Maybe it’s her Minnesota prairie roots, or her restless, globe-trekking college years coming home to roost. But Jessica Lange, a two-time Oscar winner, considered herself incomplete, somehow, for this one shortcoming on her film resume.
“I’d always wanted to do a road movie,” she says from her New York home. “I’d never done a buddy movie, never done a road picture either.”
“Bonneville” was the movie that came from that longing, a little indie road dramedy co-starring Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, a film that Lange knocked off in between long runs of the play “The Glass Menagerie” in New York and London.
“The idea of working with Joan and Kathy and doing what you guys call `a buddy movie,’ on the road no less, was hard to resist,” says Lange, 58. “And if you ask me what my favorite road movies were, I’d know right off the top of my head. `Badlands.’ `Five Easy Pieces.’ `Bonnie & Clyde.’ When it works, it’s a great genre of American film.”
“Bonneville” put Lange, playing a newly widowed character named Arvilla, on the “blue highways” of the far west in an ancient Pontiac convertible on a quest to deliver the ashes of her late husband to the testy members of his “first” family. It’s a wistful, playful and yet melancholy trip Arvilla makes with two old pals, the brassy Margene (Kathy Bates, of course) and the timid, conservative and unintentionally hilarious Carol (Joan Allen). The car is a Bonneville, and one of the many vistas they take in on their trek is the salt flat that gave the car its name - Bonneville.
“The great thing was, we were actually going to shoot in the areas described in the script,” Lange says. “We weren’t going to be up in Canada pretending we were traveling to these remote corners of America. I loved southern Utah, that whole area south of Salt Lake City.
“Lake Powell I found hauntingly inappropriate. I mean, it’s a lake in the middle of this desert canyon! They took those holy ancient Indian lands and flooded them for recreation. You get that sense, when you’re there, that there’s this haunted unease about the place. I felt it.
“But that’s what I love about making movies. You investigate places that you would never otherwise visit. Never in a million years would I go spend a week or two in Lake Powell!”
She might, though, if she found a role she could chew on. The critic David Thomson has gushed that it was her “ability and authority” coupled with the “wild-eyed, untidy manner of a young hitchhiker” that put Lange in the pantheon of Hollywood’s great actresses in the 1980s. It’s been a willingness to search for the difficult corners of any character’s psyche that distinguished Lange’s work, from the light (“Tootsie,” 1982, “Big Fish,” 2003) to the dark (“Frances,” 1982, “Music Box,” 1989).
For “Bonneville,” it wasn’t just sharing a big “Detroit land yacht” and sight-seeing with two great actresses that grabbed her. It was Arvilla’s grief that drew her in.
“I’ve played different manifestations of (grief) in other films, but I was very taken with Joan Didion’s book, `The Year of Magical Thinking,’ which I read in galleys about the time I got offered this film,” she says. “It became an interesting prospect to really investigate that side of a character. There’s this thing in Didion’s book about how grief comes over you in waves. I’ve lost people, not a partner, but people I was close to. I’ve seen that. She’s right.
“Her book starts by saying how life changes in an instant when you lose someone. If you take that as your starting point, then it allows you really interesting areas to delve into.
“I have to say, Joan’s book was like a blueprint for me. I drew a lot on it. Sometimes I’m inspired by a piece of music. Sometimes it’s a piece of literature that isn’t directly related to this character or the story we’re trying to tell. It can be something as abstract as art work, or a gesture or behavior that I’ve seen someone use that helps me configure a performance.”
She didn’t need that sort of outside help when she tackled her next role, the theatrical, crazed and oh-so-eccentric mother, “Big Edith,” to Drew Barrymore’s daughter, “Little Edith,” in the feature film version of a story told first in a famous documentary. “Grey Gardens” is about some of the poorer and more eccentric relations of Jackie Kennedy.
“That was a real departure for me, playing a character who ages from 39 to 79, who sings, who dances,” Lange says of the HBO film, due out this fall. “It pushed me to work in a way I haven’t in a very long time. These ladies, this mother and daughter, they were out there.”
Fitting enough, remembering Lange’s Blanche Dubois or Frances Farmer. But it’s nice to see that at 58, the onetime sex symbol and still regal movie star can still do playful and “wild-eyed” and dangerous, even behind the wheel of a very comfy car taking one last road trip.
Arvilla, she says, “is trying to recapture something she’s lost. She can’t. It’s gone. So she moves on.”
Take that road-picture metaphor as a life lesson, the actress says. You can want to be who you were, but it’s better if you “accept who you are now.”