The Oscars never run out of firsts. Probably the most remarkable of this year’s never-befores are the nominations of a mother, Diane Ladd, and daughter, Laura Dern, for best supporting actress and best actress, respectively, in the same film, “Rambling Rose.”
They don’t play mother and daughter, as they did in David Lynch’s steamy road drama, “Wild at Heart,” two years ago. In “Rambling Rose,” Ladd is Robert Duvall’s slightly deaf, mystical-minded wife and a kind of foster mother to Dern, a beautiful, innocent, lavishly oversexed teen-ager who becomes the family’s live-in maid.
In her West Hollywood apartment, Ladd pointed out that theirs may actually be the first family with three acting nominations. Her ex-husband and Laura’s father, Bruce Dern, was nominated as best supporting actor for “Coming Home” in 1978. Even the Barrymores never managed a triple.
What is sorely distressing to mother and daughter in these last days before the Academy Awards ceremony, is that their performances--and a film they both love and fought for a long time to get made--have lately been all but invisible.
Unlike most of the other films in contention, “Rambling Rose” had not been in re-release until the day before the final ballots went into the mail (and conventional Hollywood wisdom says that academy voters mark their ballots very quickly).
There is, as yet, no commercially available cassette. Among the innumerable and often glossy ads in the trade papers hawking nominated films and contributions, “Rambling Rose” has been inconspicuously absent. The firm that financed it, Carolco, has been in a financial version of cardiac arrest, and the subsidiary that distributed it originally, Seven Arts, is in bankruptcy. New Line is currently the theatrical distributor.
At the last hour, Creative Artists Agency paid for seven screenings. “It’s our last vestige of hope,” Ladd said as her daughter came by for a strategy session. (Dern, 25, has her own place.) The unkindest cut of all, Ladd added, “was that we were asked to put up $2,000 apiece to pay for cassettes to send to the voters.”
“There are supposed to be 2,000 voters who didn’t get cassettes,” Dern said. “We would be paying for 400, but I don’t really know how you divide 400 among 2,000.”
The question often arises whether all the aggressive promotion really helps, or whether it may incite a backlash against a film or a player, or whether none of it matters one way or the other. The latter possibility suggests that only the work and the films count in the end, an encouraging thought.
If Ladd or Dern, or both, should walk off with Oscars, it would seem to prove that you can win with virtually no promotion at all.
One studio executive, unwilling to be identified, calls it “a poignant irony” that the mother and daughter should have won their unprecedented nominations, only to have the film in such benumbed hands. “If they should win--and I think they will,” the executive says, “the irony will be even more poignant because it would be a big boost for the film commercially.”
The Samuel Goldwyn Co. was reported in a trade paper to have expressed interest in assuming the distribution, but found the subsidiary rights so widely dispersed that a deal was not possible.
A further irony is that Dern and Ladd, while they are inevitably pleased with the recognition of their own work, have a very strong affection for the film as a whole, and a long history with it. (They both also have percentages of profits, if indeed any, which were taken in lieu of larger salaries up front, to make the film possible.)
“It took 17 years to get ‘Rambling Rose’ made from the time Calder Willingham wrote the script adapted from his novel,” Ladd says. “Ed Scherick, the producer, was interested in it. Martha Coolidge was interested in directing it. I worked with her on ‘Plainclothes,’ and she said, ‘My God, you are my mother,’ and made me read the script.
“I tried to get something going with my Diane Ladd Productions. I took it to Jane Fonda, who loved the part of the mother (which I wanted to play, of course).” Ladd says she promised Fonda that if she couldn’t get a production going herself, she’d let Fonda have the property and the mother part.
“Then I turned it over to my baby, Laura, to see what she could do.” Dern, then dating Renny Harlin, who directed “Die Hard 2,” got Harlin to read it. He wanted to direct it (a considerable change of pace) but since Coolidge was committed to direct, he volunteered to produce it and did.
The film did well on the festival circuit, opened to reviews that ranged from good to raves and played to brisk business but in relatively few theaters. (Ladd understands that only 200 prints were struck.)
“We made 30 10-best lists,” Ladd says. “The big thrillers may make people aware of the violence in the society, and I guess that serves a purpose. But our film is about a triumph of the spirit, and you need that, too, because you need a balance in life.”
“Calder’s script was the most magical I ever read in my life,” Dern says. “I’ve always loved films that were abstract, even dark. ‘Rambling Rose’ was a bit the same as ‘Grand Canyon’ that way.”
“Our reward will be that 20 years from now we’ll be in ‘Trivial Pursuit,’ ” Ladd says.
When Dern was a child and announced that she intended to be an actress, Ladd says she screamed, “No! Be a doctor or a lawyer or a leprosy nurse, but please don’t be an actress.’ But now it’s great. I’m glad she didn’t listen to me.”
“We were mother and daughter in ‘Wild at Heart,’ ” Dern says, “but we actually had very few scenes together. This was a much more maternal relationship, much closer to our own relationship. It really was the first day-to-day acting experience we’ve had together.”
Her mother says: “To work with someone you love is something special, an incredible experience. But it could be a negative. You have to make a strong commitment to be honest; you’re not just being polite, like strangers on an airplane; you’re working.”
Born in Meridien, Miss., Ladd went to New York, worked as a model and dancer and had her first Broadway success in a revival of “Orpheus Descending” in 1959, starring Bruce Dern. Their first child died at the age of 2 and she was told she could have no more children. But she had a tubal pregnancy and, she says, by prescribing herself a diet heavy with herbs and vitamins, delivered the girl child who became Laura Dern. “Five doctors said it was a miracle. I said, ‘Yeah, a miracle and a lot of hard work.’ ”
She had her first significant movie success in “The Wild Angels” in 1966, also with Bruce Dern. (He is proud and happy about the nominations, Ladd says.)
When she was making $35 a week in “Orpheus Descending,” Ladd says, she spent some of her money placing air-fresheners in the restrooms, to make the audiences feel better at intermission. “I thought that was part of the business of show business.”
In 1976, she had a shot at a nomination for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More,” one of the big 1975 successes. “I loved the film and I wanted all the actors to see it, so I used my credit cards to buy four ads, a total of $14,000.” She got the nomination.
She was nominated again last year for “Wild at Heart.” Then, as she is doing again now, she went on a severe diet to look her best on Oscar night.
Ladd remembers, “I lost to Whoopi Goldberg, a good friend and a wonderful person. Then I went home and ate a whole cake. Now my question is, should I bake another cake?”