In a 2010 profile for the Boston Globe, Janice Page described Diane Lane as “the closest thing we have today to Grace Kelly, with a chaser of Pat Benatar.” This parallel between the distinguished Oscar nominee and the tough-yet-vulnerable arena rock siren might seem out of left field, until you consider Lane’s surprising rock and roll cred. In her third onscreen appearance, Lane earned an infinite amount of punk points with her portrayal of Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, the lead singer of the title band in LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS.
By the late 1970s, Lane was one of several young actresses whose poise and intelligence found a home in films for kids and adults alike. Though she held her own opposite Laurence Olivier in the sleeper hit A LITTLE ROMANCE, her performance as Elvis Presley’s pen pal in the long-forgotten TOUCHED BY LOVE foreshadowed some of her later, rock-themed performances. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures had been pursuing Jodie Foster – the grande dame of Carter-era teen actresses – for a new project they’d prioritized, ALL WASHED UP.
The film industry saw both ALL WASHED UP scenarist Nancy Dowd and its director Lou Adler as hot commodities. Dowd had won the Oscar for the COMING HOME screenplay, while Adler had produced the countercultural classics BREWSTER MCCLOUD and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Dowd’s latest financial success SLAP SHOT, inspired her to look for its female counterpart as the subject of her next film. After seeing a Ramones concert, the writer had found the setting for her next feature screenplay.
Foster ultimately passed on the project, and after the film’s title changed to LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, Lane was invited to audition for the role. “It was a very weird script,” she laughed in a 1997 interview with director Sarah Jacobson, “and I thought, ‘how am I gonna pull this off?’ I can’t sing, you know? I suck! But then I thought, ‘well, they’re supposed to suck, so maybe I can do that’!”
What Lane lacked in musical ability, she more than made up for in acting skill. Not only does Corinne carry the film, but she’s gone through several traumatizing experiences before she even appears onscreen. Her mother died of lung cancer in the recent past, and she first becomes notorious when she gets fired from her job on national television. Corinne’s dialogue reads as abrasive on the page, but Lane’s vulnerability – as well as her sly mocking of news anchor Peter Donat – humanizes her and makes her an appealing character to follow throughout the film.
Corinne’s appealingly melancholy presence at the start of the film gives her transformation into a vituperative rock star and feminist role model a greater heft. At the close of the Stains’ dismal first gig, she throws the audience’s contempt back at them by stripping off her trench coat to reveal a provocative costume of see-through blouse, tap pants, and fishnets. Lane would later discuss her discomfort with this outfit in Jacobson’s documentary (“you could see my nipples!”), but the wide strides and bristling posture she adopts takes on a combative stance. This defensive quality comes through in an epigram she delivers to the audience on her departure: “I’m perfect, but no one in this shithole gets me, because I don’t put out.”
The band reaches a high profile through a series of TV news spots, attracting a predominantly female audience to their shows. The film makes sure we see how Corinne is manipulating the media in an early scene, when she turns a news report about a fellow musician’s overdose into a story about the Stains. Lane’s girlish conversation with an ambitious reporter played by Cynthia Sikes reminds us that she’s just a kid, but her abrupt switch from giggly line-readings to the steely-eyed observation that “he was an old man in a young girl’s world” reminds us that she knows how she’s playing this particular reporter.
The eventual backlash against the Stains, and against Corinne’s uncompromising attitude, seems a little far-fetched. However, Lane’s performance during the closing scenes grounds the unlikely-and-unlikelier denouement. During her final TV interview, she shows outward signs of being brought low, with her stoop-shouldered posture and glazed-over eyes. While her appearance might suggest that she feels some remorse about “using the media” (as the condescending TV anchor put it), her dialogue tells a different story. “Every citizen should be given an electric guitar on her sixteenth birthday,” she snaps at the interview’s close. While the WAY WE WERE–esque original ending and the tacked-on music video that brings the movie to a close may leave viewers confused, the honest performances of Lane and her cohorts will stick with them long after the credits roll.
Though the film wrapped in 1980, Paramount shelved the film after a regime change and a pair of disastrous test screenings in Colorado and Orange County, California. It finally got a series of short art-house screenings in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago. By that time, Lane had cemented her reputation as the most rock-and-roll of leading ladies by starring in two music-related projects, STREETS OF FIRE and THE COTTON CLUB, appearing in a pair of Buddy Holly-era S.E. Hinton adaptations, and dating Jon Bon Jovi. (New York Times film critic Janet Maslin noted in her review of STAINS that Lane “plays a rock star on the strength of physical presence and not much else.”) The film had a long half-life on basic cable, which led to its frequent bootlegging.
Rumors of a home video release had swirled around the film since at least the mid-90s. (Jacobson’s documentary and a companion article in Grand Royal touted an official VHS release of the film that never materialized.) In 2008, after Lane got an Oscar nomination for UNFAITHFUL, Rhino had gotten the rights to put out a DVD. Director Alison Anders feted this long-overdue release with a screening at her Don’t Knock the Rock Film Festival in LA, which Lane herself attended. Of the film’s long-overdue official release, Lane threw her arms in the air and yelled out “twenty-eight years in the making!”