On a family movie trip one casual afternoon in 1983, upon exiting whatever unmemorable, child-oriented confection my parents had subjected me to, I was confronted with the larger than life poster for Jessica Lange’s film Frances, in which she plays the outspoken, misunderstood, and abused Golden Age Hollywood hellion Frances Farmer (who, in real life, would end up in and out of mental institutions, be subjected to gang rapes while incarcerated, and, to top it off, Farmer received an eventual lobotomy for her troubles). I was immediately struck by the ghostly look the actress had plastered on her face and knew that something positively horrible would be happening to her in the movie, even something unjust. There seemed to be a turbulent secret hiding behind Lange’s haunted expression that I could somehow identify with, and every week or so, when I went back to the theater, I would stand and stare at the Frances poster for as long as I could.
I made it my life’s mission, right then and there, to see every film starring Jessica Lange. I was eight years old.
Fast forward twenty-three years later and I still can’t miss a Lange performance. My childhood infatuation blossomed into a reverential appreciation for the art of creating characters, and I fully credit Ms. Lange with sparking my life-long passion for film and performance. Some critics argue that she is always playing the same role: neurotic, chain-smoking, put upon farm wife with a penchant for carnality, or some variation on this type, but for my money, Lange is arguably the finest living actress of our time. She will always remind me of the happy times in my childhood and discovering what ingredients make for a great performance. Her courageous work, both in film and in her private life as an activist for the rights of children around the world, gave me a fundamental appreciation for the possibilities of actresses that I continue to obsess over today, and set an unusually high standard of quality with which I measure every performer.
It would be a couple of years following that experience with the Frances poster before my family could afford a VCR, so I had to remain content with occasional trips to the movies to see that poster and fantasize what the film might be like. When our family was finally able to catch up to the technological boom, my first Lange experience finally happened: Crimes of the Heart was on pay-per-view, and since it was not rated R, I got to watch it. Of course, anyone who has seen this adaptation of Beth Henley’s rather stagy play about three oddball southern sisters (co-starring Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek) will tell you it isn’t Lange’s best performance. It didn’t make a damn bit of difference to me; I thought she was reinventing the wheel. At that point I’d really begun to develop a hunger for watching actors interact, and I was positively entranced watching three actresses who, at the time, were among the most talented and powerful in the industry.
About two years later, at the age of twelve, it was time (finally!) for my much-anticipated date with Frances. I had read everything I could about the performance and the film. I think I may have actually hyperventilated before putting the tape in the VCR. I had heard the mythical stories of Lange holed up in New Mexico with co-star and legendary method acting pioneer Kim Stanley (who herself turned in a bravura, Oscar-nominated performance in the film as Frances’ eccentric mother, and in her time was called “the female Brando”), doing acting exercises for days at a time. Lange was furiously preparing for what she had the foresight to realize was going to be the performance that would either make or break her.
In the film, Lange is nothing short of magnificent. Frances was a film that redefined her image from serious bimbo-model to serious thespian. Playing an actress that would have been called “quirky” rather than “crazy” had she been alive today, Lange uses every muscle in her body, every desperate gesture, to convey Farmer’s inner turmoil. She oscillates between moments of tender calm and hurricane-force rage with equal aplomb. Parallels between Lange and Farmer are evident: both were outspoken politically, both were typecast as the hot blonde, and both had to struggle to be taken seriously. This performance had a massive impact on me, as I had no idea performers were able to so easily dissolve into their characters: I believed Lange was channeling Farmer in some other-worldly way. The mix of hurt, frustration, and fury that the actress manages to display when it is explained to her in the film that she doesn’t have proper insight into her own mind is unforgettable. It is a consistently surprising, sexy, and natural performance that the lightweight girls of film today need to go to as an essential reference. An actress playing an actress is always in danger of going too far, but Lange nails this role. I have since seen Frances many, many times, and each viewing brings a new layer or nuance to the last.
Stanley offered her one choice bit of advice after the intense shoot was finished: do a comedy. So, in between starting up a relationship with Frances co-star Sam Shepard (her partner to this day), and raising her young daughter (fathered by Mikhail Baryshnikov), Lange punched in for work on one of her few big box office successes, Tootsie, a comedy/drama about gender co-starring Dustin Hoffman. She went on to win the Academy Award for the film, playing a soap opera actress who falls in love with Hoffman’s leading lady. For Lange, the role was a perfect fit: she was a new single mother herself, searching for respect in the acting arena. In the film she is sexy, modern, and light. She became the first woman to be doubly nominated since 1942 when her name was announced as a contender for Frances in the leading category and Tootsie in the supporting race. Many said that her statuette for Tootsie was really a consolation prize for losing the big prize that night.
The next Lange film I caught blew my young mind. Sweet Dreams, for me, demonstrated the ability of an actor to adapt their own personality for a role while still completely disappearing into their character. In the film, Lange plays Patsy Cline, a role that cemented her competency as a chameleonic actress and brought her a fourth Oscar nomination in three years (in all, Lange has racked up six Oscar nominations and two wins: Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie and Best Actress for 1994’s Blue Sky). Rumor has it, Meryl Streep (who, coincidentally, was the actress who beat out Lange for the 1982 Best Actress Oscar) desperately wanted the iconic role of Cline, but was turned down by the director in favor of Lange, quite an accomplishment given that only five years prior she was an industry joke after appearing in the disastrous 1979 remake of King Kong and Streep was already well on her way to becoming her generation’s Katharine Hepburn. If anything, the two actors are contemporaries in spirit only: Lange has turned out to be the Anti-Streep. Eschewing the highly-mannered, technically perfect style of acting usually employed by Streep, Lange continued to create organic, relatable women on screen, warts and all. Why can the American public only have one great actress of a certain age per generation working at one time? Certainly, Streep can’t play every great part for middle-aged women, but sometimes it really seems that way. And unlike Streep, Lange has continued to work mainly, with moderate success, outside of mainstream Hollywood, preferring to remain out of the glare of the spotlight, working only once a year, and enjoying her primary role of mother.
During the early 1990s, Lange and Shepard moved their family to Minnesota and her career ambitions began to cool, despite turning in one of her most memorable characters in a film that was largely unseen (Men Don’t Leave), and appearing in the biggest money maker of her career (the Martin Scorsese-directed version of Cape Fear). In this phase of her career, Lange began to play largely “mother” roles, albeit interesting, thoughtful ones. Even her tour de force, award-winning, emotionally unstable army wife in Blue Sky was a variation on this theme, although it provided the actress with one of her most revealing, daring characters since Frances. What Lange does with this bizarre character is a marvel to watch: she gives a particular humanity to an essentially unlikable woman, who is also a poor excuse for a mother and wife.
While Lange does occasionally find her way into some incredibly mediocre films, she somehow she always manages to turn in stunning characterizations, despite the less than artistic surroundings. Take, for example, the 1997 box office stink-fest A Thousand Acres, an adaptation of Jane Smiley’s renowned re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lange plays another farm wife, but this time re-invents the character as someone truly naïve, subtracting her own fierce intelligence from the equation, and imbuing Ginny Cook-Smith with basic common sense. It is a revelatory performance that succeeds as a result of the actress’s lack of vanity and inhibition to dumb down considerably. Her character’s arc is dynamic, and Lange, with loving attention to detail, modulates Ginny’s very gradual empowerment with a virtuoso-like expertise. When you hear her speak the words “I was a ninny, a simpleton” after leaving everything she had known to find herself, it is clear that Lange was able to balance the bitterness, the pain and the relief that dictate the character. This is a moving, full performance that unfortunately falls prey to the film’s weak script and even weaker direction. Not even the allure of co-star Michelle Pfeiffer (who at the time was coming off a series of sterling critical and box office successes) could draw an audience.
Regularly playing mothers and farm wives has somewhat pigeonholed Lange into a certain category, but the role of Queen Tamora of Titus reminds viewers of the diversity of her talents. It’s interesting to note that Lange had never performed Shakespeare prior to Titus, and she has said that she never had the “actor’s urge” to do it. She proved to a younger generation of actresses that you can act sexy without being a total whore, and she turned in an image-altering, bravura performance for director Julie Taymor in this time-spanning adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays. Lange gave this lesson on sensuality and fearlessness while celebrating her fiftieth birthday, a time when most actresses are putting on extra layers rather than shedding them. Lange again used her body, her lack of vanity, and her sexuality in a cunning, calculated way, different from the days of playing ingénues and starlets. Queen Tamora’s sexuality was natural, raw, and unconscious. One of her best scenes of the film is the pleading for her son’s life with the unwavering Titus (played with polish and wit by Sir Anthony Hopkins). She brings full-out desperation to the scene in a way only Jessica Lange can. You can see something inside her snap, and this is an act that will forever change her. Lange’s scenes opposite a classically-trained Shakespearean like Hopkins are electric, and witnessing their chemistry is a delicacy for audiences. The scenes where she and her sons terrorize Titus’s children are played with a villainous glee that Lange clearly relished the chance to explore. Amidst the chaos of the film, Lange’s villainess is the cast stand out.
While Lange has a few more lines on her face than we she played Frances, her acting in Titus was equally as primal. Around this time, Lange was also beginning to be unfairly dogged by what I can only imagine are obligatory rumors of plastic surgery. She has been criticized with a maddening utter nastiness by detractors in major print articles for altering her face. In an industry where appearance is valued over talent, and where most actresses get their first facelift somewhere south of forty, it mystifies me that anyone who writes about entertainment would actually be brave (or self-righteous) enough to say that facelifts are bad for an actress. In a climate where every other commercial on television is for Botox or some other random fountain of youth chemical facial peel, is it really a surprise when an actress actually tries to look younger? It’s definitely a frustrating “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Plastic surgery or no, Lange actually looks her age, not at all like the Frankenstein monsters many women before her have become in their mid-fifties, trying desperately to look like the dewy-eyed starlets in their twenties. While her model good looks at one point severely handicapped Lange and the public’s perception of her, with age she has become less and less interested in self-importance, which has only added to her breezy sexiness and her ability to disappear into roles.
Her disappointment with a string of films that began in 1996 led Lange to make work decisions based solely on the director or subject matter. Since this declaration to work only when the proper material is secured, Lange has been sadly absent in film, the leading roles that brought her acclaim no longer as plentiful (her only true leading performance since 1998 was in the 2003 HBO film Normal, about a woman delicately dealing with her husband coming out as a transsexual). Since the late 1990’s, Lange has switched back and forth from filming meaningful cameos with big directors (Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking) and tackling some of theater’s most classic female roles (Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night are among her triumphs). She went back to work with a vengeance last year when the last child to leave the nest went off to school. In addition to her worldwide campaign for the rights of children (a quest that has taken her recently to Mexico, Africa, and Russia), she is currently filming a version of the brilliant documentary Grey Gardens, in which she plays a wildly eccentric distant cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, and putting the finishing touches on a television movie remake of the multiple personality drama Sybil, playing the role of the psychiatrist, made famous by Joanne Woodward. In the fall, she will be seen opposite two more of film’s great underrated, under-utilized actresses: Joan Allen and Kathy Bates in the road trip movie Bonneville. In addition to her film roles, Lange has just signed onto a London revival of The Cherry Orchard.
Hopefully, these more juicy parts will lead to a richly deserved mid-life career renaissance for Jessica Lange. She deserves more than just simplified cameos. She deserves more than development hell, proving that it takes more than two Oscars and ample skill to get your films made. Several of her pet projects, like Julian Schnabel’s The Lonely Doll, with Naomi Watts, screenwriter Robin Swicord’s directorial debut The Mermaids Singing, and the once-promising period drama Cheri, which was set to co-star Hayden Christiansen and Judi Dench at one point, remain in limbo. Neverwas, which premiered last year in Toronto, still has yet to find a distributor despite some good notices.
No matter what direction Lange’s new choices will take her in, I will be the first in line at the theater or video store, rabidly uncovering the intricacies of every new performance she offers me. If need be, I will even buy the Japanese import from a shady seller on eBay for a ridiculously high price, or stoop to buying VHS (that really is scraping the bottom of the barrel, isn’t it?). My point is: I haven’t missed a single Lange performance since my revelation in front of the Frances poster at Winchester Mall in Rochester, Michigan, 23 years ago, and I don’t intend to. To realize this oath I swore as a boy, I have traveled for more than four hours round-trip through the most dangerous road conditions, and at times have been the only person in the theater watching the film. No one has been brave or crazy enough to try and stop me yet, and if they know what’s good for them, they’ll just join me in a hearty round of loving the Lange.