Life in the Diane Lane

Diane Lane has always refused to exploit her looks at the expense of her talent. Now, at 41, that decision has paid off. Her career’s unstoppable and she’s having the time of her life.

By Jamie Diamond

Living Life in the Fast Lane

On location in Toronto, several thousand miles from her Los Angeles home, intensely missing her husband of 18 months (Josh Brolin) and her daughter (Eleanor, age 12) — "I’ve never felt so needed in my life, and it’s just exquisitely inappropriate for me to be anywhere but home," she groans — Diane Lane, on her one day off, wants to go shopping to pick out some gifts for her friends’ children.

Wearing no makeup except lip gloss, she is dressed in walking shoes, jeans with frayed cuffs, a brightly colored striped scarf, and a black overcoat so large that it seems a family of 10 might fit inside. When she spots a store that sells adorable kid stuff, she pops in and immediately heads for the book section, where she opens a joke book.

"What’s the difference between brussels sprouts and a booger?" she reads, and answers, "A kid will eat a booger." She shrieks with laughter and grabs two of the books. Then she points at a baby’s T-shirt that pictures a tricycle over which is the caption "Pimp my ride." Pimp? Isn’t that a bit risque for a little one? "Oh, no," she says, "Babies can’t read."

And there, one perceives Lane: not only her lusty laugh, her generosity, and what she calls her "little miss apple pie" looks shining out regardless of her attire, but also her keen intelligence. She knows which risks are false — worrying about what a baby’s T-shirt says, for example — and which are very real, like exploiting your sexuality at the expense of a serious career, a risk she never fell prey to.

Lane Takes the Road Less Traveled

From 19 to 34, precisely the ages when American actresses are considered to be in their make-it-or-break-it prime, Diane Lane kept a low profile. She had been acting in plays since she was 6 years old, in movies since her auspicious debut at 13 (in George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance with Laurence Olivier), and had appeared memorably in a trio of Francis Ford Coppola films, including Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. But at 19, she quit acting altogether for a year. She once said, "There’s a persona to being an actress that could send anyone to a shrink." She needed to know the self behind her own persona. And when she resumed acting, she worked steadily but refused to try to parlay her looks into stardom. "In movies, a woman’s worth is directly correlated to her sex appeal," Lane says, "and that gets my hairs up, and I just start getting eeech!" She grins at her outburst and then adds, "I’m prejudiced against actresses who manipulate their environment because of their desirability. I find it awkward."

She must have also found the prospect of trading on her own sex appeal frightening, a lesson learned as a child, by observation. Her parents, who divorced when she was 2 weeks old, were Burt Lane, an acting coach who worked with John Cassavetes, and Colleen Farrington, an aspiring nightclub performer and a Playboy centerfold in 1957, a choice that would affect her life ever after. "To this day my mother is judged for doing that," Lane says. "It pigeonholed her." She is silent for a moment, then adds, "And back then, they didn’t even show nipples! They show more on the covers now than my mother showed in the centerfold."

So, from 1987 until 1999, excepting only the role of a prostitute in the smash 1989 TV western miniseries Lonesome Dove, Lane refrained from playing a sex object.

As Griffin Dunne, a friend and the director of this spring’s tragic ensemble piece Fierce People, which stars Lane, puts it, "She underplays how beautiful she is, and that’s very appealing. I’ve never worked with someone of whom both men and women ask, ‘Is she as sexy as she seems?’"

Lane’s straight-arrow strategy enabled her to show the rich assortment of other character cards she had in her hand. Then in 1999, when she was 34, in A Walk on the Moon, an indie picture about a ’50s hausfrau who falls into an affair on her Catskills vacation, Lane allowed herself to play a leading role opposite Viggo Mortensen that included sexuality as part of a complex characterization. It was as if she stepped out from behind a curtain and said, "Now. Now that I can be cast as a whole woman, I will appear as one."

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