The sweet spell of success

Times Staff Writer

"Josh is convinced that we're having an affair," says Diane Lane, referring to her boyfriend, Josh Brolin, and laughing a full-bodied chortle as she poses alongside Adrien Brody for yet another photograph.

The Oscar nominee for best actress and the Oscar nominee for best actor chuckle knowingly. In truth, the pair barely know each other, having met recently at a slew of award shows, but they share the easy camaraderie of the tiny club of people who know what it's like to be at the center of the Oscar hurricane. Unlike this year's other nominees, legends such as Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson, Brody and Lane are first-timers to the club whose performances in "The Pianist" and "Unfaithful" have catapulted them out of the ranks of working actors.

On this afternoon after the annual luncheon for all the Oscar nominees, the 38-year-old Lane looks like a '40s movie star in a closely fitting dusky pink suit. Age has given her fine-boned beauty character, a kind of quiet grittiness and fiercely won independence that distinguishes her from a raft of blond peers. She's a self-aware, self-protective ironist, with a deep, throaty voice that lends her wry observations aplomb. It's almost as if she's nervous about giving in to the head-spinning abandon of the moment.

Brody seems to be letting the newfound limelight lap up on his feet like a gentle tide. In a gray suit with an open white shirt, the 29-year-old appears languid, almost too beautiful for a man, with porcelain skin and bottle-green eyes. For all the loneliness he portrayed in "The Pianist," in life he has the air of someone's who's been well loved. Indeed, his date for the afternoon's luncheon is his mother, photojournalist Sylvia Plachy, who is carrying her camera.

Lane and Brody are fast becoming this year's critical darlings, the ones who seem to be stirring momentum among the film cognoscenti but are fighting the ineffable tide of star power and marketing juggernauts. In his category, Brody is not only the youngest contestant by a decade -- he's the only one who's never won an Oscar or even been the star of a studio movie. Most famously, he did have a starring role in 1998's "The Thin Red Line," but almost his whole performance wound up on the cutting-room floor.

At 14, Lane appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the poster child for a new Hollywood whiz kid, but it's taken more than 20 years, and 40 films, to finally fulfill her potential. Both she and Brody landed their Oscar-nominated roles courtesy of star directors who had the power to put the best actor in the part, rather than merely the one who could fill the theaters with the most bodies. Both turned in performances powered less by scenery-chewing theatrics than a gradual revealing of characters, as layer upon layer of civilization, breeding and decorum are systematically stripped away.

In Lane's case that was the tale of a suburban mom, undone by lust, as she jettisons every safety net in what had been a secure life. In Brody's, it was the true story of Jewish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who endures the loss of everything except his humanity as he struggles to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII.

Lane: I wondered when you read the script [for "The Pianist"] did it ever pop into your head -- "Oscar role"? I thought it might be that way because of the [film's] moral significance.

Brody: It didn't. I actually thought [its Holocaust theme] may hinder the success of the film. Early on in making the film, I was so overwhelmed. I had done three films back to back and I was exhausted and then I began this and I had to destroy myself. I basically threw myself into this space and stopped thinking about the future or anything. I gave up my apartment. I gave up my car, my phones. I was away from my girlfriend, my family, my friends, my language.

Lane: How many filming days did you work?

Brody: Six months straight. Six days a week. Roman [Polanski, the director] hated using a stand-in. It was in Poland. There was six weeks without another actor. A quarter of this whole film, I was alone with Roman, and playing a man who's alone. Therefore the entire day I was cultivating these feelings of loneliness and isolation in the scene. Then to stay focused I would go back into my room and practice the keyboard, not mingle at lunch for the entire time, wear earplugs and lock myself out from the world. It was insanity. I didn't think about awards or anything like that. Also, because of my experience with "The Thin Red Line," my expectations are far less. My expectations of what people say to me, and promise me. I used to joke with Roman, "You can't cut me out of this film, what are you going to call it, 'The Piano'?"

Lane (laughs): Adrian Lyne ["Unfaithful's" director] was always messing with my head. Especially in cars. Whenever there was a car scene, he'd have on headphones. He'd be in the other room and talk to me [through a microphone]. "Diane, it's lonely on top." In his mind, he was just gloating over "I told you so." What top? The top of what? I don't feel very lonely.

Brody: I actually feel less lonely. It's payback, in a way, for feeling that kind of loneliness. I feel so much love in this world.

Lane: I have so much glee for you. We were all standing and they called your name. [referring to the Oscar nominees luncheon] And you were walking up there. There's so much goodwill going around.

Brody: I didn't anticipate this. Even if I thought I'd get some serious recognition, I wouldn't have known how tremendously different my life would be.

Q: How is it different?

Brody: You name it. The volume of material that's coming across my representative's desk. The offers. The fact that when I do go out, I can't go more than two steps without saying hello to a complete stranger. I go to the studio, not only do I have a drive-on [parking pass], but the guard says, "How are you doing, Mr. Brody? Let me get this for you." Not long ago, in "The Thin Red Line" days, it would be pull up [to the studio].... They didn't have you on any list. They would have to call the office, verify who you are, check your ID. Give you a pass, tell you to park across the street or in the guest lot and then walk to your place.

Lane: At least you weren't in heels.

Brody: It's hard to grasp. In an elevator, George Lucas says he's a fan. I'm like, "I'm the fan!"

Q (to Lane): Has this nomination been life-changing for you?

Lane: I didn't realize that there was so much dressing up involved in being a professional actress. With all of my previous experience, I just can't help but have a chuckle [remembering] being 14, and deciding which of my previously owned shirts I wanted to choose from to wear to my own premiere. And I guess my jeans should be black because they'll be less blue. I remember saying recently, however this goes, this Olympics mentality of there will be a champion and that whole race element to it, I would hope it would not affect me. It's too large a thing to avoid being in reaction to, but you still want to try. The scale of it is so global, as a mere individual on this planet I don't know how to bridge that scale. Looking at all the other mere mortals that are going through this, I'm so grateful for this day [of the luncheon] because it does humanize [the process]. It reminds you of the humanity that you cleave to through being vaulted into this extraordinary larger-than life experience. It is really true what they say. Just being nominated is so ample. I can't believe there's another tier of this to yet go through.

Q: Given Roman Polanski's controversial personal history, there's been controversy about his nomination. Should he be judged as a person or an artist?

Brody: I think it's entirely separate. I've been really the representative of this film internationally because Roman isn't doing press. The reason Roman isn't doing press, it's partly because the film's so personal. But everything I do read, that they mention Roman, they have to bring up this [history]. That's irrelevant. It distracts you from the work and what's he's done. There's this unpleasant thing of constantly bringing back some horrific moment in [his] life. That's not fair. That's not really appropriate. It should be separate. You should honor the man for creating something special. For having the courage to do that. For being such a survivor. Let the rest lie.

Lane: There's a very good reason for the separation of church and state, between the personal and the professional. There's the additional impediment of filtering someone's work through the personality of the artist rather than just receiving the art that's there. The art belongs to everyone. Inquiring minds -- that's a whole other kettle of fish. Oil and water in my opinion.

Q: You're known more as actors than as icons. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Lane: I'd have to be an icon to share with you how disadvantaged I feel.

Brody: Even at this point [in my career], my anonymity [is] gone. It's something I used my entire life. Taking trains in New York, absorbing things. That's how I began acting. The way I relate -- my mother is a photojournalist in New York. She sees in images as well. She has a similar curiosity. She carries a lot of cameras. She captures a visual image. I capture a visual image and story and reprocess it, and use it. It's become much harder for that to exist. It's who I am as a person. It's how I thrive.

I was in Miami recently. There was this wonderful old homeless woman with a cart filled with garbage walking down the street. This woman had some obsessive-compulsive disorder where she had to clean the streets. She was sweeping with a little hand scooper and a brush and she was working away and working away. She was sunburned and wrinkled. I tried to give her money and she wouldn't take the money. She obviously didn't recognize me because she hadn't been to the movies in a while. She was just in her world. I was four feet from her, right behind her, just following and watching her, amazed, and here come two people who loved me in the movie and started chatting to me and pulled me out of it. I thought of it in that moment. On no, this is gone. It's done. It's harder to have.

Lane: And plumbers charge you more money.

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