Diane Lane was eight when An American Family first aired on PBS in 1973. She remembers people talking about the twelve-part reality show, the first ever. Ten million people watched it. The Loud family would never be the same. Nor would American television.
But the show did more than break the rules. Back then Svengali producer Craig Gilbert could lure an attractive Santa Barbara family like the Louds into putting themselves in front of the cameras–wielded by the husband and wife team of Alan and Susan Raymond, who became Oscar-winning documentarians–for seven months without guile. The Louds had no idea how their messy lives would be edited and manipulated into a juicy narrative, one that was eventually dissected and roundly criticized by the American public. “They were so angry,” said Lane at last week’s premiere of Cinema Verite, which airs Saturday on HBO. Lane met Pat Loud for the first time before the premiere. Lane had relied on the series and her 1974 memoir Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story to prepare to play the mother of five. “That level of naivite and trust is a done deal. There’s none left.”
Cinema Verite, written and directed by hybrid documentary/fiction filmmakers Robert Pulcini and longtime collaborator Shari Springer Berman (American Splendor), weaves back-and-forth between reenactments of what appeared on the show and what did not, with occasional jolts of the original doc footage. It’s a two-hour movie, which means a lot of rewriting of history and chronology, said Alan Raymond at the premiere, adding that producer Gilbert (James Gandolfini) was even worse than he was portrayed in the film, in which he seduces his quarry in more ways than one, browbeating Pat Loud into breaking up with husband Bill in front of the cameras, supposedly for the sake of the TV viewers, but really for his own career. Raymond never spoke to Gilbert again after An American Family.
The Raymonds stayed close with the Louds, however, producing 1983’s American Family Revisited, which caught up with each of the family members. They stayed close to Lance Loud, who famously declared his homosexuality during An American Family and said afterward, “television ate my family.” He invited them to document his last days as he was dying of AIDS in 2001 in Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family, which aired on PBS in 2003 on the 30th anniversary of the series. Loud’s wish on his deathbed was that his parents would get back together: and they did: they now live in Los Angeles. Bill, 90, came to the premiere in a wheelchair.
Meanwhile Gilbert never produced another big TV series. The New Yorker interviewed the 85-year-old producer, who denies that he had an affair with Pat Loud:
“The story line was essentially fallacious,” Gilbert said. He hired a lawyer to represent both his and the Loud family’s interests, but although he voiced his displeasure, he did not sue. (The Louds, who also were reportedly unhappy with the script, ended up accepting a financial settlement from HBO for agreeing not to discuss it publicly.) “Cinema Verite” depicts Gilbert showing Pat Loud (played by Diane Lane) evidence of her husband’s infidelity (Bill Loud is played by Tim Robbins), and then taking her up to his hotel room—all, the movie suggests, in the service of capturing their divorce on camera. Like Gilbert, Pat Loud has always maintained that the two did not have an affair. “If you are given the assignment to write a two-hour film that exposes the making of ‘An American Family,’ the only avenue to take is that the producer is corrupt,” Gilbert said.
HBO Films President Len Amato said that HBO did reach out to the Louds, “as we normally do with films that are fact-based, to invite their participation, but they chose not to be a part of it,” at TV Critic’s Week (here’s TOH’s coverage).
The Louds stuck close to each other at the Cinema Verite premiere, having already screened the film, but HBO did not invite them to the press junket. Kevin Loud broke away from his family to say that he briefly pursued a music career, but didn’t like the lifestyle–“having rock ‘n roll girls in the control room was no way to run a business,” he said. He now dresses like the investment banker he is. He says that his parents are less distressed by the movie than the prospect of having all 12 hours of the show replayed on television on April 30 for the first time since 1991. It was never released on homevideo or DVD. “They were naive,” he says, and would not have broken up if it weren’t for the show. “Mom thinks they would have,” he adds. “I was more upset about the way they sold the controversy. But we got lots of fan mail at the time. The Dick Cavett Show was one of the best rated of the year.”
Lane argues that the show’s impact was huge. “People faced themselves, saw human nature,” she says. “Margaret Mead says that we lost our innocence. She was jazzed that another, protective layer had been peeled away. It was the first domino in how we got here. We would not have had Norman Lear’s All in the Family, Billy Crystal’s character in Soap or Kristy McNichol in Family if An American Family hadn’t punctured through the image of The Partridge Family or Leave it to Beaver. We were spoon-feeding ourselves sugar-coated fantasies that nobody could live up to. An American Family told us that we didn’t have to.”