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“Haven’t I Got Any Civil Rights?”
Jessica Lange’s furious, bold work in Graeme Glifford’s biopic of the troubled, misunderstood film star from the 1930s, is the stuff of legend. Lange received double Academy Award nominations in 1982, one in the Best Actress category for playing the hell-raising Farmer, and the other was a win for Best Supporting Actress for playing a conflicted, sweet soap opera actress in Tootsie. This was one of those years where the Best Actress Oscar was preordained, everyone in town knew Meryl Streep would be taking home her first Best Actress statuette for playing a concentration camp survivor in Sophie’s Choice. While I won’t bother to get into the nitty gritty of how unjust Streep’s win was (she was much better in subsequent years), I will point out that in nearly every scene of Frances, Lange is able to carefully show each of her character’s many textures and colors as she ages from an idealistic fifteen year old to a blank slate of a woman in her forties, whose life has been sucked out of her after decades of abuse suffered at the hands of doctors, rapists, Hollywood execs and even her own harpy of a mother (Kim Stanley).
While each scene offers Lange a showcase to present her dramatic abilities, the sequence in which she is unforgettable comes about half way through the film. Rocked by booze and pills, Frances’ behavior has become increasingly erratic and wild. As she fights for artistic truth in her banal work, to little avail, Frances becomes increasingly frustrated and increasingly edgy. When she arrives hours late to the set, hung-over and disheveled, a makeup woman sends her over the edge by criticizing her looks. Frances explodes and physically lashes out at the woman who presses charges, in in a bravura scene. Frances, after quitting the picture, goes on an epic bender and is woken up in the middle of the night by the police, who have come to arrest her for battery. After a hysterical Frances is cornered in her bathroom naked and captured by the police, she is taken downtown for incarceration, but instead of fear or animal rage, Lange chooses to play up her character’s hubris, her recklessness and fearlessness. “You boys dragged me down here in the middle of the night and you don’t even know my name?” she spits. “Frances. Elena. Farmer. You want me to spell it?” When they ask her occupation, she offers them a choice answer: “cocksucker”, accompanied by a look that could stop time, daring them to challenge her. At her arraignment, Frances, who has no lawyer, gets the book thrown at her. With unbridled passion, and raw and searing vulnerability, Lange goes from that hubristic place where Frances thinks she is untouchable to the realization that she is about to be thrown in a mental hospital. “You’ve got no fucking right” she screams as the matrons all surround her like vultures about to pick over a carcass. This is the true beginning of Frances’ descent into an unfathomable hell, and Lange plays it in such a rigorously intelligent, instinctual way that, even though she won the Oscar for Tootsie, that she makes it known this is the performance that will catapult her into the ranks of Hollywood’s finest stars.
“He was a man”
Recalling Norma Desmond by way of Blanche Dubois, in this electric scene Lange manages to harness crackling energy to fuse the Sisyphean myth of Hollywood with the grim realities of her character’s broken dreams and quest for youth in one scathing, drunken rant. “I know that dream. I had that dream,” Constance hisses at her dim, young lover Travis. “I was gonna be a big star. And, baby, if it didn’t happen for me, it is not going to happen for you”. Wounded, rejected, her character goes into survival mode, which for Constance means shredding and devouring the young man. Travis’ uncertainty over becoming a parent with Constance, preferring to pursue his dream of being an actor and model, is interpreted by her as a rejection, which provokes her animal instincts (“a lean torso in this town is a dime a dozen, baby”).
As the scene progresses and Constance’s venom increases, Travis takes her bait when she gets in his face and spits out “how could I have ever thought you could be a father? You are not even a man”. He raises a hand to her, which gives Lange a perfect moment to reveal even more about her damaged character. “Don’t you dare! You better be careful. You know why? Because the last man who thought that he could strike me came to a very unpleasant end. And he was a man”. In this scene, Lange’s vocal inflections and the delivery of the theatrical, florid dialogue about the classic Hollywood dream gone unmercifully wrong play on all of her strengths as an actress, particularly illuminating one of her most visited tropes: the relentless ferocity of memory and desperately wanting to move forward despite clinging to the past.
Moving day meltdown
Lange won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing Carly Marshall, a free-spirited, damaged Army wife in Tony Richardson’s final film, which had been shelved for several years before finally getting a theatrical release. Carly, a character so bold she would have been right at home in a Tennessee Williams play, was a high wire act that played to Lange’s many strengths as a performer and smartly referenced her existing fondness for playing dynamic yet fragile women dancing on the edge (previously glimpsed in films such as Crimes of the Heart and Frances). When the film opens, Carly and her family are told by her nuclear scientist husband Hank (Tommy Lee Jones, matching Lange’s fluttery fury with a quiet reserve of dignity and humor) that they are relocating from paradise in Hawaii to Alabama following an incident that involved Carly being spied swimming topless like a nymph in the cool blue Pacific. Carly, who is just as much of an actress as Frances Farmer (and who has just as much of a hair trigger temperament) is at first alright with this move. As the Marshall family drives through their new base, Lange silently reacts to her surroundings as they drive to their new home. The officers’ quarters are opulent, Southern plantation-style dwellings that please her, no doubt recalling her fantasy of how a Southern lady should be living. As they continue to drive, her expression sours as the homes gets dirtier and shabbier and the neighbors get less desirable. Keep a close eye on her facial expressions during this sequence, as Lange’s perfectly modulated physical work gives every signal that Carly is about to have a total meltdown.
As the Marshall family gets out of the car, Carly is visibly shaken, extremely unhappy with what’s been given to them: a mess left by the previous tenants. “What a dump”, she grimaces. When she walks through the front door, Lange shows the viewer exactly what kind of horsepower she is working with, just how hot her actorly engine can rev, as promptly loses it. “They had cats!,” she croaks before launching into an explosive, tumultuous tirade. We find out exactly how damaged this woman is, how dangerously unpredictable she can be and we get the sense that this has happened so many times before. Carly hijacks the family car and causes a commotion by driving recklessly through the base, landing at a fabric store, much to the shock of the women working there. Hank, in hot pursuit after commandeering a jeep, tries to calm his hysterical wife down, but she doesn’t want him to touch her; she’s terrified of the radiation that might be on his hands. Her energy expended, Carly crumbles into Hank’s arms, and though we are painfully aware that his life is mainly spent managing his sick wife, we also see a palpable sense of love and commitment between a damaged, explosive and vivacious woman and her buttoned up husband. Lange’s work as Carly is fascinatingly complex throughout the entire film, but in this sequence, she is otherworldly.
Queen Tamora’s aside to Titus on the palace stairs
In what I consider to be the most dynamic scene of Jessica Lange’s entire career, the actress stuns with a chilling elegance as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, a woman full of venomous hate and war. After being captured by Titus (Anthony Hopkins, whose chemistry with Lange is spectacular), who murders her eldest son in front of the Queen, Tamora must do everything at her disposal to not only stay alive, but to stay alive to exact a brutal, epic revenge on the man who ritually slaughtered her child ruthlessly. Tamora, slippery and calculating, marries Saturninus (a fey Alan Cumming) to gain power and position within his emperorship. Cunning and seductive, Tamora’s almost animalistic single-mindedness to get revenge on Titus is embedded in her every thought. When the two first meet on the palace steps at her Bacchanalian wedding reception is one of the most electric scenes of Lange’s career. Tamora must keep her cards close to her vest, she cannot let on that her sole purpose in life is to murder Titus. Though she sees red when laying eyes on him, Tamora must play the gracious hostess and offer a phony olive branch of false security to Titus and his family to join she and the emperor at the party. Lange must play both grace and evil simultaneously throughout most of the ten-minute scene, but has a shocking aside spoken directly to the camera where she hisses her killer intentions:
“I’ll find a day to massacre them all,
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons,
To whom I sued for my dear son’s life;
And make them know, what ‘t is to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”
And then with a girlish giggle to laugh off one of the most intensely wicked asides ever written, Lange’s power as a performer game for any challenge thrown her way is evident. Her command of each aspect of the performance—gestural, vocal, and corporeal—is astounding, every carefully chosen detail is florid without being gaudy. Lange’s ferocity in embracing Shakespearean language for the first time in her career signals yet again a wildness of spirit when it comes to choosing characters. “I was intimidated by the language, but reading Shakespeare is a thousand times easier than reading dialogue from a bad writer,” Lange once said. “It’s beautiful, organic. It just takes you. It’s like a locomotive.” Tamora was not like anything she had played to date. This queen was a villainess with a soft spot for family, all glistening, tattooed muscles and secrets. Tamora is a deposed queen eking out basic survival by using every advantage that came her way, be it physical, mental or emotional. Everything is a weapon in her hands. Tamora Queen of the Goths remains one of Lange’s most fearless explorations of a dark, damaged woman who has absolutely nothing to lose, and therefore is completely free. I feel as though being able to recall Tamora’s basic tenets has served Lange well as a touchstone for grand characters she would go on to play later, like Constance, Sister Jude and Fiona Goode on American Horror Story; they are all women born from the same dichotomous bloodline: completely ruthless yet utterly vulnerable.
Read more about Jessica Lange’s performance in Titus, which made PopMatters’ original 100 Essential Female Film Performances list.