Romancing Oscar

updated 03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 01:00AM

RESTLESS ON THE EVE OE THE OSCAR nominations, Diane Ladd resorted to her usual soporific. "When I'm under stress, if I stay up till 4 in the morning scrubbing floors, then I can sleep," says the actress. Wielding a mop as if the path to glory were paved with linoleum, she spit-polished her Hollywood kitchen and dozed off shortly before dawn. When her manager called around 5:40 A.M. to say Ladd was up for Best Supporting Actress for the second year in a row—this time for her role as Mother Hillyer in Rambling Rose—Ladd felt relief. "It was as if I'd climbed to the top of a mountain and was very tired."

But she was revived by the thought of her daughter and costar, Laura Dern, 25. "I said, 'What about my baby?' " recalls Ladd (who refutes her reported age of 59). "Suddenly I wasn't the actress, I was the mommy." Upon hearing that Dern, who played the vulnerable Rose of the title, had been nominated for Best Actress, Ladd says, "I just started to sob." Seconds after Laura learned the good news, she was on the horn to Mom. Dern, too, broke into tears—and into the history books: Their simultaneous nominations are the first by any mother and daughter in Oscar's 64 years. "It's a dream," says Dern. Adds Ladd: "We'll be in Trivial Pursuit."

For Ladd, though, the pursuit of Oscar has been anything but trivial. As she did last year when nominated for her role as the hellish mother in David Lynch's Wild at Heart (Dern played her daughter), Ladd waged a vigorous campaign. She talked up the film to friends and colleagues and charged $15,000 on her credit cards for four ads in the trade papers touting her performance. She hopes her efforts will rekindle interest in the film, which, though critically acclaimed, has had only a small distribution. "When I heard I was nominated," she says, "I thought, 'Thank God, this'll help the picture.' "

Ladd and Oscar have a long history. In 1975 she received her first supporting-actress nomination for her role as the waitress Flo in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore but lost to Ingrid (Murder on the Orient Express) Bergman. Last year Ghost's Whoopi Goldberg beat her out. Ladd is admittedly anxious about this year's stomach-clenching moment of truth. "The camera comes in, and everybody sees you stripped naked," she says. "I hope I can sit through this again."

At least her daughter will be sitting nearby. Laura's proud father, Bruce Dern, who met Ladd when they costarred in a 1959 off-Broadway production of Orpheus Descending (they married in 1960), remembers his ex-wife's entrance in that play. "She had this wild look in her eye," he says. "It's the exact look Laura has when she walks into the house in Rambling Rose. There's a balance between those dames that comes across like a lightning bolt."

The film's title, at least, bodes well for Ladd, who was born Rose Diane Lanier in Meridian, Miss., to Preston Lanier, a poultry-medicine salesman, and his wife, Mary, a homemaker. Ladd, who gave up a law scholarship at Louisiana State University to pursue theater, sang and danced in Manhattan clubs before landing in Orpheus. In 1962 tragedy struck when Ladd and Dern's 18-month-old daughter drowned in a pool while in a teenage maid's care—an incident Ladd won't discuss. She and Dern, who remain friends, split up two months after Laura's birth in 1967. Her 1969 marriage to stockbroker William Shea Jr. lasted only five years.

For most of the '70s, Ladd maintained her career to help raise Laura and in 1980 stepped into TVs Alice, a spin-off of the 1974 movie. She says she treated her daughter like an adult early on. "It cut the cost of therapy as a grown-up," says Laura.

In her flower-filled, two-bedroom apartment, Ladd forges ahead with such pet projects as her autobiography, a screenplay about Watergate spitfire Martha Mitchell and a thriller she plans to direct. But with the March 30 Academy Awards fast approaching, she is unabashedly preoccupied—dieting ("Everybody diets," she says. "We all want to shake our backsides!") and trying to decide what to wear. She is torn between reserved ("a Maggie Smith/ Vanessa Redgrave-type dress") and racy ("to go for the sex while I can still walk up the aisle"). After all, there's a man to be wooed.

"Oscar's been courting me, flirting with me, pretending to come home to my bed," rhapsodizes Ladd. "But I want him to get serious this year. Come on, man, make that commitment! Come live with me now!"

TIM ALLIS
KRISTINA JOHNSON and ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles

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