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Blanche Du Bois Rejected by Mitch
A Streetcar Named Desire‘s damaged belle Blanche Du Bois is Tennessee Williams’ most iconic character. She has been memorably, some would say definitively, played by Vivien Leigh (who won the Oscar for her 1951 performance in Elia Kazan’s film), Jessica Tandy (who originated the character on Broadway), Ann-Margret (on TV in the 1980s), as well, Natasha Richardson, Rosemary Harris, Ari Nicole Parker, Frances McDormand and Patricia Clarkson in various stage productions. Blanche is considered to be—alongside possibly two other of Lange’s key theatrical repertoire, Mary Tyrone of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and another Williams woman Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie—the holy grail of female acting roles. With such kindred spirit characters as Frances Farmer (Frances) and Carly Marshall (Blue Sky) under her belt, Lange’s existing leanings toward high drama, the Deep South, fragility and mental unrest made her a natural choice to take this coveted part when the play was revived for the stage and subsequent television film. Blanche is perhaps the most Langeian of all Lange’s characters. “I must have been crazy or delusional or something,” Lange once said. “To go from Blanche, to Mary (Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), to Amanda (Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie). I’ve been really lucky to play those parts.”
Though the television version is an interesting experiment, the trappings of the then-confining small screen at times stilt the visual and visceral impact Williams had intended for his mis-en-scene. That does not stop Lange from delivering an expectedly strong variation on all of the Blanches who had come before her, particularly in the final act of the play as the character comes undone. The sequence begins when Mitch (John Goodman) romantically rejects and exposes the lies of a drunken ticking time bomb Blanche. “I don’t want realism, I want magic” whelps Blanche when Mitch threatens to turn the lights on to see what she really looks like and how old she actually is. The result is a triumph of acting wherein Lange recounts Blanche’s many indiscretions (“blood-stained pillow slips”, young men and lot of regret) as the character begins to unravel for the final time as the play crashes like a thunderous, foaming wave breaking violently on the shore. Mitch tells her she is not good enough to meet his mother’s standards of decency and purity or to be married. “Get out of here quick, before I start screaming fire”, groans Blanche, as if Lange has not been screaming fire throughout the entire scene to begin with. As the camera fades out as she screams at the top of her lungs, the viewer is left knowing, in no uncertain terms, that Blanche is doomed, but because of this meticulously played scene, they now know why and how she got to that awful place. In fact, Lange’s work makes the outrageous melodrama feel completely authentic, and suggests we should show empathy towards Blanche rather than pity.
Trapping opposing counsel over dinner
Jessica Lange‘s Oscar-nominated performance in Music Box is a study in complexity and restraint. For her quiet storm of a performance in Music Box, her “in” was music. “That character’s sound was a cello. I listened to it all the time,” Lange said a few years ago. She went so far as to bring a cello with her on location—her daughter was conveniently taking it up at the time. The infamous film critic Pauline Kael, upon the film’s release, likened Lange’s work to a cello concerto. After being caught off-guard by opposing counsel, who are accusing her father of being a Nazi war criminal, Lange’s lawyer Ann steels her spine and invites the poor schlep to dinner the night before the trial begins. Firmly in control, Lange’s attitude is deadly. She has discovered this man’s weaknesses, and in this shattering scene, she mercilessly exploits them. First, Ann plays to the man’s alcoholism by offering him “Bull’s Blood”, a Hungarian wine that she says will sneak up on him. As he begins to feel more comfortable with her with each sip, and even starts to relate to her, Lange’s eyes glimmer and she goes in for the kill. She found out that her opponent was involved with a car accident that killed his wife, and she twists the knife into the man’s back by saying that she understands how guilty and awful he must feel since he was the driver on that terrible day. Gobsmacked, the attorney mutters that he was cleared of all charges, but Ann has done what she set out to do: she rankles him to the core, unsettles him to the point that he gets up and leaves abruptly. Lange remains at the table, festive Hungarian music swirling around her, a smirk on her face.
Movie Night Monologue
“The Name Game” might be the American Horror Story: Asylum bombastic scene that stands out but it is actually movie night at Briarcliff that shows Lange working at the top of her game. Passionate, hilarious and emotionally rigorous, Sister Jude, Lange’s version of a sexy nun by way of a hot blonde noir dame, falls off the wagon with a remarkable thud and the actress delivers a stylized, Massachusetts-accented speech that fluctuates between slurry comedy and high, harrowing drama. Miraculously, Lange never veers into camp territory with Sister Jude, and this tricky monologue shows the viewer everything they need to know about the secretive sister. It is a pivotal moment for the character, showing her humor, her carnality and her vulnerability. Until this point, Jude was a Nurse Ratched-type harridan reigning terror all over the residents of the mental institution, often employing caning as her weapon of choice. What Lange does here is something very new, something much more dangerous than she had ever done in her past work. The actresses’ excitement at doing something so daring and so… well… crazy shows in her astounding delivery of Ryan Murphy’s heated, Tennessee Williams-esque dialogue.
Lange lends an expert emotional vivacity to Jewell Ivy, a character that might have been overplayed as a crusader or underplayed as ordinary. Producing the Middle America, farmer’s rights drama herself, Lange strikes a miraculous balance between movie star and everywoman with warmth, openness and humanity. Her undeniable passion for social change and a never-cloying sense of patriotism lend a sense of authenticity that no other actress of Lange’s generation could have brought to this film and it’s milieu. The emotional impact and solidarity the viewer feels with Jewell Ivy and her family is astounding. The way Lange’s empathy is so finely tuned into this woman’s world and the activist chutzpah that is finally scathingly delivered at the end of the film to those destroying the American farmer are nothing short of miraculous.
When a company comes to auction off the Ivy’s belongings, Lange, clutching her baby daughter, surrounded by her community, starts the chant of “no sale!” until it comes to a thunderous crescendo and the auctioneers leave. It proves that grassroots movements can bring about change in their community, and Jewel Ivy is the woman who, by trying to do what’s right to survive, ends up inspiring everyone who knows her story. Lange is a quiet storm in the film up until this cathartic, nothing-left-to-lose explosion of justice and when she finally lets loose, the fury of thousands is evident on her face. Given the somewhat weak competition in the 1984 Best Actress race, it would have made sense for Lange to take home a second Oscar for this woefully-under seen gem that finds the actress in one of her most heartfelt, passionate and smart moments of acting.