It is a moment that these famed actors have never forgotten: the one time during Laura Dern’s childhood that her mother, Diane Ladd, slapped her: “I guess I shoulda slapped her more?” Ladd said.
“Oh, my God!” laughed Dern.
“Yeah, she was being a little bitchy, and I had a bitchy day…”
Dern interjected, “Oh my God – this is ‘Sunday Morning’! ‘She was being sassy!”
“Okay, okay, she was being sassy, really sassy.”
Braver asked, “Do you think you remember this so much because it was the only time it ever happened?”
“It feels like such a betrayal, ’cause it’s so shocking,” said Dern.
It is these memories of humor, pain and unquestionable love that fill the pages of “Honey, Baby, Mine,” their joint memoir named for an old folk song Ladd’s father used to sing.
Ladd, now 87, is renowned for roles like the waitress Flo in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” one of three Oscar-nominated performances; and 56-year-old Dern is an Oscar-winner, for a playing a divorce lawyer representing the wife in “Marriage Story.”
The story of how their book – conversations they had while taking walks in Santa Monica – is worthy of a Hollywood film. The daily walks began when Ladd developed a lung disease, believed to be caused by exposure to pesticides.
Dern was told her mother only had six months to live: “They didn’t know what they could do, except if we could get her to walk, it would help her expand her lungs.”
So, they walked, and they talked, with Dern taping the conversations for herself and her children. The discussions were newly-recorded for an audiobook version.
Braver asked, “Why did you decide to make these very private conversations public?”
“I think we share the longing for the people we love – and anyone — to have the experience we had,” Dern said, “which was to know each other better, more deeply.”
“And ourselves at the same time,” added Ladd.
They discussed everything, starting with Ladd’s marriage and divorce from Laura’s father, actor Bruce Dern; to her efforts to discourage Laura from joining the family business.
“She was only, like, 11 years old, and I said, ‘Don’t be an actress. Be a doctor, be a lawyer,'” said Ladd. “Nobody cares if you put on weight or your chin points when you cry if you’re a doctor. They just want you to be the best you can be. But an actress? They care, care, care, care, care.”
But Dern said there was no stopping her from being in movies: “No. It is all I knew.”
In fact, Laura was conceived during the making of a Roger Corman biker picture, “The Wild Angels.” “So yes, you know, for me a set felt like a second home,” she said.
A home Ladd and Dern often shared, working together on many movies and TV shows. Dern said, “I remember on the set of David Lynch’s film ‘Wild at Heart,’ and Nicolas Cage came up behind me and whispers in my ear, ‘That’s your mom, like, your real mom!'”
In the 1991 film “Rambling Rose,” Dern plays a promiscuous young girl living with Ladd’s family. Both mother and daughter were nominated for Academy Awards.
But Ladd has a better memory: “This was the picture that the late Princess Diana chose as her absolutely favorite, and she flew Laura and I to London for a royal premiere and a party in our honor. And she sat between us, holding both our hands, and crying, watching us perform.”
But Ladd still agonizes over the times work took her away from her daughter, and the other challenges she (along with so many single moms) faced: “How to pay the rent, how to get my daughter what she needs. And worse, because you gotta go out for an interview, and you gotta hold your head up. You better not have a rip in that stocking. You better have those shoes not run down. You gotta put on an image.”
And though Dern felt lucky that she was cared for by her grandmother (Ladd’s mom), she still grieved when her mother was on location: “And I knew she loved me, but the loneliness was real. One of the hardest things for me as a working mother in the same profession when I became a parent was that I held guilt that I still don’t know what’s my children’s loneliness or my own.”
And Dern’s love for her own children, Jaya and Ellery, with her former husband, musician Ben Harper, has made her understand even more the grief that Ladd felt over losing a daughter before Dern was born. The child died in a swimming pool accident where a nanny hadn’t paid enough attention.
“She fell into the pool,” said Ladd. “She hit her head and knocked herself out. And it all happened instantly. And she died, and you will never get over that. I don’t care what you say to yourself. I don’t care who says what. The child is not supposed to die before the parent.”
Ladd had not talked about it with Dern. “Never,” said Laura. “And I had not asked because I thought I was gonna hurt you. And that was a lesson that I would want to share with everyone, that if we talk it out, there is healing of all kinds.”
“Absolutely,” said Ladd.
In fact, Ladd has proved her doctors wrong. She continues to heal, and in fact just completed a film.
And mother and daughter have a lot more to say, and sing, to each other, as when they serenaded each other with “You Are My Sunshine:”
You’ll never know dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Doo doo doo doo doo!
READ AN EXCERPT: “Honey, Baby, Mine” by Laura Dern & Diane Ladd
OR, LISTEN TO AN EXCERPT:
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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Chad Cardin.