Diane: The under-appreciated Mary Kay Place spreads her serious acting wings

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-plus

Diane is the first fictional feature directed by Kent Jones, a prominent film critic and director of the New York Film Festival, now in his late fifties. 

He’s not exactly a novice: Jones has previously made documentaries on Val Lewton, Elia Kazan and a 2015 film on Francois Truffaut’s book about Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  He has also collaborated on a couple of documentaries with Martin Scorsese, who’s the executive producer of Diane.

The film, starring Mary Kay Place, is a character study of a retired widow living in small-town in western Massachusetts.  Given Jones’ cinephile history, it’s somewhat unavoidable to be on the lookout for reference points (John Cassavetes? Robert Bresson?) but they tend to drop to the background in the presence of Place’s very human performance.

Mary Kay Place is a self-sacrificing widow nurturing her terminally-ill cousin (Deirdre O’Connell) in Diane.

Mary Kay Place is a self-sacrificing widow nurturing her terminally-ill cousin (Deirdre O’Connell) in Diane.

When we first meet her, she’s struggling to save the life of a drug-abusing adult son, Brian (Jake Lacy), bursting into his apartment to deliver laundry and angry recriminations. She also provides comfort to a terminally-ill cousin (Deirdre O'Connell). She has a sharp-tongued sympathetic friend (Andrea Martin), who works with her dishing out free meals to the needy.

Living in her own house with no identified source of income, Diane lives comfortably enough (we hear her husband worked in a factory), though emotionally, she’s on the weary edge of depression. She spends a good deal of time driving between volunteer duties, checking on her son, hospital visits, and deliveries of casseroles to an aged relative. 

The film is what might be called “carefully observed.”  There’s a party scene of grey-haired and lined older relatives around a dining room table, heads grey, faces faded and beginning to droop with age, exchanging familiar memories and gripes. 

Younger adults, dark haired and soft-cheeked, come and go; a boy dashes in, takes a cookie and dashes away. I thought of a phrase from the writer, Lorrie Moore: “…the sneaky, murderous taxidermy” of photography. (In fact, I thought of Moore more than once in the granular way Jones captures the quality of everyday crises.)

At the same time, I found myself making a mental checklist of the accuracy of these observations. Some of the characters in Diane’s orbit feel abruptly on-the-nose: Diane’s rebellious son, the warmly gossipy confidant, the African-American man at the soup kitchen who says the wince-worthy line: “I feel sanctified when you serve me.” (In fact, both black characters in the film exist primarily to validate the protagonists’ quiet suffering.)

But yes to everything about Place, now 71,  whose performance is wonderfully specific. Her face, away from other characters’ eyes, collapses into a kind of semaphore of disappointment, with a down-turned mouth, one eyebrow arched above a far-away stare. 

Place’s speciality has always been a quality of forced folksy cheerfulness, which has often been part of her comic persona (she came to fame as the country singer, Loretta Haggers in Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). As an actress she’s been in the public eye for almost half a century (and behind the scenes as a writer and director) and you immediately realize you want to see more of her.

Diane is not just another movie of a parent struggling with an adult child’s addiction. It’s a depiction of many trials, stretched over years, as Diane watches friends and family fall away to death, and deal with a personal secret.

Here, for me, is where things get somewhat sticky. Diane keeps a spiritual journal (like Robert Bresson’s protagonist in The Diary of a Country Priest, or Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), chronicling her abiding sense of guilt.  

We know, as well as being a compulsive do-gooder, Diane once had a wild side  that hasn’t been completely extinguished. One night, after struggling with her burdens, she gets loaded in a bar on Margaritas (in a nice detail she insists on “no salt”) and sways around to classic rock music on the jukebox (Dylan, Leon Russell). Later, she seeks an even more extreme form of escape. Spoiler alert:  Did you hear the claim that doing heroin is like being hugged by God? 

Diane, we learn, is afflicted by a singular and scarring regret,  an erotic fling some twenty years before that spread a lot of pain around to people she loved. She cannot forgive herself and feels marked with a badge of shame that haunts her nights and days. It’s as if she were the re-incarnation of another Massachusetts heroine, the 17th-century wayward Puritan, Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t buy it. Surely, by her age, you have an inventory of regrets; picking just one feels like a cop-out.

In a less careful movie, with a less relatable performance, this kind of narrative clumsiness would be ruinous. Here, it’s more like a permissible flaw in someone you care for too much to give up on.

Diane. Directed and written by Kent Jones. Starring: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Deirdre O’Connell, Phyllis Somerville, Glynnis O’Connor and Joyce Van Patten. Diane can be seen at the Canada Square theatre.