As a struggling teenage actress in New York, Diane Ladd worked as a Copa Girl at the famed Copacabana night club appearing with the likes of Buddy Hackett and Vic Damone.
“That gave me a living,” she said. “They auditioned 500 girls every month and only picked 13.”
To survive, the actress, author (“Spiraling Through the School of Life”) and film director (1995’s “Mrs. Munck”) also did stand-up comedy and handed out fruitcake at Bloomingdale’s.
But she soon hung up her showgirl sparkles and fruitcakes when she made her acting debut at 17 in the off-Broadway revival of her distant cousin Tennessee Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending.”
“I got rave reviews,” she said.
And her first husband, Bruce Dern.
“He replaced the lead character,” she said. “Bruce had already been married and divorced when he met me. He came to play Orpheus, and Orpheus descended! I married Bruce when I was very, very young.”
Ladd, 80, never harbored any ambitions to work in Hollywood. “I wanted to stay in New York and become a theater actress. I loved the theater.”
But it didn’t work out that way. She started working in movies almost 50 years ago and hasn’t stopped since.
Along the way she’s earned three supporting actress Oscar nominations — 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” 1990’s “Wild at Heart” and 1991’s “Rambling Rose.” Daughter Laura Dern was an extra in “Alice” and starred in the latter two. They made Oscar history with “Rambling Rose,” when they became the first mother and daughter to earn acting nominations for the same film.
“My whole life is art,” Ladd said in the Fairfax district in her soft Mississippi accent. Gracious, warm and friendly, Ladd was a wonderful storyteller during a two-hour interview. But that didn’t stop her from having sharp opinions on many subjects — including acting. Ladd isn’t thrilled with a lot of the young talent she sees in movies and television these days.
“They are not making Laura Derns or Gena Rowlands or Julie Harrises any more,” she declares. “I see them being very sweet and very pretty and totally pretending acting.”
One exception she sees is Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who stars in David O. Russell’s new comedy-drama, “Joy,” which opened Christmas Day. Based on the life of Joy Mangano. Lawrence stars as a struggling single mother with a totally dysfunctional family who invents the Miracle Mop and other household inventions that have sold in the millions on HSN. Ladd plays Joy’s grandmother Mimi, the one sane person in the family who gives her hope and strength.
“People used to ask me when I was young, what makes you such a good actress, Diane? I would say because I was consummated to be an actress and given birth to be a better one. Jennifer Lawrence was consummated to be an actress and given birth to be a better one. So was my daughter Laura Dern. She [Lawrence] was wonderful to work with — she listened, she was attentive and worked like a dirty dog.”
Ladd, a grandmother herself, recalled the first time she met Lawrence on the set.
“I told her if you love me like I love you, nothing in this world can cut our love in two,” said Ladd. “My mama used to say that to me as a child. I said it to Laura too. She grabbed me and hugged me and said, ‘Please do. You’re my grandmommy.’”
Via email, Russell described Ladd as “one of the biggest-spirited people I have ever met. I had known her for several years before I had the chance to cast her.
“I think as an actress there is no one quite like her, and that is why we have her narrating the film. She is very beautiful, wise, no-nonsense real and filled with heart.”
Ladd went in to record the narration at least 20 times. “They kept changing the lines. I said I was going to do the narration like a Method actor, so you would call it Method narration.”
Acting had been a passion with Ladd since she was growing up in Laurel, Miss., though her veterinarian father wanted her to become a lawyer. Graduating from high school at 16, Ladd sang with a band in New Orleans and was cast in the national touring company of “Tobacco Road” with John Carradine after she did a play at the Gallery Circle Theatre in New Orleans.
Ladd’s first major movie role was in Roger Corman’s 1966 cult biker favorite “Wild Angels” with Dern, Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra.
“I remember I had a scene ... and Nancy Sinatra, whom I love, said you took off your makeup. I said I want to be real. She said you may be real but you are never going to be a big star if you do things like that.”
Ladd began to laugh.
“In the long run, she might have been right.”