“It’s a different, different, different world today — the past never dies, and the headlines win, in terms of what becomes history”
One of HBO's top entries in the newly combined Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category, "Cinema Verite" looks at the making of the controversial 1973 PBS series "An American Family." That series put a documentary crew into the home of a prosperous Southern California family, the Louds — a family that turned out to include a philandering father, a mother who kicked him out on camera, and an openly gay son. The result was a disturbing display of narcissism, or a shocking invasion of privacy, or the birth of reality television, or some combination thereof.
Appearing alongside Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini in the film directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, Diane Lane plays Pat Loud, the housewife who drew nationwide scorn when her private life was broadcast into homes around the country.
In the film, Lane is the wounded but defiant heart of the story – and it's a performance that she happily uses as a springboard for a passionate examination of our reality-TV culture.
At the time, it was shocking to let cameras in your home. Now it's an accepted career path.
Now there's agents involved with so-called reality performers. I don’t understand the genre, the medium or the appetite for it, frankly. It's like putting gasoline on the flames of people's neuroses. (laughs) It's the id running amuck. Call me crazy, and maybe I'm the only one, but I'm not a fan of the medium.
Since you didn't meet Pat Loud until after the movie was completed, what did your research consist of?
Basically, we had the 12 hours of the show itself on DVD, which we just watched incessantly. I enjoy non-fiction so much more than fiction anyway, and it was fascinating to watch the people and their mannerisms, especially prior to the stage of the game that we're now at.
The self-awareness and self-editing and posturing that goes on in front of cameras these days is frightening. People are so afraid of being boring that they'll light themselves on fire. It was quite the opposite in this footage. You cannot find people who are that much not performing. People forget that it even existed, in this age of peopl
e filming every moment of their lives, and tweeting it out to the universe.
(Laughs) But I digress. We had all the DVS and and no less than three books all about the telecast and the response to the telecast. I had DVDs of all these wannabe sociologists postulating on the ramifications of this in our culture, like it was the seventh sign, basically. People were so up in arms about this family. Really, it was hard for me to process that this was not hyperbolized, because the reaction was so strong.
You were very young when the show aired. Did you have any awareness of it?
I pretty much missed it. But when I heard people talking about "An American Family" this and "An American Family" that, I knew that it might have something to do with me because I was American and I was a child of divorce. But I didn't put it together that it was a TV show. I'm sure I was much more interested in watching "Baretta," or whatever was on TV at the time.
Was Pat Loud's own book a key for you?
That was like the bible. I just felt like I had seen the grail and I knew it existed. And interestingly, too, it's sort of like a missing link of what, in hindsight, we call feminism.
It was that generation where birth control came into the middle of women's marriages, and they had teenage children… The dichotomous emotional terrain that they had to cross over to go forward, it was a game changer. I found it fascinating – and I guess that's my mother's generation, in a way.
The movie must have been tricky, because all of the participants remember the real events differently.
Oh, that was fun. There were conflicts of opinion and memory of how things went, and it just goes on and on. And really, the wounds are still there. I felt a little guilty about raising the Titanic of their experience – do they really have to go through this one more time? But at the same time, we did it with compassion, with an eye toward the complexity of their predicament and the way they were so vilified because there was no past to compare it to.
People say, "Oh, they were so vain, why did they allow cameras in their life?" But they really did believe the sales pitch from [producer] Craig Gilbert that this was for educational purposes. Yes, there is some vanity implied, but they had no idea that there were two factors involved – one, editing, and two, marketing – that they had to be processed through. That's like looking at a pig and then looking at a sausage: they're very far apart.
As somebody who has lived much of your life in the public eye, do you understand the impulse to put yourself on TV?
No. Because honestly, I think mine is a craft, and I have an off-duty. My dad drove a cab, and there were times when he put the off-duty sign on, and it was great.
You do hand over your life when you go on duty in this way, and that's why it's important to have a compartmentalization of persona from your intimate truths. That lack of boundary is what makes people stare, because it's so self-sacrificing. Why would you offer yourself up like this? Don’t you have anything sacred that you want to keep just for you? Do you really have that much of yourself that this costs you nothing?
Even for people who get into it for the craft, it must be increasingly hard to put up that off-duty sign.
I think it just takes more conscious choice. A little more effort. The thing is, you can't undo certain choices, and it's a different, different, different world today. The past never dies, and the headlines win, in terms of what becomes history. The fact that the headline may be inaccurate doesn't matter. The hit on Google can be number one, and that's how they will be defined in history. Doesn’t matter that it's wrong, doesn't matter that it's hyperbolized, doesn't matter that it's sensational, doesn't matter that it’s something that happened 30 years ago.
It can be a small thing, but if it gets the most hits on Google, that's who you are.
In different ways, then, both you and the Louds have probably both had times where you thought wait a minute, this isn’t what I signed up for.
I don’t really identify with the Louds, happily. Because I did bargain for a level of criticism and scrutiny and judgment. And that's great, but it's very different from celebrity. (laughs) Although those two things seem to have gotten all moshed together in the washer-dryer.
But I don't know what people think when they go on reality TV, or why they watch. I guess it's schadenfreude, that thing where people like to watch other people suffer or make fools of themselves, so they can think thank God it's them but not me. I know I'm not nailing it perfectly, but the point is, I think that's part of the fascination with these shows, and the original show as well. It's like they're watching the Hindenberg, and they can't turn away. It's the gladiators all over again.