Beautiful, charming Diane Lane is a winner — just like her equine costar

By Janice Page
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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This is why women don’t hate Diane Lane.

She’s sitting in a Downtown hotel conference room, where she’s dressed simply, which is to say stunningly, in complementary shades of brown — a stylish leather blazer, a flattering wrap-dress, super-sexy, high high-heels. Her long, brunette hair is as shiny as a pampered racehorse, and her face has the kind of organic beauty rarely found even in the Whole Foods produce aisle. It’s equally possible to imagine her jumping right from this interview to a Vogue cover shoot, a parent-teacher conference, the front of a stage, the back of a Harley. And yet . . .

“I think you better put a flash on or something,’’ she interrupts our interview to instruct a photographer who’s been snapping away at close range for about 10 minutes. When he assures her that he’s getting great stuff, she thanks him, unleashes a warm smile, and adds a final plea: “Please. ‘Cause I’m just, like, 45 here. Work with me.’’

Instead of seeming disingenuous, the veteran actress — whose new movie, “Secretariat,’’ opens Friday — comes across as relatable, vulnerable, sincere . . . all the qualities that are her strengths on screen. She’s been around long enough that we trust it’s not an act. Her debut came in George Roy Hill’s “A Little Romance,’’ opposite Laurence Olivier, when she was only 13. And it’s been a mixed career, to be generous.

Lane, the daughter of Manhattan acting coach Burt Lane, went from being hailed as a Hollywood whiz kid on a 1979 Time magazine cover to a resume that includes “National Lampoon’s Movie Madness’’ and a spectacular Japanese bomb known as “The Setting Sun.’’ Additional lowlights have been numerous, but she also earned a lasting spot in many young hearts playing a baby-faced rocker in “Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains’’ and working with director Francis Ford Coppola in “The Outsiders’’ and “Rumble Fish.’’ Even “Streets of Fire’’ managed a cult following that has endured.

There were TV hits and misses along the way, a highlight being the epically popular “Lonesome Dove’’ miniseries. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Lane finally became the big-league movie actress pundits had prophesied. She beams now when one mentions the impact of “The Perfect Storm,’’ and she’s quick to acknowledge the good people of Gloucester, where it was filmed.

“Loved Gloucester and the whole area,’’ she remarks. “I’m from the Northeast [New York]. I miss the unifying factor of the weather and time passing and seasons and being connected by that. And also the history; it’s very edifying to recall the people we have to be grateful to for surviving so we could be here.’’

Following the box-office success of “The Perfect Storm,’’ Lane has enjoyed more high-profile projects of varying artistic quality (“Unfaithful,’’ which earned her a best actress Oscar nomination; “Under the Tuscan Sun’’; “Must Love Dogs’’; “Nights in Rodanthe’’ . . . ) But even when her movies are less than fans would hope, the actress’s credit rating never seems to slip. She’s played everything from prostitutes and adulteresses to saintly wives, schoolmarms, a Secret Service agent, and Paulette Goddard. Most impressively, she’s survived starring in three films with Richard Gere, which means there’s something about her that audiences just plain like. We can’t necessarily name it, but we’d clone it if we could.

What we do know is that Lane will benefit from our accumulated respect and affection when Disney trots out “Secretariat,’’ which casts her as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the savvy horse owner who spotted a Triple Crown winner from the start. It’s a throwback kind of movie, full of corn and hay, and Lane strides through it like Clark Gable in a cardigan sweater set. With complete confidence, she delivers one of the most challenging lines a contemporary actress will ever have to utter with a straight face. It comes during a dinner-table argument between Penny’s straight-laced husband and their wannabe hippie daughter. Just as the politics of the scene heat up, Penny steps in to ask: “Would anyone like some pie?’’

“You have no idea how hard that was for me,’’ Lane says, excited to talk about the line. “The only other time I had as hard a time was ‘You dig OK, Ponyboy’ in ‘The Outsiders.’ I was looking at [“Secretariat’’ director Randall Wallace], who wrote it, and I’m going ‘Really? You think I can pull this off, do you? Well, great.’ ’’

And that certainly wasn’t her only hurdle. Working closely with a massive thoroughbred (five of them, actually, though only two of the look-alikes were used for most of Secretariat’s scenes) can generate its own drama. Lane, who prefers western saddles and quarter horses to that much power under the hood, says she left any fast moves to the professional jockeys in the cast.

“I drive a Prius and you never get out of third gear in Los Angeles, anyway, even on the freeway,’’ she quips. “I feel the same about horses.’’

LA is home, where she retreats with husband Josh Brolin whenever he’s not far away on a movie set and they get to enjoy what she calls “the patches in between, when nobody owns our hair color.’’ Their six-year marriage hasn’t been all smooth sailing (one infamous quarrel prompted a domestic battery charge against him, later dismissed), but today she says she has what she always wanted in a mate: “a buddy.’’ She also has a 17-year-old daughter by ex-husband Christopher Lambert, and she’s a parental figure to Brolin’s 22-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter by Alice Adair.

Though Lane can hardly be called an everywoman (her stepmother-in-law is Barbra Streisand), every woman can see why she has so many fans. She doesn’t polarize the way Julia Roberts does, or intimidate like Halle Berry and Catherine Zeta Jones. The “Secretariat’’ star seems down to earth, approachable, even while she’s playing what is essentially Jackie Kennedy in a short blond wig, owning a horse farm the same way one owns a fashion runway or the White House. She’s the closest thing we have today to Grace Kelly, with a chaser of Pat Benatar.

Lane doesn’t have to choose perfect movies, or be perfect in them, to be popular. The thing that makes her Teflon, says “Secretariat’’ director Wallace, is the same intrinsic X factor that made Penny Chenery an unlikely success.

“Diane has Penny’s charisma,’’ he explains. “She’s a woman of remarkable beauty who clearly made the decision early on that life was going to be about what’s inside her.’’

Wallace is taking some early heat from horse-racing fans who are unhappy that his movie, inspired by William Nack’s book, bends key facts to portray Secretariat as underdog and farm-saver, and uses stand-in locations for such famous tracks as Belmont Park. But nobody’s questioning his casting of Lane, he says, because she so clearly embodies the bright, blue-chip qualities of both owner and horse.

The actress credits her late father for this inheritance. His character lessons carried her through some trying times, including a three-year semi-retirement from show business at age 19, when she thought she had lost her passion for the job. Like her equine friends, she now runs on instinct. She’ll soon be seen as “An American Family’’ matriarch Pat Loud in an HBO dramatization called “Cinema Verite,’’ and she’s hoping to follow that with “something savory . . . something about a villainess,’’ though the right project hasn’t surfaced yet.

Like many women her age, Lane is facing down empty-nest syndrome. With her daughter touring prospective colleges (Emerson among them), it helps that her career is as robust as it’s ever been. She says she never imagined she’d have such staying power, or so much fun in the homestretch of middle-age: “I think when I was 25 trying to fathom 45, it didn’t look as yummy as it is.’’ We could hate her for calling perimenopause “yummy.’’ But we don’t.

Janice Page can be reached at

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