Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart (1990) - Supporting Actress Sundays

To say that StinkyLulu has a love/loathe relationship with David Lynch would be simplifying things. Twenty years ago, Lynch's Blue Velvet and Fassbinder's Querelle were the first films I truly thought/fought about as passionately about as I did literature or theatre. Moreover, and more than most contemporary directors, I've always really "connected" with Lynch's reverence for actors -- as mysterious, possibly mystical beings -- as well as his fascination with (extra)ordinary faces, voices and bodies. But if Blue Velvet was Lulu's first experience with Lynchian love, Wild at Heart was certainly its complement: my first experience truly loathing Lynch. Rescreening the film now, for the first time in nearly two decades, I'm struck that Wild at Heart remains Lynch's least interesting film, the project most snared in the auteur's transition from Hollywood trope as metaphor (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) to Hollywood trope as conceptual device (Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire). But I must admit that this film also contains some of the best actoring at the edges Lu's ever seen (Harry Dean Stanton & Willem Dafoe), as well as the incomparable extraordinariness of...

...Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart (1990).
approximately 19 minutes and 38 seconds
28 scenes

roughly 16% of film's total running time

Diane Ladd plays Marietta Fortune (aka "Lula's Momma"), a woman murderously obsessed with keeping her beloved daughter (Laura Dern in a brazen, mature performance) from the adoring clutches of the shady-but-sexy Sailor (Nicholas Cage, effective but a little lost here).
Ladd's Marietta is a distillation of every trope and cliche of the overwrought Southern woman.
She flirts. She prances. She preens. She drinks. She rages. She keens. All while adorned with an extraordinary succession of fake nails and faker hair.
The polyester fakery of Marietta's outer affect is perhaps the first clue that Ladd's not playing for nuance here. Indeed, nary a whiff of subtlety informs Ladd's portrayal of Marietta. To lapse Freudian for a moment, Lynch evacuates the moderating force of ego from Ladd's Marietta altogether, thereby staging an at times astonishing spectacle in which Marietta's superego and id do battle. With lipstick as weapon.
Ladd's accomplishment in this performance draws from her fortitude in fearlessly bringing what might be considered (by another director or performer) subtext, and playing the spectacle of such actorly "motivations" and "objectives" at full throttle for the camera's voyeuristic thrill.

The result is a garish, discomfiting performance -- unpleasant, freakish and confusing.

Ladd's performance is also just brilliant. In Marietta, Ladd inhabits a stock character of Southern womanhood -- equal parts Scarlett O'Hara and Tennessee Williams and Dallas -- a type likely immediately recognized/dismissed by late 20th century U.S. audiences. Instead of pitching all that silly Southern schtick as "real" (whether through crafty nuance or maudlin sincerity), Ladd opts to unfetter Marietta as a primal, elemental, animal force.
As a result, Ladd's performance as Marietta is, on the one hand, a fascinating postmodernist deconstruction of Hollywood's performance tropes of Southern white womanhood while, on the other hand, a scalding bundle of raw emotionality. Most simply, Ladd's performance emerges as one of the most startling treatises on the craft of acting that StinkyLulu's yet seen captured on film.
Yet, while Ladd's work in the role is exceptional, I'm not so sure the performance works. Ladd's performance as Marietta stands as an enthralling, memorable acting experiment but Lynch's film handles it tentatively, embedding Ladd awkwardly adjacent to the film's narrative rather than integrated within it. Like the Wicked Witch imagined by Dern's Lula, Ladd's Marietta stalks and haunts the film but is never quite allowed into its wild heart.

That said, Ladd's work remains extraordinary, leaving me to marvel yet again at how the hell a performance this strange, confusing, unpleasant and arty ever made it to the Oscar ballot.


John T said...

According to one of my Oscar books, Ladd actually invited over 20 members of the Academy to her house for dinner and a movie right before voting. The movie just happened to be Wild at Heart.

Still, though, I agree that this is one of the most shocking nominations; even though Oscar tends to get a little autre when it comes to weaker years, Ladd's nod is amazing considering its bizarre caliber, particularly since someone like Shirley MacLaine had a much more Oscar-friendly perf.

is that so wrong? said...

I agree with you that it is quite shocking that Ladd nabbed an Oscar nomination (based on how Oscar noms tend to go), but I think this role is perhaps one of the most daring and deserving (dare I say it) ever. To watch her sail over the top yet hold onto the reins is fantastic and breathtaking to watch, and a testament to her wizardry of acting. That, and every time the camera catches the reveal of her lipsticked face, it still scares the crap out of me.

Anna said...

Great analytical lapse into things Freudian.

As for Ladd's performance - I applaud anybody who tries to re-create, re-inhabit, re-imagine tired old stereotypes. Always worth the risk.

JS said...

Actually my virgin exposure to Diane Ladd. Is she more enjoyable older or younger?

I was delighted by her cameo in INLAND EMPIRE.

thombeau said...