Jessica Lange’s staggering success on television recently with American Horror Story has reinvigorated popular interest in the actress, giving her a chance to go to places she’d never been previously in her career for her largest audience ever. Her instrument has only strengthened through the opportunities Ryan Murphy has given to her as co-conspirator in creating the hit show’s original and exciting female characters. As we will see, Lange’s work last year on Asylum ranks as some of the strongest of her entire career. Given that career includes two Oscars (1982 Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie and 1994 Best Actress for Blue Sky), several Golden Globes, two Emmys and a small truckload of Lifetime achievement, humanitarian and other much-deserved trinkets she’s picked up along the way, that is definitely saying something.
One thing is sure: playing “The Supreme” witch Fiona Goode on this new season of American Horror Story is bound to bring us yet another batch of career highlights. Lange is featured strutting like a peacock in constantly risky and fresh scenes that showcase her in a way she never has been before, with an alchemic blending of fragility and flintiness. Choosing a favorite scene at the end of it all will likely be painful with such delicious moments of hilariously scathing bitchery scattered everywhere throughout the season (“Who’s the baddest witch?”), but her recent bravura, turban-clad monologue that evoked the tuberose-scented noir succubus Norma Desmond so gloriously has my vote right now—but let’s see what this week’s season finale has in store before making any firm decisions.
No matter which scene from Coven cracks the list of bonafide classics Lange scenes we are counting down this week on Statuesque, the show is yet again re-defining Lange as a performer by exploding and exploiting the archetypes she has so iconicized for years in scene after scene. Playing jazz-fusion variations on furious smokers, long-suffering farm wives, iconic theater roles and vaguely Southern women on the edge of a nervous breakdown, Lange has summoned the power to play all of those seemingly discordant notes at once and make them seem seamlessly harmonic. Yet, in a career of talked-about scenes, arguably the one almost everyone talks about the most can be found in Bob Rafaelson’s remake of the gritty noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, which geniusly casts Lange in the role made famous by the dangerously blonde Lana Turner. The heated, prolonged kitchen sex tryst with Jack Nicholson is surely her most infamous scene, but as emotionally-nuanced and physically-challenging as it actually is, it has become more known for it’s realistic carnal heat and the tawdry legend that the erotic elements were not acted (everyone involved has of course refuted that lurid claim).
Perhaps surprisingly, despite being interesting and well played, it’s not one that would make the ranked list of the ten scenes we chose of Lange at full-throttle. Recently Lange said something that struck me, as a life-long fan of her film work, which has not been canonized by younger generations with the emthusiasm of a contemporary like, say, Meryl Streep, arguably until her recently surge in popularity with American Horror Story (though we do hear whispers that the script for her upcoming film The Gambler might have what it takes to vault her back into box office glory). She said she hoped that this attention she is receiving would translate into more people looking at her earlier films, which we could not possibly agree with more here at Statuesque, so we came up with a list geared towards the slightly more inexperienced or casual Jessica Lange fan. Proceed with caution given the exacting skill and depth of even the runners-up.
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991): Leigh Bowden’s plea to Max Cady
Rob Roy (Michael Caton Jones, 1995): The siege on the MacGregor homestead
10 Essential Jessica Lange Scenes
“I was a ninny, I was a simpleton”
Often cast for her brash sensuality and beauty—see: The Postman Always Rings Twice, King Kong, and Tootise where looks play a key part of each character—A Thousand Acres offered the actress a familiar challenge she had mastered previously in films like Country: playing a farm wife, an everywoman. Ginny Cook-Smith, as written by Jane Smiley, personifies homespun sincerity and nostalgic mid-western normalcy. She’s soft, whereas her sister Rose (played by a volcanic Michelle Pfeiffer) is sharp like a thorn. It is a rare treat to find Lange playing someone so oblivious who is then forced to harden up when her bubble-like world opens up violently and all is not what she expected it to be. When we meet Ginny, she is so benign that it infuriates the outspoken, forceful sister Rose. It becomes clear as we get to know this woman, through Lange’s carefully-modulated work, that Ginny has been living a sheltered life and repressing memories for many years; in many ways she has been perfecting a mask she wears to fool everyone, including herself, into thinking things are fine. Lange peels away the layers of the character and shows a woman coming alive in middle age, having awakenings of many different types: intellectual, spiritual, erotic and more.
As her family falls apart in a war over the family farm, Ginny finds her voice, a deep inner strength and resolve that she had not previously been aware of. She takes small steps, but one of the first is to ask her husband Ty (Keith Carradine) for $1,000 to leave home for the first time. Time passes and she is living in the city, in a small apartment and serving up corned beef hash and coffee at a breakfast joint. She is living alone, and has purposefully cut herself off from the family’s venomous clashes. Ty shows up at her restaurant one morning, giving her an update and a seriously ill-timed piece of his mind. “You used to be pretty, and you looked on the good side of things”. Rightfully annoyed, and needing to get back to work to support her new independent lifestyle, Ginny looks her former husband straight in the eye and says ruefully “I was a ninny, a simpleton”. With that delivery, with that haunted, slightly horrified gaze, Lange makes everything about her character click in one breathtaking moment. It’s a subtle, yet dynamically ranging arc to play and she nails it. “Always have to have the last word” snipes a soured, defeated Ty, to which Ginny coolly replies, “You have it, I don’t care.” This is something you would have never imagined Ginny was capable of doing at the beginning of the movie, and you want to stand up and root for her as she chooses and fights for taking her own path amidst a crumbling family empire that ultimately fell to pieces when her salt of the earth goodness stops holding it together.
Big Edie’s Recollection
“You don’t say one day that you’re just going to start playing mothers,” Lange once said, making it somewhat ironic that she would receive some of the greatest reviews of her career for epitomizing one of cinema’s most colorful matriarchs, “Big Edie” in Grey Gardens. Playing up Edith Bouvier Beale’s faded, doomed and destroyed glamour was not unfamiliar territory for the actress. This kind of elegant, modern resistance to conservatism has been a theme Lange has explored within her characters consistently, from Frances Farmer struggling against patriarchal old Hollywood to Carly Marshall’s clashing with the Army. At times, hidden beneath heavy make up and prosthetics, Lange disappears completely, possibly for the first time in her career. The freedoms that this sort of theatrical acting allow an actor are evident in the fearless performance by Lange and her co-star Drew Barrymore, each taking full advantage of this golden opportunity to experiment with accents and vocal dynamics, as well as measured gestural and corporeal components that aided in both their mimicry and also their sheer transformation into these women that time forgot.
In the scene we’ve chosen, Lange brings all of these performance elements together flawlessly, and in this scene proves her mettle as one of the best actresses working. Big Edie, with a glimmer in her eye, recounts her relationship with her husband. It isn’t what the history books, or the film’s flashbacks have told us to be true; it’s Big Edie’s fantasy, and she has invited The Maysles to take part in it. She knows what they want from her: a performance. Big Edie knows it’s her moment, and breathtakingly, so does Lange.
Read more from PopMatters on Lange’s work in Grey Gardens here.