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."
In the five years since, from A Walk on the Moon through The Perfect Storm through Unfaithful through this spring — when, in addition to Fierce People, she will also be seen in Killshot, a thriller by Shakespeare in Love director John Madden — she has become the onscreen embodiment of the experienced woman. This is what experience looks like: sensual, maternal, sexy, strong, surprising, and wryly good-humored.
Of plastic surgery, she says, "I don’t feel that apologetic yet. I feel like you’re apologizing if you have plastic surgery, apologizing for nature and history and experience. I take comfort that aging happens to everybody. It’s part of life. Aging offers great lessons in dignity, since the indignity wins in the end. Yes, it bothers me when I have lines or puffiness or droops. But it connects me with the human race. Like weather bringing people together, aging brings people together." But then she adds, "I’m also terrified of a doctor making me look like somebody else. If I could see the after picture and say, ‘That looks great,’ then maybe I’d opt for it. Maybe I’m just a chicken shit, actually."
The Death of an Actress
In the kids’ store in Toronto, clutching her book selections, she proceeds to a basket jam-packed with tiny plastic windup toys. "We’re starting a new tradition — a Christmas elf who leaves little things around the house," she whispers conspiratorially, as if her children in California (in addition to Eleanor, there are Lane’s stepchildren, Eden Brolin, also 12, and Trevor Brolin, 17) might be hiding within earshot. "When Christmas comes around again, one of these would be perfect." Of course the toy she picks — an electric-blue penguin — is wound so tightly that it can’t hop. A saleslady mysteriously appears and deftly removes it from Lane’s hand, saying, "Once they’re dead, they’re dead." Lane regards her and says evenly, "Yes, that’s my understanding of death as well."
"I was killed in every play I did," she says, laughing, in a nearby wine bar. She takes off her coat and scarf, revealing a delicate green western-style cotton shirt fastened with mother-of-pearl buttons. As a child, she toured Iran, Holland, and Italy as an actor with the avant-garde La MaMa Troupe, unchaperoned by either parent. "I was killed in Electra, Medea, and The Trojan Women. In Agamemnon, I got impaled. I was thrown off a cliff. I died on stage in every way there was to die except suffocation. I was in Greek tragedies, and they deal with the death of innocence. Only later did I pay attention to what I’d been doing with my childhood. It was a sign of that expansive, experimental time that I was entrusted with the care of myself."
Lane’s Lovely Life
Her own innocence long gone, Lane is lively. Whenever she recalls an experience, expressions flicker over her face as if she’s watching a private movie and experiencing each scene as exciting and newly minted. When she talks, she uses her hands and takes on different voices. She climbs onto a wooden chair to demonstrate how gingerly she perched on hot Jeep seats while honeymooning in Death Valley with Brolin two summers ago. Describing the communal spirit that develops during filmmaking — "An intense intimacy occurs when creative people share a goal" — she smacks her palm onto the center of her chest. Then she gazes searchingly around the restaurant and whispers, "You forget that life is waiting for you."
The life that awaits Lane is still, in good measure, a mother’s life, an experience she has been able to use often in her work. In Fierce People, a 16-year-old boy’s coming-of-age story set on the East Coast in 1978, she plays a mother who initially acts more screwed up than her screwed-up kid. "This is going to sound crazy," she admits, "but the truth is my stepson read the script — the protagonist is about the age he was at that time — and he liked it and told me that I should do it." She also felt drawn to the era and the mother-son relationship. "It’s that last time before the son starts losing complete faith in his mother," she says, softly.
Dunne says, "Diane is certainly the kind of mother I would like to have if I were a messed-up teenage kid, a yummy mommy. If you close your eyes and just listen to her voice, you can tell that she’s secure and confident, someone you can enjoy rather than think you have to spend a lot of time making feel good about herself."
Longing to Be Home Again
Lane rests her forehead on her hand and then looks up. "I’m having the most intense maternal experience these days," she explains. "You know that moment when the moon takes over from the sun at the end of the day and you can watch the light actually shift? I’m watching the teenager take over from the child in both my daughter" (whom she had with her first husband, actor Christopher Lambert) "and stepdaughter. But separated by this distance, all I can do is advise over the phone. I’m a puddle of mush. I go into fabulous denial about how uncomfortable I feel being away from home. So I do it again, then go, ‘Wait a minute, Diane. Don’t you remember how awful that separation felt?’"
If Lane broods about not being with her children, she glows when she talks about her husband. Brolin was the first man with children she had ever dated, a fact she feels is significant. "I was fishing out of a different pond," she says, "proof that I’d grown up and was ready for a deeper experience." She is careful to stress that Eleanor has a kind, funny, and loving father, but nonetheless, she says, "When I met Josh, I met someone I could parent with; it’s hard to share that job and in some ways it’s easier to do alone. But mothers need to be told, ‘Do your best. You’re doing a good job. I see you struggle. You’re not alone.’" By the time she met Brolin, she had learned to be fearlessly direct and honest. "I ran on hunches more when I was young," she says. "Josh and I communicate in a much more clear and open way." She gives a small smile. "Speaking just logistically, we have to."
She wed Brolin in bare feet, in front of 80 guests (including her new in-laws, James Brolin and Barbra Streisand), on the Brolin family ranch in Templeton, California, with Trevor as the ring bearer and Eleanor and Eden acting as flower girls. "For bodyguards we had cowboy friends with shotguns, riding horses around the property," Lane recalls. "It was quite effective and much more charming than having men in black with walkie-talkies."
Lane’s Final Destination
As for the honeymoon, the couple took advantage of their girls’ attendance at summer camp and had it before the wedding. "We drove through five states in a Jeep and slept in motels without reservations," she says happily. "I get on planes and dress up for work, so my idea of a good time is not the glamorous path. There is something about letting the universe provide for you that is very enlivening. You follow your gut and you feel more alive."
"It’s euphoria to be in my own life with people who are real," Lane says. By Hollywood standards, her family life is simple and rare. "Josh and I like to do our own driving, thank you very much. And we drop off and pick each other up from airports with as many kids in the car as possible."
These days Lane considers herself to be the object of one of life’s sly jokes. Just when she is having her first experience of steady, supportive family life, her career becomes a juggernaut. "It’s like one of those space movies," she says, searching for an image, "like when the Apollo 13 space capsule reenters the earth’s atmosphere — is it going to burn up or not? That’s what it feels like to go beyond the simple years where the possibilities are there just because of the way you look. Will I be able to reenter?" But despite being torn between her new family and her career, she isn’t interested in hanging up her acting boots. Her life is just full. She loves it that way. At 41, she is having a second honeymoon with Hollywood, and this time, she has no reservations.
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2006.