Jessica Lange just won her second Emmy award. Hooray! Her first Emmy was for the 2007 adaptation of Grey Gardens; the newest, for her chilling portrayal of a meddlesome neighbor, a faded actress with a lot of deadly secrets, in FX’s American Horror Story. I love Jessica Lange. I have loved her over half my life. I love it that she convincingly plays such damaged volatile characters in one film after the next, yet she always appears so refreshingly normal, even a bit shy, in TV interviews. Oh sure, I know it’s acting. I get it, but I also know that many actors and actresses don’t necessarily reinvent themselves so completely for each and every new role. That’s my point. I also love that Lange has repeatedly (or reportedly) eschewed mainstream commercial fare, such as Romancing the Stone, to concentrate on the projects that interest her, either for the character arcs, the timeliness of the stories, or the chance to work with such directors as Constantin Costa-Gavras, Karel Reisz, Julie Taymor, Tim Burton, and Jim Jarmusch.
I never saw Lange in 1976’s infamous King Kong remake, and I’m okay with that. No, I first came to appreciate her as Angelique, the Angel of Death, in Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz, a 1979 Best Picture contender. A friend who’d seen the movie before I had gave me a heads up about how wonderful “Cybill Shepherd” was…but that wasn’t Shepherd, as I came to realize. It was Lange. Though she was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she, Anne Reinking, and Leland Palmer, as the women in Fosse/Joe Gideon’s lusty, career-driven life, all gave standout performances. Whatever. Lange was fascinating in that film, teasing Roy Scheider’s Gideon, taunting him, playing games, ever so sweetly and slyly luring him to his show-bizzy demise. I was hooked–only unlike Joe Gideon, I lived to see Jessica in film after glorious film.
I sat through the silly heist movie, How to Beat the Cost of Living twice–just to see Lange play a pampered suburban wife with a serious shopping habit. Interestingly, she was the least sympathetic of the film’s trio of would-be robbers. Susan St. James and Jane Curtin play divorcees with mounting financial woes, some of which include raising children; Lange plays a married antiques dealer with little or no business acumen who gets in trouble with the IRS. She’s utterly gorgeous in that early, early 1980s way; moreover, she’s delightfully funny. The movie was hardly a smash hit, despite the fact that I saw it twice, though it’s worth pointing out that it predated the somewhat themetically similar femme caper 9 to 5, a box office bonanza starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomiln, by several months. Nonetheless, someone somewhere in the the TV world’s corridors of power must have seen something marketable in How to Beat…, per the soon-to-follow popular sitcom Kate and Allie with Curtin and St. James playing divorced mothers sharing a residence. The show won multiple Emmy awards including a pair for Curtin.
Meanwhile, Lange went on to co-star with Jack Nicholson in 1981’s much hyped remake of James Cain’s noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was only her 4th feature film. I was riveted by her performance. It wasn’t the movie’s for-the-times shocking sex scenes that caught my imagination, exactly, it was Lange’s rawness, an animalistic abandon that informed–if not consumed–every aspect of her calculating Depression-era waitress, Cora. (I visited the the film’s old rundown gas station/cafe near Santa Barbara years and years later.) The critics were divided over Postman as a whole though the raves for Lange were pretty much unanimous. Unfortunately, the Academy did not respond in kind–1981 was quite the year for leading actresses (to be continued), but The Postman Always Rings Twice announced Lange as a powerhouse talent, a force with which to be reckoned. She was as hot as any young actress could hope to be, and doors were opening.
In 1982, Lange forever cemented her reputation as one of moviedom’s premier actresses. In two wildly different movies released only a few weeks apart, Lange demonstrated such awe-inspiring range that the Academy had no choice but to nominate her for both films: Best Actress for Frances and Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie. No, she wasn’t the first person to earn double nods in a single year, but she was the first to claim that distinction since the forties. She was declared a winner in one of her categories come Oscar night, and she would go on to earn four additional nominations–and, yes, one more of the coveted gold trophies. Now, she has a pair of Emmys to go with her pair of Oscars.
Here are a few highlights of a career that has been described as legendary by the morning news pundits…
Frances (1982) – For a couple of years in the early 1980s, there were two roles that every 30ish actress in movies wanted to play. One of those was Sophie, the tormented Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice. The other was Frances Farmer, the beautiful, gifted, and outspoken 1930s era actress who took Hollywood by storm before one thing (drug/alcohol abuse) led to another (multiple run-ins with the law), derailing her career and resulting in years spent in brutal mental institutions. Of course, Meryl Streep famously won the part of Sophie, and Lange nabbed the role of Frances, beating out more than a few better known actresses. Both films were released for awards consideration during the 1982 holiday moviegoing season; for years afterward, young up and coming actresses spoke of–and still do speak of–wanting their own Sophie’s Choice or Frances.
I first heard about Farmer’s story a decade earlier, right around the time that Farmer’s Will There Really Be a Morning? was published posthumously. Based on what I already knew of Farmer as well as the strength of Lange’s performance in Postman, I was sure she was the best possible choice to play Frances–plus, from certain angles, Lange bears/bore a striking, almost eerie, resemblance to Farmer that hinted at all kinds of promising possibilities; Lange did not disappoint. Frances Farmer’s story is fraught with intense emotional changes as she struggles to maintain some semblance of her own identity all the while battling the Hollywood hierarchy, a scarily inhumane mental health care system, and a domineering mother whose passive aggression is matched only by her active aggression. Of course, there’s a trick to all of this because, as unfortunate as her struggles were, Farmer seemed to court controversy all her life, beginning as a teenager with a prize winning essay questioning the existence of God. Sometimes, as insensitive as this might sound, Farmer was her own worst enemy. No, she didn’t deserve the heaps of abuse she endured–that’s not the point. The trick–there’s that word again–is to portray this complicated woman in a way that makes sense to audiences: her fierce personality cannot be sugar-coated, yet she must also register sympathetically in spite of all that.
Lange delivers a knock-out performance, but the film as a whole is a mixed bag at best. Oh sure, the art-direction, makeup, and costumes are all fine. Indeed the behind-the-scenes talent is top-notch: cinematography by the great Laszlo Kovacs (Paper Moon, Shampoo), art-direction by Richard Sybert (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Chinatown, and Reds), a harmonica-accented score by no less than John Barry (famous at the time as a two time Oscar winner as well as his ongoing contributions to the James Bond films). The on-camera talent is also strong; respected veteran of stage and screen Kim Stanley, in the role of Farmer’s adversarial mother, and Pulitzer winning playwright/actor Sam Shepard as “Harry York,” Farmer’s shadowy confidante, a figure that’s either a clumsily conceived composite or a complete fabrication inspired by a man named Stuart Jacobson who has long claimed to be a member of Farmer’s inner-circle (despite shaky evidence to bolster his claims). Stanley even scored an Oscar nomination, so the blame cannot be entirely placed on first-time feature film director Graeme Clifford (who’d served as editor on Lange’s Postman). The problem, again, is a script that can’t seem to get a handle on its subject, and the main reason for that is that too much of Farmer’s life remains in doubt. Though the screenplay is credited to Eric Bergen, Christopher De Vore and Nicholas Kazan, it appears to be cribbed from William Arnold’s much disputed Shadowland. On the other hand, even Farmer’s own account of her life is rumoured to have been significantly doctored–altered–by her companion, Jean Ratcliffe. Beyond the problematic script, the movie suffers from glaringly haphazard editing, no doubt the result of studio interference to keep the movie to an “acceptable” running length. Stanley reportedly took her frustration with the studio to the press, which likely did more harm than good. Also marring the movie’s release were reports that Lange was difficult on the set, though it’s hard to imagine that given the circumstances, the experience could be anything else.
Come Oscar night, Lange was Meryl Streep’s only real competition though even that much was relative as Streep’s movie was better received as a whole. Plus, her character, with that harrowing choice revealed late in the film, was more obviously–or universally–sympathetic than Lange’s Farmer; moreover, playing a character who speaks Polish, German and Polish-accented English made the role a formidable challenge for Streep on top of its complex emotional dimensions.
Tootsie (1982) – During the grueling Frances shoot, Stanley advised Lange to snatch up the first comedy role she could in order to switch gears and get back into the swing of acting and building a career. Lange hit the jackpot when she scored a key role in Tootise, which quickly became the biggest comedy hit of all time, earning oodles and oodles of millions and spending a staggering 14 weeks at the top of the box-office charts. The movie reaped a whopping 10 Oscar nods as well, including Best Picture. Everyone loved Tootsie, and everyone loved Lange in it–and why wouldn’t they? She plays pampered soap opera–okay, daytime drama–actress, Julie Nichols.
Lange’s Nichols is a piece of work: a pretty, single mom who seems to have lucked into her acting gig on the strength of her seemingly effortless beauty rather than anything remotely resembling drive and ambition. Julie also has rotten taste in men possibly because no man can live up to the example set by her cuddly bear of a father. Of course, Lange isn’t the star of Tootsie. No, that distinction belongs to the one and only Dustin Hoffman, who gives the performance of a lifetime as an underemployed actor who, in an act of sheer desperation, puts on a wig and a dress in order to score an audition as a female character on the same long-running show on which Julie appears. The ruse works, and Hoffman’s no b.s. hospital administrator “Emily Kimberly” becomes an overnight sensation. Of course, Hoffman’s actor is irresistibly drawn to Lange’s Nichols, but Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey has too much at stake to confess his feelings to Julie; meanwhile, Julie grows more confident about her own choices though she can’t quite articulate her feelings for her new castmate and mentor.
Columbia Pictures wisely positioned Lange as a Best Supporting Actress candidate during the 1982/83 Oscar season, which was a most effective move. Lange not only earned a nomination, she actually won the trophy, setting off a mild controversy. Many skeptics, including Terri Garr, who likewise earned a nomination for her role as Hoffman’s long suffering acting pal–with so-called “benefits”–harrumphed that Lange was actually the film’s female lead rather than a supporting player. The naysayers believed that the studio’s decision was designed to promote Lange without hurting her chances at a nomination for Frances. Another gripe is that giving Lange an Oscar for Tootsie was a way of a ensuring an easy win given the odds against a victory in the match-up with Streep. I call “bullshit” on all the naysayers. First, there is only one star in Tootsie, and that is Dustin Hoffman who plays a man playing a woman, playing yet another woman. It’s a genius creation–and Hoffman well-deserved all the accolades he received for the film, including a Best Actor nomination. Okay, so with Hoffman squarely in the lead, all the other performers play second fiddle. Luckily, Lange brings freshness and a lot of heart to the table. You see, without her, the movie is mostly just Hoffman acting all over the place with a host of obvious comic foils, including Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, and George Gaynes, in rapid pursuit. In contrast, Lange gives the audience a reason to root for Hoffman’s redemption when he finds himself in a corner. This is no small accomplishment. Hoffman is going full-throttle while Lange has to let him do what he does while not appearing to coast herself. The audience has to see in Julie what Hoffman’s character sees. Plus, rather than look at her Oscar for Tootsie as a consolation prize for losing in the Best Actress category, a more enlightened take is to consider that Lange’s ability to play comedy with such ease, and to hold her own so deceptively against a master actor, provides a startling contrast to the high drama of Frances. Talk about range and versatility.
Country (1984) – Fresh from her Oscar triumph, Lange used her newfound clout to produce this hard hitting drama that aims to throw a spotlight on the 1980’s farming crisis as a combination of agribusiness and foreclosures began wiping out family owned farms all across the Midwest, destroying not only a way of life but also tearing families apart in the process. Lange’s film, directed by Richard Pearce and co-starring Sam Shepard (by then, Lange’s s.o), was chosen to open the 1984 New York Film Festival and was generally well received; however, in one of the most astonishing coincidences in movie history, Lange was not the only celebrated actress appearing in a film about the plight of farmers that season. Oscar winners Sally Field and Sissy Spacek were also seen in similarly themed films: Field’s Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton, was filmed in Texas though it was set during the Great Depression rather than modern times; Spacek’s The River (directed by Mark Rydell) paired her with Mel Gibson, who was not yet the superstar that he would become with 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Lange’s and Field’s films featured devastating tornadoes; The River featured, as its title suggests, a devastating flood. Though cynics referred to the films as “The Dust Bowl Trilogy,” each has its champions though bias seems to be the name of the game: Lange’s fans prefer her film, Field’s fans favor hers, etc. Lange gets my vote, for among other things, sheer conviction; nevertheless, all three films are well meaning, well acted, and, well, melodramatic. Incredibly, Field, Lange, and Spacek made Oscar’s final cut. Field won, and not surprisingly: her film is the most obviously sentimental, as well as the least political, and it had the added p.r. boost of being a Best Picture nominee. Even so, in a strange turn that underscores the power and allure of celebrity, all three actresses were invited to testify before congress on behalf of the beleaguered farmers and their families–as though they were not able to speak for themselves, or as if their experiences only had meaning in Washington when filtered through a second-hand prism.Sweet Dreams (1985) – Bernard Schwartz, who produced 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, the award winning bio pic of country music’s legendary Loretta Lynn (starring Sissy Spacek), found a worthy follow-up with this entry, based on the life and death of glamorous country queen, Patsy Cline. The result was a film and a leading performance every bit as smashing it its own way as the earlier entry. Of course, there is one key difference. Whereas Sissy Spacek learned to sing in a way that readily recalled Lynn’s earthy twang, Lange opted to lip-synch to Cline’s recordings rather than try to replicate her amazingly supple delivery. Cline could do it all, everything from rollicking and rowdy to silky and sultry. Hers would be a hard act to follow, or fill, since by all accounts, Lange is notoriously tone-deaf, but there are some interesting points to consider: 1. By using Cline’s original vocals, Lange and the film’s production team were able to reintroduce the late, great singer to a whole new and younger audience (a strategy, which as I recall, resulted in a popular soundtrack). 2. Lange’s performance seems, well, perfectly pitched, if you will, to match the dynamics of Cline’s music, so that even in the non-musical moments, Lange is consistently believable as the woman who always went for the gusto whenever she stood in front of a crowd to sing: zesty, passionate, capable of the giddiest highs and the most heartbreakingly blue lows. 3. Finally, Lange’s performance is brimming with energy. The actress once studied mime in Paris with the late Étienne Decroux, famous as the teacher of mime great Marcel Marceau. What this means is that not only does Lange bring some kind of unexpected spark of body language to each and every scene, she throws her entire being into each and every musical performance as well. Again, Cline’s music is fueling, or informing, Lange’s every move–and the scuttlebutt is that, tone deaf as she is, Lange actually cut loose and sang along with Cline’s recordings during these sequences albeit with a dead-mic. Plus, she modulates her speaking voice to something approximating Cline’s own range, thereby creating suspension of disbelief. The illusion is complete. In many ways, this is probably my all-time favorite Jessica Lange performance. Her Patsy Cline just brims with vitality in a refreshing change of pace from many star vehicles of that mid 1980s era in which women were often portrayed dourly or as victims. Additionally, the flick, directed by the late Karel Reisz, features strong work by Ed Harris as Cline’s handful of a husband, Charley, and an Oscar worthy turn by Texas’s own Ann Wedgeworth as Pasty’s plain spoken mom, Hilda Hensley. The real Hensley, btw, watched Lange film the movie’s concert sequences and voiced her approval to reporters. Dallas acting icon Jerry Haynes appears in a few scenes as influential music producer Owen Bradley.
1985 was a banner year for leading actresses, so much so that People magazine, in anticipation of a hotly contested Oscar race, ran a three page spread of possible contenders–starting with Lange on the cover. Inside, there were snapshot profiles of the likes of Glenn Close (Jagged Edge), Cher (Mask), Norma Aleandro (The Official Story), Mia Farrow (The Purple Rose of Cairo), and Coral Browne (Dreamchild), among many others. Lange snared a nomination in a race that included such heavyweights as Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God), Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple), and Meryl Streep (Out of Africa), but, of course, the Academy was giddy with the prospect of finally paying tribute to the widely respected 8-time nominee Geraldine Page in Texas made indie, The Trip to Bountiful. When Page was declared the winner by F. Murray Abraham, Lange looked relieved.
Crimes of the Heart (1986) – The film version of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer winner about three sisters, orphaned since childhood, gave Lange a chance to share the screen with Oscar winners Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek. Sure, Spacek had a ball in the audience pleasing role of the ditzy youngest sister who shoots her husband and later tries to commit suicide–with comical results. She even earned yet another Oscar nomination. Even so, Lange dives right into the fun as Meg, the trashiest sister with the biggest hard luck story. Meg’s been working hard her whole life to develop a coarse exterior to help her from ever being hurt the way she was hurt as a child, and her appearance, including fried, over-processed hair, raggedy clothing, and fuschia high heels, is all rough edges, but something about it clicks for Lange as she abandons movie-star pretense and goes for broke. Besides Spacek, Dallasite Tess Harper, in the role of the girls’ meddlesome cousin, scored an Oscar nod.
Music Box (1989) – Between Crimes of the Heart and Music Box, Lange not only gave birth to her third child, she made a couple of lesser films: Everybody’s All American, co-starring Dennis Quaid, and Far North, the directorial debut of Sam Shepard which reunited her with former cast mates, Charles Durning, Tess Harper, and Ann Wedgeworth. Per usual, Lange earned good reviews though neither film did much to advance her career. Furthermore, she was quite vocal in her disappointment with director Taylor Hackford’s final cut of the former. Music Box, inspired by the case of suspected war criminal John Demjanjuk (rumoured to be the real-life “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka), marked a return to form as Lange earned yet another Oscar nod. I wrote about this movie earlier in the year–not too long after Demjanjuk died. The Oscar went to the one and only Jessica Tandy in the surprise smash–and Best Picture winner–Driving Miss Daisy.
Men Don’t Leave (1990) – Music Box was a 1989 film that was not released nationally until early 1990, only a matter of weeks before Men Don’t Leave arrived in theatres. Based on the 1981 French film, La Vie Continue, Men Don’t Leave finds Lange portraying a suburban stay-at-home wife and mom, suddenly thrust into widowhood, thereby becoming the sole breadwinner in a family that includes two sons. Lange shines in this beautifully bittersweet film, which is much more humorous than a thumbnail description might suggest, but it is also a lovely ensemble piece peopled with the likes of Kathy Bates (before she leapt to stardom later in the same year with Misery), Joan Cusack, Arliss Howard, Charlie Korsmo, and Chris O’Donnell. This one, director Paul Brickman’s long awaited follow-up to Risky Business, is worth its own blog article, so stay tuned.
Blue Sky (1994) – Lange actually shot this film, the final offering from Oscar winning director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones) in 1990/91, though its release was delayed by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. During the gap, she signed-on for Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear update, co-starring Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis. Lange and De Niro were back together for the 1992 version of Night and the City.
Blue Sky is an odd little film, one with almost too much going on in it as Lange portrays a restless military wife–and mom–during the early 1960s. The movie’s conceit is that this woman’s vibrant –dangerous–sexuality is somehow a metaphor for nuclear power–or maybe nuclear power is a metaphor for female sexuality. Again, this might seem like a bit much for some viewers, but for those so-inclined, it’s a real treat; moreover, I think this is actually one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever seen. There’s no doubt of dysfunction galore in the marriage between Lange’s Carly Marshall and her husband Hank, played with gusto by Tommy Lee Jones. Indeed, these two people love each other though it’s not necessarily always healthy–but what it is, is sexy, adult and fraught with complications. Carly is one unpredictable, glamorous, and flirtatious broad prone to wild mood swings, public stunts and reinventing herself in order to look like silver screen bombshells, such as Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. Hank, in spite of himself, takes great delight in his wife’s exhibitionism, that is, until it threatens his career. I read/saw an interview one time with Lange in which she said something to the effect that Carly was controlled by all of her worst impulses. True, that; however, that’s what I think makes her such a great character. The very qualities that cause Carly to nearly destroy her marriage also prove to be her salvation–hers and her husband’s. Lange’s performance in this film was simply too powerful for the Academy to ignore. She won her only Best Actress Oscar for a film that had once been written-off entirely.
Of course, the cynics carp that awarding Lange an Oscar for a film that had sat on the shelf–or in a vault–for a few years was somehow proof that 1994 was somehow lacking in quality roles for actresses. Not true. There were four other nominees, two of which were in commercially popular features: Winona Ryder (Little Women) and Susan Sarandon (The Client); moreover, there were a number of high profile also-rans, including Judy Davis (The Ref), Mia Farrow (Widows Peak), Whoopi Goldberg (Corrina, Corrina), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), Meg Ryan (When a Man Loves a Woman), and Sigourney Weaver (Death and the Maiden); moreover, if 1994 had really seen such a dearth of strong work by leading actresses, my gut tells me that the folks at Miramax would have taken advantage of the goodwill generated by Dianne Wiest’s scene stealing performance as a theatrical diva in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway by positioning her as a Best Actress candidate; instead, Wiest was–appropriately–relegated to supporting actress status–and won.
Rob Roy (1995) – Shortly after winning her second Oscar, Lange appeared in two spring releases: Losing Isaiah, co-starring Halle Berry, and Rob Roy, opposite Liam Neeson. The latter, a sweeping historical drama based on the life and legend of a Scottish folk hero, was the stronger of the two and gave Lange a chance to demonstrate that she could try on a new accent and excel in costume pictures as well as…well, any other actress. Of course, as wonderful as Lange was in the movie, tbere was almost no chance of her ever being nominated a year after taking home the gold. Besides, Susan Sarandon won that year for Dead Man Walking, and I’m fine with that. That noted, my three favorite leading actress performances that year were given by: 1. Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne), 2. Lange (Rob Roy), and Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale)–none of whom were nominated by the Academy.
Since Rob Roy, Lange’s output has been erratic. She and Michelle Pfeiffer co-produced the big screen adaptation of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (itself an update on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, set, like Country, against the backdrop of Midwestern farm foreclosures), though the movie failed to excite critics and moviegoers the same way that Smiley’s book did–and was much more a showcase for Pfeiffer than Lange in any case; 1998’s Cousin Bette, from the novel by 19th century French novelist Honore de Balzac, was a great, if little seen, showcase for Lange–and another film worthy of its own blog entry; Titus, director Julie Taymor’s psychedelic take on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, followed in 1999–with a cast that also included Anthony Hopkins, Alan Cumming, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. 2003 brought Tim Burton’s Big Fish with Albert Finney, Ewan MacGregor and onetime Texan Billy Crudup; 2005 brought Broken Flowers, a nifty Jim Jarmusch film starring Bill Murray as a man trying to track down information about a grown son he finds about through an anonymous source. Murray’s road trip takes him to the homes of the women who are the likeliest candidates to be the young man’s mother. Lange is only one contender in a cast that also includes Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, and Tilda Swinton. Bonneville cast her as a Mormon widow on a road trip with Joan Allen and Kathy Bates. Lange was seen earlier in this year in the hit The Vow. The long awaited big screen reboot of the TV series The Big Valley, with Lange in the role of matriarch Victoria Barkley, originally made famous by Barbara Stanwyck, is currently in post-production.