The Big Bang of Reality TV
When PBS’ seminal documentary series An American Family aired in 1973, Oscar nominee Diane Lane—known for her roles in Secretariat, Unfaithful, and Under the Tuscan Sun—was only eight years old, far too young to see the seismic shift that the show caused in the American psyche.
“It was a huge awakening for all of us,” said Lane, now 46, over a cup of tea at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
In Cinema Verite, HBO’s dramatized behind-the-scenes account of the making of An American Family airing Saturday, Lane plays matriarch Pat Loud, who allowed documentarian Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) to film her family’s every moment, even as the cracks in her marriage to Bill (Tim Robbins) widened.
It was 40 years ago that the Loud family of Santa Barbara invited a camera crew into their home to record their daily life. Twelve episodes, culled from 300 hours of footage, exploded perceptions of middle-class Americana when the series, with its provocative title, aired. The Louds—whose marriage fell apart on screen and who openly accepted son Lance’s homosexuality—were vilified by viewers and critics alike, with Newsweek displaying a photograph of the family on its March 12, 1973 cover under the headline “The Broken Family.”
“It was the discovery of the teeth of the audience,” said Lane. “The [Louds] didn’t know that they were going to get burned in the town square or stoned or thrown in the volcano… for being themselves. That we’re so unforgiving is the big discovery here.”
An American Family was the forerunner of the reality television boom that has overtaken the medium, but it also threw open the doors to “deeper truths about human nature,” according to Lane, putting a face on divorce, homosexuality, and infidelity. If it rankled, it was because it forced the audience to take a long look at their own imperfections, their own broken families.
The now ubiquitous Osbournes and Kardashians owe a debt to the Louds, the first family to invite the cameras into their living rooms, though the Louds themselves may seem hopelessly twee compared to today’s standards for reality television escapades. (“They were incredibly naïve,” said Lane. “It seems square to think that anyone was ever that naïve.”) Still, there’s something heartbreaking about seeing their seemingly perfect family dissolve on screen. The result is a fascinating account of the original Big Bang of reality TV, anchored by strong performances from the three leads, as the Louds—and America—lose their innocence together.
"The [Louds] didn't know that they were going to get burned in the town square … for being themselves," Lane says. "That we're so unforgiving is the big discovery here."
Lane also pointed towards the show shifting the paradigm of conversation: Lance Loud’s self-acceptance lead directly to Billy Crystal’s character on Soap, while the specter of uncomfortable subjects here informed Norman Lear’s All in the Family. The camera, which had once been used to celebrate, became a “maligning influence,” a weapon that sought out flaws in an effort to capture the unseemly or unsavory. (The rise of the paparazzi in the 1970s—and the landmark Jackie Onassis lawsuit against photographer Ron Galella were happening at precisely the same time.) The show forced the American public to turn the camera upon themselves.
In looking at the dramatic aftermath that followed, the hate mail that dogged the Louds, the television appearances the family made to defend themselves in light of intense scrutiny, it’s hard sometimes to remember why Pat Loud allowed her family to be put under the microscope of television in the first place. Lane had her own explanations for why Loud might have done so.
“I think she was in denial about how much the camera was going to pick up,” she said. “She was hoping to manipulate the outcome with her husband… She was sincere and was hoping he’d wake up and value the family more. I think that’s really sweet. When you think about it, it’s genuine and almost selfless.”
Lane said she avoids reality shows, though she was quick to preface it by saying that she tries to be open and sample new television trends at least once. “Maybe because I make my living in front of the camera,” said Lane, “to watch someone take their one precious life and devalue it... I feel like a participant in the crime they’re committing upon themselves.”
Lane herself is no stranger to living in the public eye. At 14, she landed the cover of Time, as one of the so-called “whiz kids” of Hollywood, thanks to her role opposite Sir Lawrence Olivier in A Little Romance. “I minimized it,” said Lane. “It was the healthiest choice for me at the time… I realized that it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t about merit. It was a promotional tool for a film that was getting released. Thank god I was savvy enough to separate myself from the product.”
She credited her father, who ran an acting workshop with John Cassavetes in the 1950s, with instilling a sense of perspective in her, and her one-time estranged mother with forcing her to see the larger picture. When you’re young, said Lane, everything seems much bigger and more important.
“I’ve lightened up and loosened up,” she said. “I survived it like everyone else does, those teenage years.”
Despite acting professionally for more than 30 years, Lane said she draws the line at inviting the cameras into her personal life. She maintains no Facebook page and no Twitter account, and admitted that she’s far more privacy-conscious than other members of her family, which includes husband Josh Brolin and in-laws James Brolin and Barbra Streisand.
“I’m a bit of a prude,” she said, laughing. “I crave my privacy. I’m fine with being draconian in my lack of willingness to go there.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.