Walking and Talking About Raising Kids and Surviving Hollywood

From a New York Times book review by Mary Laura Philpott headlined “Walking and Talking About Raising Kids and Surviving Hollywood”:

When Diane Ladd is diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and given six months to live, her daughter Laura Dern looks at her and thinks, “You can’t die.” Determined to increase her mother’s lung capacity and life span, Dern gets the doctor’s permission to take Ladd on daily 15-minute walks, distracting her mother by asking questions about the past.

Transcripts of those conversations are the beating heart of “Honey, Baby, Mine,” the actresses’ joint memoir, which also includes photographs, recipes, memorabilia and short, interspersed chapters written by each woman.

They commiserate over the timeless frustrations of their industry, while also reflecting on what has slowly changed. Dern recalls visiting her mom’s sets as a child, catching the acting bug when Martin Scorsese asked her to appear as an extra in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Allowing a child on the set was still frowned upon nearly two decades later, when they worked together on “Rambling Rose” (for which they became the only mother-daughter pair ever to have been nominated for Academy Awards for the same film) ‌and had to advocate for their director to be allowed to nurse her baby at work.

By the time Dern co-starred in the 2017 TV mini-series “Big Little Lies,” actors’ children were so commonly present that, she writes, “we had effectively created a … day care.”

Along the way, they toss about glittery names, among them Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Shelley Winters, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon (who also provides the foreword). If you’re in it for the stargazing, you’ll be rewarded with plenty — but that’s not what lingers most after the telling.

As actors, Dern and Ladd have spent decades peeling back layers to reveal their characters’ fears and desires. It’s when they turn that focus to each other and themselves that something remarkable emerges.

At first it seems a bit repetitive. Mother and daughter reminisce, joke and bicker, circling back to the same topics: the craft of acting, the strange experience of fame, the infinite doubts and compromises of motherhood.

On one walk-and-talk, they tell funny anecdotes about Ladd’s mother, “Grandma Mary,” a wisecracking Mississippi divorcée who assisted with Dern’s upbringing after Ladd divorced Dern’s father, the actor Bruce Dern. Mary defied her era’s Southern Belle stereotypes, rejecting racism and classism in favor of everyday advocacy for equality. Her daughter and granddaughter learned a lot about independence from her, they agree.

Then the tone shifts. On a later walk, Dern admits that she often resented being left with her grandmother while Ladd was away for work. A suddenly emotional Ladd says she sometimes felt unfairly burdened with the responsibility of supporting not only her daughter but her mother, “working 12-hour days making the money to pay the rent, buy her clothes, put food in her mouth for her to go get entertained and travel and play with you.”

Emboldened by each day’s revelations and driven by their abiding love for each other, they wade into deeper confessions. The book is at its most memorable and affecting when they work up the courage to excavate heavy, sharp-edged emotional artifacts.

Neither has forgotten the time Ladd slapped a teenage Dern in the kitchen of their home, though each remembers the moment differently. They reopen a bitter argument about the time Ladd took Dern’s young son for a significant haircut without her permission; neither party is ready to back down, still. They revisit the time Dern, racked with grief over her divorce from the musician Ben Harper, yelled, “You have no idea what I’m feeling right now!” and upended a sofa — and how her mother responded by making tea and reminding her that her scoliosis made it unwise to lift such heavy things.

Eventually they confront Ladd’s greatest pain, a nearly unendurable loss she experienced as a young mother.

They yell, grow quiet, accuse and forgive, allowing us to witness their relationship evolving, walk by walk. Ladd’s health improves. Dern draws even closer to her mother. For them, the experiment proves successful. For readers, it may depend on what we come for. I recommend going into “Honey, Baby, Mine” curious about the origin stories, separate and intertwined, of two prolific artists who pushed through private challenges — are pushing through still — while forging lives in the public eye.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.”

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