I really wish I’d seen Rambling Rose or Wild at Heart, neither of which my local library had, because then I could pretend it’s where I first think of Laura Dern as well and get a picture of mother and daughter acting together. Because to be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure where I think of Diane Ladd first other than as “Laura Dern’s mother.” This isn’t to say she isn’t an extremely talented actress, you understand, and I’ve seen a fair amount that she’s done over the years—my failure to find a still from her Perry Mason episode saddens me—but still. I like doing that sort of thing.
She is the kind of Southern woman who just pops up in these columns every now and again. She’s from Meridian, Mississippi; she’s related to Tennessee Williams, though I’m not sure how. And of course she’s played a lot of Southerners over the years, of various kinds of stereotypical Southern woman. It’s not all she’s played—she was murdered in Chinatown—but still. She has been, for many years, the sort of actress you have on call for a certain personality type in the movies, and she’s very good at it.
She is also the kind of woman who I tend to sum up in these columns as “a working actress.” It isn’t just that she has eighty TV credits and fifty-seven movie credits, though, you know, that’s worth noting. And her most recent credit is from last year—and the way things are, the fact that she doesn’t have one from this year shouldn’t make you assume that she’s retired or in poor health. It’s that she doesn’t have much in the way of lead roles over those years. She’s never really headlined much, but she’s never been out of work much, either.
She does also have one of those “working actress” credit lists, too. Yes, she’s worked a fair amount with David Lynch, among other talented people, but she’s also done some of the obligatory “working actress” TV shows. Twenty-two episodes of Alice, yes, where she was reprising her character from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore after someone else took the role for most of the series. But also The Love Boat and Ironside and LA Law. ER and Gunsmoke and, yes, Perry Mason. She’s done a lot of solid work on a lot of shows that relied on a revolving cast.
And, yes, she is Laura Dern’s mother. She was married to Bruce Dern for seven years back in the ’60s. Their first daughter was killed in a swimming pool accident years before Laura’s birth. Then Laura was born. It seems she’s played Laura’s mother in five movies, and I honestly suspect part of it is “it’s fun to cast real-life parent and child as movie mother and child.” Because it is. But it’s also that, man, the resemblance is so incredible that I keep doing double-takes of certain pictures and wondering if it’s Laura as her mother’s characters.