Monday, February 6

Jessica Lange

My other half and I have always joked that he and Jessica Lange have a lot in common:  (1) they each made their film debuts in King Kong (1976), (2) they each had significant others with the same birthday and (3) they were both entrenched in their Midwest roots.  Well, he was just an extra in a crowd scene in King Kong and she went on to one of the most celebrated and awarded film careers of our times.  And she and Sam Shepard have recently parted ways, which made me sad because from my perspective they were Hollywood royalty and I decreed them perfect for one another.  So we're left with those Midwest roots.  When folks maintain a value system from family and stay grounded to their roots despite forays into the concrete jungles of the world, I am impressed.  Sam's and my partners have done just that.

I am probably part of a small minority who was impressed with Jessica Lange's comic emoting in King Kong.  Those who didn't think much of the film were either terribly loyal to the 1933 classic or didn't get the comedy or thought she was horrid.  I thought it was an exercise in camp and that she stayed true to that throughout the film.  She was having fun and so was I.  And for the last 36 years Lange has given us a body of work that is truly outstanding, that will always stand the test of time.

Born in Minnesota, while attending the state university she met and married Francisco Grande and they traveled throughout the states in a hippie mode before relocating to Paris.  While there the marriage unraveled and Lange studied mime (no doubt an asset in her future career).  Shortly after moving to New York and engaging in a bit of modeling, she was discovered by producer Dino DeLaurentiis who cast her in King Kong.  She's never looked back. 

A rare glamour shot
It is true that she didn't have another film released until three years later and that was Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical All that Jazz.  They had a brief romance which wasn't anymore successful than the film.

Jack Nicholson had taken notice of her and requested her services for the remake of 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice, a superior film noir with the very beautiful Lana Turner and the dynamic John Garfield.  Why remake such a good film, I wondered at the time.  But in 1981 the film was remade; I liked it and in fact watched it the other day.  Some story lines were changed from the original.  Nicholson, a fabulous actor, couldn't hold a candle to Garfield.  Lange, while she may not have erased every memory of Lana Turner all turned out in white under that platinum do, did eclipse Turner with the acting chops.  She was a real head-turner as a wildly erotic bad wife.  Hollywood finally took notice.

The year 1982 has to be etched in Lange's memory as the one in which she arrived on the world's stage.  She made two movies that year that were as different as films could possibly be.  She was Oscar-nominated for both of them... one as best actress and one as best supporting actress, a fete that hadn't been accomplished for gazillions of years.  (Remember this... it will probably be on a quiz one day in these pages.)

The first film is THE film that elevated Jessica Lange into the pantheon of great American film actresses, a performance so harrowing and frightening and brave and bold.  I could never forget it or the impact it had on me.  It was called Frances. If you haven't seen it, you simply have missed one of the greatest performances ever put to celluloid.  It was the story of the 1930s mentally ill blonde goddess, the beautiful Frances Farmer.  Lange pulled out all stops to portray a tortured woman who could not abide the Hollywood game and was always steeped in public rage.

It was a real horse race on Oscar night.  As great as Lange's performance was as Frances, there was another blonde that night who also turned quite a few heads for her performance as a beaten-down WWII mother in Sophie's Choice.  She, of course, was the dazzling Meryl Streep.  There are so many roles these two could have switched and no one would have been the wiser. 

By the time the best actress Oscar was awarded, it was open-and-shut it would be for Streep because Lange had won a best supporting Oscar earlier in the proceedings for her comic turn as a soap opera star in the very funny Tootsie.  Lange was good here (she's always at least good), but she had been much better and  would be again.  Not only did Dustin Hoffman far outshine Lange as the title cross-dresser, but I say her win was a little more than a consolation prize for not nabbing the prize for Frances.

One thing Lange got from her turn as Frances was a new best friend in her costar, sharer of my birthday, Sam Shepard.  She traded in Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had a daughter, and had a relationship with Shepard that lasted until a couple of years ago.  The public was only told about it just recently.  They would work jointly in some capacity on four more films and have two children together. 

With Shepard... radiant before the breakup

In 1985 she portrayed another famous person (this time a singer) and garnered another Oscar nomination in one of my favorite films of alltime and one of the best Lange performances of them all, Sweet Dreams.  The story of country songbird Patsy Cline, if blonde, thin Lange seemed a far cry from the more zaftig, brunette Cline, well you just don't know what the lady can do.  Rightfully Cline's own melodic voice was used but Lange lip-synched so faultlessly, one would be hard-pressed to find any misstep.

I'm not any huge country fan by any means, but once in awhile a country ditty comes along that gets my attention or a country singer does.  On the top wrung of country singers is Miss Patsy Cline (say that with a drawl, as though you were announcing her performance at the Grand Ole Opry.).  Her voice made the clocks stop for me.  Her music, her life, her marriage, her family, her untimely death were the treasures for screenwriters.  It is said that none other than Meryl Streep wanted this role and begged the director Karel Reisz, who had directed her in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but he was focused only on Lange.  So she was awarded with a wonderful songbook of Cline's hits and an eye-popping, partnering performance from Ed Harris.

The next year Lange co-starred with two other Oscar winners, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton, who played sisters in Crimes of the Heart, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.  It was an odd little comedy that only did so-so at the box office.  I understand there was too much goofiness enveloping a fairly serious subject, but I found it delightful.  I am a sucker for little stories of southern families who have difficulty seeing eye-to-eye and are dealing with it while I down my buttered popcorn.

In 1990, after making three other films, Lange appeared in Men Don't Leave, another delightful confection.  Her character has recently been widowed and left with two sons and mounting debt and Lange delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as a woman learning to come to terms with her new circumstances.

Before she would go on to win a best actress Oscar in a film with some strange backstory, she made back-to-back films with Robert DeNiro, Cape Fear and Night and the City, both remakes and both inferior to their predecessors.  Lange herself did not disappoint however.

In 1994 she won a much-deserved Oscar for Blue Sky.  I don't think there was much doubt she would cop the prize.  In it she played an army wife and mother who is an emotional wreck, a manic-depressive.  The role allowed her to explore much of the underbelly of human desires and behaviors and Lange just tore up the screen.  Like Harris in Sweet Dreams, Tommy Lee Jones was with her every step of the way.  The film had actually been completed two years earlier but sat on the shelf when the production company went belly-up.  What a tragedy had we missed this performance.

I think about here is where Lange's career changed a bit.  She was around 45 and some of her roles were no longer the leads.  She either supported the male star or the film was a little, largely-unseen, independent film or she was in and among a large cast.  It has been said that she threw herself into raising her children and her life with Shepard.  At the same time, however, she was doing quality television projects and appearing on Broadway, frequently as a Tennessee Williams' heroine, mostly to great acclaim.

Some of my favorite work during this period is the supportive wife of Rob Roy (1995), the spirited sister of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in A Thousand Acres (1997) and so delicious as the evil mother in the generally-panned Hush.  In 2003 came the beautifully-filmed, superbly-acted lyrical fantasy, Big Fish.  Lange was the wife of Albert Finney and the mother of Billy Crudup in a film about an eccentric southern storyteller, and part of a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter and Marion Cotillard.

The number of awards this woman has acquired is a staggering amount and way too lengthy to go into here.  In the not-too-distant past the honors continued with an Emmy for the superb television movie Grey Gardens and a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for her turn as the spooky nextdoor neighbor on the compelling American Horror Story.  With series television, the actress has done it all.

Jessica Lange is an adventurous actress.  She takes chances and nearly always makes the right move for her.  There is an honesty and openness about her acting and she slips so easily into her roles.  She suspends who she is and inhabits Frances Farmer and Patsy Cline and Carly Marshall and Ginny Smith and Meg Magrath with such an integrity.  She plays women of strength; her characters are courageous, scrappy, determined, proud.  Strikingly expressive, Lange has a lot of physical business that I have been drawn to.  She has a nervous little laugh that I so identify as being hers.  I have long sensed her characters think they know a little something better than we do... not quite haughty, but with a steely certainty.  She does a lot with her hands.  They are moving, quite present in a scene, usually somewhere around or touching her face.  You also can never be sure how she will look.  It's constantly a surprise.  It is grand to be surprised by a performer and always nice to know what you can rely on as well.  She has all that.

An added attraction for me is both her liberal politics and her humanitarian efforts, most especially as goodwill embassador for UNICEF with special emphasis on AIDS/HIV in the Congo.

Let's revisit what I want you to know... this is a great American actress.  She rivals any of those from the 1940s and 1950s that I am so fond of parading before you and she can stand side-by-side with any of her contemporaries.  Ask Meryl and Glenn and Sigourney and Sissy and Diane if they don't agree.  See her films that you have missed.  If you liked some, see them again.  

Next posting: 
Betty at the Bookstore


  1. I love Jessica Lange's artistry. Her performance in Rob Roy was incredibly good and I thought she brough depth to Frances as well. truthfully, she always delivers a fine performance. She was recently in American Horror Story and my younger friends were amazed as they had not seen much of her before. Such a fine actor. I hope to see more of her in the future.

  2. thoroughly enjoyed this. found you by accident while looking up jessica lange. i was a film major in college and you've done a wonderful job talking about jessica's depth. I'll be looking around some more.....just saw today's .....great many great films.....slapshot is one of my favorites. he really knows how to make films that revolve around the characters.

  3. Wow, Pamela, thanks for your comment. I always wonder who out there is looking at this and love those accidents. I've done over 200 of these now. Site is pretty easy to navigate thru. Wow, a film major. Help keep me on my toes. Comment all you want. Welcome... welcome.