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The Diane Baker story

Posted on 27 November 2019 by LeslieM

By “Cinema” Dave


Prolific actress Diane Baker and Cinema Dave.
Photo by Rachel Galvin.

It should have been easy. We scheduled my interview with Diane Baker to avoid traffic on the Veteran’s Day holiday.  Despite leaving with plenty of time to spare, I sat on I-95 for 45 minutes, trapped between the exits of Cypress Creek and Commercial Boulevards.  When I finally arrived, I expected this movie star to turn diva on me. Instead, she shared her strawberries with me. Diane Baker is an optimistic individual who radiates positive energy. 

So it was with a sense of irony that she would conduct FLIFF post screening interviews of Strait-Jacket and Marnie, a horror and suspense movie, respectively. After seeing Marnie, after not seeing it for many years, her first words were “That was disturbing.”

A sensitive soul, she did tear up when she discussed Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of her and Tippi Hedren on the set of the film.

One does not survive six decades in show business by being a victim. Baker worked steadily on television in classic shows like Route 66, Wagon Train and Dr. Kildare.  She appeared in the first episode of The Invaders and the last episode of The Fugitive starring David Janssen. Of her costar Janssen, Diane said, “No one knew how smart he was.” She rates Janssen’s intelligence with that of Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Robert Osborne, Vincent Price and her mentor, Melvyn Douglas.

Television provided a variety of acting opportunities for Baker. She considered playing the mother on Little House on the Prairie, but had doubts about committing to performing the same role for seven years. Instead, she chose the pilot for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was not picked up.  As recent as 2012, Baker portrayed Nicole Kidman’s mother in the Emmy Award winning Hemingway & Gellhorn, a good experience that involved two days of work.

As Senator Ruth Martin, Baker worked one day on The Silence of the Lambs, another good experience, thanks to Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme and Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins.

Demme wanted Baker for this small, but important role as the victim’s mother.  Both actors were prepared. Hopkins and Baker performed an emotional first take of the scene.  Demme complimented the actors but asked for another take, to make it simpler and play it more internally.  Demme’s instincts paid off. The chilling scene between the masked Hannibal Lecter and the senator remains tense drama nearly 30 years after it was filmed.

Like It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Silence of the Lambs earned Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Actor.  Despite scary protests at the 1992 ceremony, Baker attended at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with her boyfriend Michael Lerner, who was nominated for his work on Barton Fink. Like being on a winning sports team, Baker shared the joy as Demme, Hopkins and Jodie Foster collected their golden idols. 

Given that her first film was The Diary of Anne Frank, Baker is used to creating quality.  She has been an acting teacher for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and served as the executive director for the School of Motion Pictures &Television, and the Academy of Art University School of Acting.  Her interests are broad, and she is an advocate of Norman Cousins, who believed in healing through laughter.  

Baker and I laughed together. We share mutual birthdays, and we sang “Happy Birthday to Us” when she departed for home.

As a teacher and mentor, I asked her what advice she would pass on to a new generation, to which, she answered, “Young people should learn to meditate… Get to know thyself and calm yourself.”

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