Described by Olivier as the new Grace Kelly when she was 14, Diane Lane always seemed fated to remain the best actress who never quite made it. Until, that is, she was nominated for an Oscar, and smouldering lead roles started to flood in. She talks to Strawberry Saroyan (?!) about life as a fortysomething sex symbol.
Diane Lane is dangling an iridescent gold mesh thong from her ring finger. We are sitting in a French pastry shop in Beverly Hills, and she has been searching for a piece of chewing-gum in her handbag - when out this pops. 'See, these are the things that get me in trouble,' she says with a laugh. 'It's called being a working mom. You're constantly changing clothes. You go to the gym or you're trying on a ball-gown and it's, like, "That's uncomfortable. I'm not going to wear that all day!"'
At 43 Lane is at an age when Hollywood actresses who have been used to being cast as romantic leads suddenly find that the telephone stops ringing and ball-gown fittings cease to be an issue. (As Whoopi Goldberg once said, after actresses have turned 40, film producers 'want you to think that you are done'.) Lane, however, has managed to buck that trend, and finds herself, the mother of a 15-year-old daughter, slap bang in the middle of the most productive and demanding period of her career to date. Since her acclaimed - and Oscar nominated - turn as a housewife who embarks on a passionate and destructive affair in Unfaithful (2002), she has become the actress to hire if a director needs a sexy, but emotionally complicated, depiction of a woman on the cusp of middle age. With lesser or greater variations on a theme, she has played that role in Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), Fierce People (2005), Must Love Dogs (2005) and Hollywoodland (2006). In her next film, Nights in Rodanthe, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, she's at it again, playing an unhappily married (but sexy and emotionally complicated) middle-aged woman who has a passionate (though this time not necessarily destructive) affair. She reprises her partnership with Richard Gere, whom she betrayed so vigorously in Unfaithful but with whom she here does the betraying.
Perhaps Lane's ability to keep on bagging romantic leads into her forties is simply the exception that proves the Hollywood rule. Lane, however, does not think so. She believes there has been a shift in society, and that the roles for older women in Hollywood are beginning to reflect that. 'I peaked [emotionally] at 38,' she says, 'and these days I think late thirties is the new 25.'
Nights in Rodanthe is, in fact, the third film she has made with Gere - she first starred opposite him as an 18-year-old in Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 homage to the jazz age, The Cotton Club. Indeed, it is easy to forget, given Lane's comparatively late rise to fame, that she was a child star. At the age of 14 she was cast alongside Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance (1979). He was so impressed that he compared her to a young Grace Kelly. By the time she was 20, she had made 10 feature films, three of them directed by Coppola. Scripts continued to roll in throughout her twenties and early thirties, but she never managed to capitalise on her early promise. Or rather, the films she chose - Chaplin (1992), Judge Dredd (1995), Jack (1996) - let her down, because the one constant throughout her career, whether she has been cast in a hit or a flop, has been the quality of her acting - to which her many glowing reviews attest.
When we meet, Lane is dressed in a plain white shirt, blue jeans, preppy black flats and no make-up. There is the slight frown that gives her perfectly proportioned face poignancy, and her vaguely sarcastic delivery is softened by her deep brown eyes. In conversation Lane is thoughtful, engaging and open. She has, in addition, a rather eccentric habit of speaking in extended metaphors (at one point Lane invokes a vision of an athletic octopus to describe her experience of single motherhood: 'It was like having a croquet mallet in one hand, a tennis racket in the other, a baseball bat in the other, and some fins on my feet'). This can sometimes be disorientating, as if she has failed to hear your question, or has decided to head off on a tangent. When, for instance, I ask her about what it is like to be back working with Richard Gere, she says this: 'You know, I had a black eye when I was a teenager once from a jar of honey - it's a long story - and I tried so hard to cover it up with make-up at school the next day, and then years later I had another little black eye and I didn't feel like covering it up at all. That's the difference between being 18 and being with Richard now. I was so busy covering my insecurities that it made them stick out more. Today I just walk in and announce them.'
Insecure though Lane may have been, she would have walked on to the set of The Cotton Club with an enviable CV for such a young actress. The daughter of an acting coach, Burt Lane, and a singer and model, Colleen Farrington (who was named Playboy's Miss October 1957), Lane made her stage debut aged seven at the fashionable La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York. She played a child who is murdered in a production of Medea. 'One time,' she remembers, 'I fell asleep and missed my cue and they were crying over a nonexistent dead body. It was bad. But I was a baby!' Roles in Electra and As You Like It followed, and Lane went, without her parents, on theatrical tours to Europe and the Middle East. By 12, Lane was performing alongside Meryl Streep in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard. What made her so brave and driven as a child? Lane laughs. 'I wasn't. I was sort of dared by my father. Like, "Come on, do this really cool thing." You know how when your parent is like the sun shining on you - the approval, all the "You're so wonderful"? That's what he was like when I was doing the plays.'
Lane's father comes up often in any discussion of her career; she had a complicated relationship with both him (he died in 2002) and her mother. Her parents divorced when Lane was just two weeks old, and Lane was 'tossed between them like a football', she says. When it came to Lane performing, 'Mom and dad would fight about it, but dad would win,' she says. By her mid teens she was estranged from her mother, living with her father in New York. Lane admits that, even today, Burt's influence looms large in her life. 'I was his final project. I'm definitely his daughter before I'm anyone's wife, ex-wife, mother.' Was his death just months before her Oscar nomination particularly difficult because of the timing? Lane tells me she takes comfort in the fact that he saw an early cut of Unfaithful, and that during his last week of life he wrote to a friend, '"She'll probably get nominated." He felt like it was his success, too. And rightfully so.' Has she ever wondered what her life might have been like had she chosen to rebel against her father? She pauses. 'To this day I am still thinking about the path not taken. I did not live my life. I lived the life my father wanted for me. But it's great. It's much better and I'm glad.'
By 1984 Lane's first two Coppola films, The Outsiders and Rumblefish, had been released, and The Cotton Club and the rock-'n'-roll-inspired Streets of Fire were in the can. Her star was in the ascendant, and among the films she turned down were Splash, in which Daryl Hannah eventually took the part of a mermaid who beguiles Tom Hanks ('I didn't get what was funny about Splash, and I thought, "I don't really want to be at the Statue of Liberty with my breasts exposed,"' she says), as well as Risky Business, despite Tom Cruise, 'as we knew him,' she says mock-wistfully, personally trying to recruit her.
But Streets of Fire bombed at the box office, and The Cotton Club took a critical drubbing. Not long afterwards Lane decided to leave town. Much was made of her so-called 'retirement' at the age of 19, but today Lane sees it as a much-needed break. She rented a van, packed up her belongings, and drove to her mother's home to seek a reconciliation: 'I decided that I had better bury the hatchet because life is not about grudges.' Eighteen months later she returned to Los Angeles ready to get on with her career.
Reading about Lane's journey from child to adult star, I tell her, I notice that she resisted certain temptations to which young actors often fall prey. For example, how did she steer clear of drugs? 'A lot of it was naivety,' she replies, checking out her teeth in a mirror. ('If I had spinach in my teeth, would you tell me?') 'I was able to walk into a room with bowls of cocaine and not realise it was cocaine,' she continues. 'Someone would say to me later, "Did you see all that?" and I would say, "What are you talking about - that's not Sweet'N Low? "' (She is not joking.) 'Also, I felt like I had something to lose… Self-respect is a commodity worth cleaving to.'
Jon Bon Jovi was among the men Lane dated in the 1980s. Another was Christopher Lambert, whom she married in 1988 after two years together. They met performing a Cotton Club dance number for French television. 'It wasn't love and it wasn't lust,' she has said. 'But it was sure something.' Their daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1993, but they divorced the following year. Lane blames the split on being apart too much and a lack of common goals. 'Better to be friends and be functional than a married couple and [dysfunctional],' she tells me and adds, 'It was probably the cheapest divorce - we agreed to everything.'
Today Lane is not only mother to Eleanor, an aspiring model ('I think I've successfully whinged and moaned about this industry enough that I've put her off the scent,' she says), but also stepmother to Trevor, 20, and Eden, 15, the children of her second husband, the actor Josh Brolin. After nearly a decade as a single parent - in which, she says, she barely dated - Lane ran into Brolin at a party and reportedly enchanted him when he asked what she was up to: 'Third grade,' came her reply. He was a single father with young children, and he and Lane found they had much in common. They married - and blended families - in 2004. 'I'm really happy,' Lane says, blushing like a schoolgirl and kicking out her heels. The match not only made her a step-parent, but also stepdaughter to Barbra Streisand (Streisand is married to Josh's father, James Brolin). What's that like? 'Eleanor is really hoping we get invited to Thanksgiving this year,' Lane replies. Streisand, she says, puts on a gourmet spread fit for Hollywood royalty. 'She's a mensch. She comes to the kids' plays.'
Thanks in part to her success, Lane is very comfortable with being a fortysomething actress in Los Angeles - her easily furrowed brow is testament to this - but she refuses to be judgemental when I ask about her peers' forays into cosmetic surgery. 'Oh, I'm just too chicken to experiment with my face and have it go wrong,' she says. 'I'm not saying I never will. But it's like, what scares you more? Getting old or looking weird?'
Lane puts her feet up on a chair and starts talking about her character in Nights in Rodanthe, a woman who loves and loses but whose final triumph may be sweeter because of it. 'I love the story of Adrienne because in the middle of her life she wakes up and says, "I do deserve better. I can be imperfect." I think every day we would like to reinvent ourselves in some way. That aspiration is inside of all of us. It's something that everybody can relate to.'
Nights in Rodanthe looks really stupid, IMO, but Unfaithful is HOT. Hallway scene; hello.