouching in somebody’s hut and making her feel at ease.”

“The majority of Edna’s countrymen and -women are nomads with camels out looking for water so they can grow something to feed their goats and have milk,” Lane says. “The women weave their houses out of fibers. They roll them up and put them on their camels, and they go.”

First Published August 28, 2012

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