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Oscar Tout: Diane Lane's 'Secretariat' Secrets

Courtesy of the Walt Disney Pictures

A major film awards group voter was recently asked, "Are you going to see Secretariat?" The voter replied, "A movie about a horse? I don't think so." But it's not about a horse! It's about  Secretariat's heroically bold, don't-mess-with-me-fellas owner Penny Chenery, played by thoroughbred champion Oscar nominee Diane Lane. Lane cantered smoothly through Anne Thompson's PGA Q&A on Nov. 19, getting a step ahead in an Oscar race Disney brass has bet big on. Lane saluted Chenery for defying 1973 convention and literally betting the family farm on a long-shot horse: "Penny was in the crosshairs of her time. The balls it takes to be right when nobody believes in you!"

Lane could also relate to the Disneyfied way the film sanitizes dirty family laundry, like Chenery's fissioning marriage, which proved Anatole Broyard's sad maxim, "Love does not gallop on the rice-course of matrimony." Chenery's wedlock woes were hidden from the public while her horse made the cover of Time and Newsweek and she spurned an offer to put him on Sonny and Cher (it was "not in keeping with his image as a racehorse"). "It was a very messy family era thrust into a media spotlight," said Lane. "TMI -- too much information. Penny has very, very succinctly said that this is a Disney film. This is not her life."

Lane could relate, given her own messy origins as the daughter of Burt Lane, much betrayed by his acting-school partner John Cassavetes. "'They did Shadows together," said Lane. "My dad used to say, 'John took the wheels and left me with the chassis.' John stole Gena [Rowlands] from my dad." Lane's mom, headstrong Playboy centerfold Colleen Farrington, divorced Burt. Stage dad Burt gave her ambition, confidence, and a home environment no doubt useful for her Oscar-nominated Unfaithful. "I feel like I fulfilled his ambition for me more than my own."

He died just before the nomination, and his memory suffuses Lane's Secretariat scenes with Chenery's dying dad (Scott Glenn). "Because I had that man for a father I believed in myself," she said (and the same goes for Chenery). "I need that vote of confidence. I don't do well under humiliation." The last time I saw Lane was on the set of 1995's Judge Dredd, where she and director Danny Cannon seemed to be miserably clinging to each other in an ego-lashing storm.

"I've always had a daddy thing with my directors, and that's always worked for me. Why fix it?" She told Michael Phillips that when she whined about Adrian Lyne's 55-take regimen on Unfaithful, he said, "Did it ever occur to you that he might be trying to get you nominated?" On Secretariat, director Randall Wallace, who like her dad "cries easily," gave her a paternal rebuke that could be key to her Oscar hopes this time. In the scene where she tells soon-to-be-divorced husband Dylan Walsh, "I gave up a career to have a family," Lane says Wallace said, "You're just cold. Be warmer." "He was right. I was looking at it through modern eyes. I was a little bitchy about it." Oscar guys don't like bitchy -- unless  it's young, sexy, crazy bitchy, like frontrunner Natalie Portman in Black Swan. If Lane gets a second nom, Wallace will be a big reason.

Some think Wallace went too far in a gentle direction with Secretariat. "They should have called it That Darn Horse," wrote Dallas Voice's Steve Warren. But many viewers think frontrunner The King's Speech is just as calculatedly, heart-meltingly muffin-warm. "The narrative, the idea people have in their heads, is Secretariat's a flop," says one movie marketer not involved with the film. "It is not a flop! Look at its numbers -- it made back its money." The marketer thinks there's a backlash to the expectations Disney helped raise, that it might be another Blind Side. "People think it didn't do what it should have done, 'cause they spent a lot on prints and ads."

If Lane makes it to the winner's circle, the win will echo Secretariat's method: Start a bit slow out of the gate, then pick up speed and leave the competition in the dust. Praised for kinetic racing sequences,  the film also dares to amble. "He's a Southern gentleman," said Lane of Randall Wallace. "He likes to tell a story, so take your time. It's gonna be worth it."

(Follow my Race Tweets @timappelo)