Most movie fans should recognize her face, even if they may not know her name.
Actress Mary Kay Place, 70, has built a remarkable career as a character actor in movies (“The Big Chill,” “Citizen Ruth,” “Pecker”) and television, where she won an Emmy on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in the ‘70s and wrote for “M.A.S.H.”
Often cast for her upbeat comedic presence, Place is known for bringing a salt-of-the-earth quality to her characters. While that's still here, it's striking to watch her mournful, world-weary lead turn in the new drama “Diane” by film critic-turned-director Kent Jones.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, it's not the kind of movie American audiences are used to seeing anymore at the multiplex, not least because it revolves around strong, older women (Jones was apparently inspired by his aunts to make the film). Rather "Diane" is an honest and mature movie about the bonds of sisterhood and, frankly, mortality.
Set in small-town rural Massachusetts, the movie starts out in a hospital with Diane (Place) visiting a cousin who is dying from cervical cancer. With little dialogue, the director quickly establishes the basic decency of her character: a woman constantly giving to others, whether serving at a local food kitchen, supporting friends, or taking care of her drug-addicted son (a bugged-out Jake Lacy). She's also a widow, sad and profoundly alone.
Throughout the movie we come to understand that Diane has “a terrible sin” that she regrets deeply, a youthful indiscretion that hurt her family. In some ways, her life has become a grueling shadow world of penance. She always does the right thing, but rarely does it help.
With one eyebrow perpetually raised, Place wears a quizzical, overburdened look in nearly every scene. Relief, when it comes, is from her caring family, especially the strong women around her: wonderful supporting performances by Estelle Parsons and, one of my faves, Phyllis Somerville ("Little Children"). First-time director Jones does a nice job with pacing and is exceptional with character development, mostly by cutting out the bullshit and capturing honest family moments and subtle reactions.
One scene of Diane, exhausted, getting drunk in a dive bar and wobbling alone to Bob Dylan and Leon Russell songs on the jukebox, could end up being the most painfully human scene of any movie this year.
To be fair, younger viewers might find the movie incredibly depressing, because it deals so directly with some of the worst aspects of aging – like watching your loved ones die, struggling through insurmountable family issues, and eventually the mind breaking down altogether. But the deeply human portraits here, and Diane’s hardscrabble resilience and nostalgic yearning for beauty, make this film feel universal. It's background subjects, drug abuse, health care and selfishness, seem timely.
But the real draws are the wonderful veteran performances and the smart, economical writing. If the Oscars were more about art and skill rather than politics and financial pressures, Place would easily score a best actress nomination (here's hoping she does).
Finally, she gets to star in a movie and she more than delivers. Fully committed to the character, she’s at once steady, defiant, heartbroken and afraid -- a baby boomer staring at death and staying strong by being there for others, and finally for herself.