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Diane Lane has little interest in the glitz and glamour of the red carpet. Take last spring. After spending some days among the rich and famous at the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera, Lane and her husband of six years, actor Josh Brolin, escaped for a three-week road trip like a couple of giddy fugitives. "There's nothing more liberating than blowing out of town in a rental car," says Lane. "Most people expect you to be in a limo, wearing sunglasses and a designer dress, but there I was with my bare feet up on the dashboard, painting my toenails, popping crackers and watching the world go by."
During their travels the couple let their whims guide them, taking spontaneous detours through the Italian Alps, Austrian villages, and Amsterdam before finishing up in Paris. "Most of the time we didn't have a plan. We would just find a hotel -- one star, two stars, three stars. It didn't matter,? she says. "It's moments like those when you marvel at the simplicity of life."
Lane learned early on to embrace the excitement (and sometimes uneasiness) of not knowing what the future holds. She was only 13 days old when her parents, Colleen Farrington and Burt Lane, split up. For the first six years she lived with her singer mother in New Mexico and then Georgia, and got a taste for drama, watching her maternal grandmother, a Pentecostal preacher, bellow from the pulpit of her church every Saturday night. ("Her voice was so booming," Lane says, "you'd hear tapes of her preaching and think, 'Wait, is that a guy?'") Eventually she moved in with her father, a New York City drama coach who cultivated her acting talent. As a little girl she starred opposite Meryl Streep in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard. By 14 she was on the cover of Time, touted as one of Hollywood's "Whiz Kids," thanks to her performance in the 1979 movie A Little Romance. But that sudden success was too much, too soon for Lane. "I wanted to hide like a mouse under a chair until it passed," she now says. "It was like I was standing there and got hit by a lightning bolt. My fame was not earned."
So she worked for it, moving to Hollywood as a teenager and going on to star in more than 40 movies over the next 30 years. Some were winners (The Outsiders, Lonesome Dove), some were clunkers (Judge Dredd), but all proved Lane was more than a precocious child star. These days her career continues to defy the laws of Hollywood physics: As she ages the roles keep getting bigger and better. "I have a sort of lip-smacking gratification that I'm still playing in the game," says Lane, 45, whose recent films have included female-friendly fare like Nights in Rodanthe and an Oscar-nominated performance in Unfaithful. "I feel I have more to offer...and that I'm being allowed to. That's the biggest gift. It's wonderful being the underdog."
Her streak continues with this month's Secretariat, in which she plays Penny Chenery, the 1970s homemaker-turned-racehorse owner who propelled the Triple Crown winner to greatness. Lane leapt at the chance to play a character whose power and personal transformation didn't hinge on her relationship with a man. "I felt like I got to touch the Holy Grail," she says over tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. "Too often a woman's self-worth is wrapped up in how the opposite sex relates to her." When asked why she thinks women put so much stock in the success of their romantic lives, Lane says, "There are two things people are motivated by. One is validation, the other is comfort. I think people go for validation every time. Everybody wants somebody else to say they're understood or they're agreed with or they're believed in."
Lane has never lacked for male attention. Over the years she has dated such high-profile men as rock star Jon Bon Jovi and actor Timothy Hutton. In 1988 she married actor Christopher Lambert, with whom she had a daughter, Eleanor, now 17. After her divorce from Lambert six years later, Lane used her single-mom status as a deterrent to potential suitors. But that strategy backfired when she bumped into Josh Brolin, now 42, in a restaurant in 2002. "My thing was always, 'Stay away, I have a young kid,'" she says. "And he was like, 'Oh, yeah? Well, so do I.' That was the whole ensnarement. It worked. It was like, 'Oh, okay. Come on in.'"
The couple married in 2004 and then began the delicate work of blending two families with teen and preteen kids. (Brolin's son, Trevor, is now 22, and his daughter, Eden, 17, lives with the couple part-time.) Add to the mix her new famous mother-in-law, Barbra Streisand, who had married Brolin's father, James. It was a joyous yet stressful time, made all the more so by the sudden glare of the media spotlight. Shortly after they wed Lane made a 911 call that resulted in Brolin's being arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. Lane, who didn't press charges, doesn't comment on the incident. But she's refreshingly candid about their relationship today. "At my own peril I will quote Mae West, who said, 'Getting married is like trading in the adoration of many for the sarcasm of one,'" she says, laughing. "I embrace that. Bring it on. Because that's what intimacy is: It's a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to bite my tongue and a willingness to set an example of what I believe in. And it's hard. Look at all of the sages throughout history. They lived alone."
Still, she insists the compromise that comes with marriage is worth it. "I recently said to Josh, 'Being in a relationship makes it impossible to avoid yourself.' It may not always make me comfortable but it sure has made me a better person. And I'll take that any day."
Although she's a natural beauty -- with her long chestnut hair and luminescent brown eyes -- Lane's sense of self has never been buoyed by her looks. Even today she's dressed down in cowboy boots and a worn leather jacket; her hair is still damp from her morning shower. "Diane spends less time on her appearance than anyone I know. It bores her to tears," says actress Elizabeth Perkins, Lane's friend of 18 years. "Diane is just real. There are friends I call when I want someone to be a yes-man. Diane is the friend I call when I want the truth. She came to visit us once on Martha's Vineyard. It was Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party and we were going to go and she chose not to. She said, 'I'd rather go to the county fair. I think that's much more interesting.' That's what I love about her. She was like, 'I don't feel like getting dressed up, so I'm going to put on my jeans and take Eleanor to get some cotton candy.'"
Not that Lane is immune to the self-consciousness that comes with aging on camera. "Some days I want to get the boob job, some days I want to get the eye lift," she confesses. "Then other days I'm like, 'Absolutely not! Have some integrity! Be those footprints in the sand that lead others forward in a more dignified manner. But it's all about what makes you happy. It's a hyper-personal domain."
For Lane the hardest part about growing older has been the reality of raising a teenager. She has always made being a mom her top priority, walking away from plum parts if they conflicted with family matters. Her film choices have often been based on where the movie was shooting, and for how long. In fact, until she made Secretariat Lane had stopped working for two years to seize her last opportunity at full-time motherhood. "When my daughter was 14 she said she was looking forward to my going away on location. That's when I said, 'Okay, it's time to stay home,'" says Lane. "I knew it was a delicate period for her and it wasn't going to be pleasant for me. She was always like, 'You're just annoying. God, Mom, stop!' I said, 'I'm going to change my name legally to God Mom Stop.'"
Lane is bracing herself for the next big shift in their family life -- the empty nest. The couple's home (they have a house in Los Angeles as well as a ranch just outside the city) has been a gathering place for their kids and their friends. "Just last night Eleanor had two girlfriends and two guy friends over. Everybody's taller than me now, which is awkward, being the little mother," says Lane (who's 5-foot-5). But with both her daughter and stepdaughter heading off to college next year, she knows her house won't be this lively for long. "We used to have horses on the ranch and we may get them again, just to lure our kids back for visits," she says. "But it's funny the way Mother Nature works. Around the time your kids want to leave the house, you're ready for them to. It's natural on both ends. I wouldn't be happy if they wanted to move back home when they were 22. I'd be adjusted to my life being mine again."
As an avid painter, Lane is looking forward to spending some of her new-found free time working on her art. She also volunteers on behalf of various charities, including Heifer International, which focuses on world hunger, and Artists for Peace and Justice, a Hollywood organization that supports Haiti relief. "We traveled to Haiti a few years ago, long before the earthquake happened," she says. "We had put a system in place so aid could be distributed through people we could trust. I haven't gone back since that trip. But there are other ways of serving than just being on the ground." Otherwise, Lane shies away from talking about her humanitarian efforts. "Sometimes I give with my heart. Sometimes I give financially, but there's something about [helping others] that I think ought to be anonymous. I don't want it to be a boastful thing."
And then, of course, there's her enduring career. Next up, she'll play Pat Loud in HBO's Cinema Verité, about the making of the '70s documentary An American Family. Beyond that she's keeping her options open. "I often say, 'Go with the flow,'?" says Lane, who may as well be summing up her life mantra. "It sounds cheesy, but I don't care. If you know what the weather is going to be next Thursday, please don't tell me. I like not knowing. I'd rather not know where a train is going, then get on it and see where it takes me. Not knowing what's going to happen next is much more fun."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2010.