In 2010, Boston Globe film critic Janice Page described Diane Lane as “the closest thing we have today to Grace Kelly, with a chaser of Pat Benatar.” This may have seemed like a left-field comparison for Lane’s 21st-century renaissance as a leading lady. With her throaty voice and the mischievous twinkle in her eye, she brought an earthy, relatable quality to glossy erotic thrillers like Unfaithful and elevated rom-coms like Under the Tuscan Sun.
For those who’d been following Lane’s career over the previous decades, the parallel Page drew between the actress and the tough-but-vulnerable screen siren made sense. At the start of her career, Lane appeared in a string of films that placed her naturalistic acting style and off-the-cuff comic timing in the anything-could-happen setting of rock and roll and early punk.
After making her film debut in A Little Romance, Lane took on the lead role in Touched by Love, an inspired-by-true-events drama about an unlikely friendship between Elvis Presley and a disabled teenager. When nurse practitioner Lena Canada (Deborah Raffin) begins work at a home for children with disabilities, she’s drawn to Karen (Lane), a seemingly nonverbal teenage girl with cerebral palsy. She takes Karen on long walks and talks to her at mealtimes, and through her persistence she finally leads Karen to speak. When Karen reveals that Elvis is her favorite singer, Lena suggests that Karen write a fan letter to the King. Her fandom and her eventual friendship with her idol unlocks something in the girl, and she’s able to communicate more openly about her disability with Lena and in her letters to Elvis.
The true story that inspired Touched by Love has potential, but this film unspools more like a generic 1970s made-for-TV movie that blundered its way into a theatrical release. Hesper Anderson’s screenplay introduces plot points (like a romance between Lena and one of her coworkers or a potential move out of the home for Karen) only to reverse or abandon them, and director George Trikonis leads the adult actors through loud, wide-eyed performances that come off as condescending to the children in their care. While a record display at a drugstore—which included the West Side Story soundtrack and Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. by Simon & Garfunkel—would date the story to the mid 1960s, Raffin’s attempt at a Dorothy Hamill haircut and cinematographer Richard H. Kline’s use of saturated earth tones would place the story closer to the release of Moody Blue than Elvis for Everyone!
The role of Karen, a thirteen-year-old with limited mobility who spends the first third of the movie in a silent, catatonic state, would be daunting to an actor twice Lane’s age, and there’s a high risk factor for caricature when an able-bodied actor takes on the role of a disabled person. While Lane’s gulping, monosyllabic line readings sound jarring at first, she doesn’t engage in the Big Acting seen in other movies about people with disabilities, allowing her deflated posture and downcast eyes to fill in the sadness and resentment that her character has towards her cerebral palsy.
Lane’s performance opens up more as Karen is able to speak and engage with the people around her. Midway through the film, Lena takes Karen to a drugstore with an extensive selection of Elvis paraphernalia. When Karen sees a package of Elvis bubblegum cards, a smile spreads across her face for the first time in the film. Lane’s body language is tentative as she gestures towards the cards, her raised eyebrows and shaky eye contact giving the character a sense of guarded hope. As the scene progresses, “Love Me Tender” plays on a stereo in the store; Lane gazes at an Elvis record on a high shelf as the song plays, her eyes soft and her mouth slightly open.
Her nascent Elvis fandom allows her to express some thornier emotions towards her disability as well. In a later scene, Lena comes back to the home with a gift-wrapped copy of the Elvis LP that caught Karen’s attention at the store. Karen’s expression shifts from elated to accusatory when she rips off the wrapping paper. As Lena explains why she purchased the record for her, her face relaxes a bit. “I could never move like that, ever,” Karen observes in a wavering tone, Lane pulling Karen’s emotions to the surface with her cracking voice and plaintive facial expression.
Around the time Touched by Love fell sideways into theatres, Lane had booked a role that was the polar opposite of her tender Elvis fan. In Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, she stepped into the role of teenage punk singer Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, whose angry aphorisms (“I’m perfect, but none of you in this shithole gets me… cos I don’t put out”) and provocative stagewear made her a cult hero—and eventually a pariah—among teenagers in the Rust Belt.
Punk rock was forecast to be the next big thing in the late 1970s, and Paramount rushed Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains into production in what writer Jake Fogelnest describes as “the six months that it made sense to make that movie.” Its makingwas a mess. For much of the cast and crew, Fabulous Stains was one of their first credits, and many cast members were underage. Director Lou Adler’s vision of the film as a prurient media satire was in conflict with Nancy Dowd’s feminist screenplay, and after one of the camera operators groped her, Dowd left the production and removed her name from the final cut.
The film wouldn’t hold together without a strong performance at its core, and Lane balances the conflicting visions for the film with naturalistic work that allows the audience to feel empathy for a flawed and sometimes unsympathetic character. Dowd establishes Corinne’s precarious circumstances in the opening scene, in which a TV interviewer asks the girl about her parents’ deaths and her living arrangements. Corinne mocks the interviewer in a soft, singsongy voice as she fidgets with cigarettes and makeup, but her exaggerated gestures, the downturned set of her mouth, and the way she holds his gaze for a beat too long reveal the vulnerability lurking beneath Lane’s preternaturally blustery performance.
We frequently see Corinne both from an objective point of view and through the lens of a TV news camera. Dowd’s script emphasizes Corinne’s ability to manipulate the media in a scene after the Stains’ disastrous first performance, when she makes a newscast about the death of the guitarist in the headlining band into a story about her up-and-coming band. When a newscaster (Cynthia Sikes) approaches Corinne for comment, Lane’s giggly line readings remind viewers that Corinne is just a kid, but her pointed questions about the broadcast and the steely-eyed epigram that concludes her interview (“he was an old man in a young girl’s world”) shows us that she knows exactly how she’s playing this anchor.
While Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is one of the most influential films Lane has appeared in—informing the defensive sexuality of the riot grrrl movement and inspiring both the video for Ex Hex’s “Don’t Wanna Lose” and the costumes in last year’s Cruella—it could also be one of the more obscure . After a series of disastrous test screenings in Colorado and in Orange County, California, Paramount shot a tacked-on ending in which the Stains become music video stars and dumped the film in a handful of theatres. It reached a wider audience through USA Network’s weekend block Night Flight, and its broadcasts were heavily bootlegged on the black market. Plans of an official home video release were rumored for decades, and four years after Lane’s Oscar nod for Unfaithful, Rhino finally put it out on DVD and streaming.
The protracted release of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains didn’t slow Lane’s career trajectory, at least in the short term. She played the upper-class love interest in Francis Ford Coppola’s S.E. Hinton adaptations, Rumble Fish and The Outsiders—films with a working-class 1950s look that evoked early rock and roll—and played the lead role in Streets of Fire, Walter Hill’s follow-up to 48 HRS.
Powerhouse vocalist Ellen Aim (Lane) is the biggest act to hit the neon-gilded metropolis of Richmond. On the night of her homecoming concert, Ellen is kidnapped by the Bombers, a gang of sledgehammer-wielding greasers. Ellen’s old flame (Michael Paré), who just happens to be passing through town, is hired by her manager (Rick Moranis) to rescue her.
In the production notes for Streets of Fire, director Walter Hill expressed his lifelong wish to make the kind of film he loved as a teenager, one with things “I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” After 48 HRS. was a hit, Hill and screenwriter Larry Gross wrote the script and eventually placed it at Universal.
Gross recalled that “We were very excited about Diane Lane because she was starring in two excitedly hyped Francis Ford Coppola pictures that were being done in Oklahoma. So we had the approval of picking the person that Francis Ford Coppola picked.” Lane screen tested in a business-casual version of Corinne Burns’ stagewear—mesh top, leather pants, and spike heels—and her audition surprised the director with her “total commitment to selling herself as a rock ‘n’ roll star.”
After the confrontational, feminist-adjacent Corinne Burns, Streets of Fire’s Ellen Aim feels like a letdown. The character doesn’t get as much screen time as Lane’s above-the-title billing would suggest, and most of what we learn about her comes from other characters’ dialogue instead of her performance. Lane’s Noo Yawk accent, feathered mullet, and the red, white, and black costumes do most of the work for the character, rendering Ellen Aim as a kind of damsel in distress in Joan Jett drag.
Streets of Fire met with an inverse response to Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Gross recalled that “the film screened very, very well,” but it opened to poor reviews and low box office. Lane would later receive a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress, and she briefly retired from acting after the high-profile failure of her next feature, The Cotton Club.
When Lane returned to film three years later, she balanced prestige projects like Chaplin and quirky character work in movies like My New Gun with then-fashionable erotic thrillers like Lady Beware. Her appearances in two of the highest-grossing films in 2001, The Glass House and Hardball, and eventual Oscar nomination for Unfaithful, gave her career a second act.
Today’s movie audiences know Diane Lane as a solid actress who can pull off a diverse array of material, from DCU blockbusters and Pixar movies to Oscar-bait ensemble pieces and character-driven coming-of-middle-age tales. For the basic-cable early adopters who knew her when, though, Lane will always be the rock and roll queen of the multiplex.