[16 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By Matt Mazur
In discussing her method, or lack or method in her eyes (she never was an Actor’s Studio girl), Lange tried to give the audience a sense of what it is like to really create a character from the inside out. 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.” 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.
For Titus, she had to learn another language: Shakespearean. And on top of that, her co-star would be one of the greatest living British thespians, Sir Anthony Hopkins. “I was intimidated by the language, but reading Shakespeare is a thousand times easier than reading dialogue from a bad writer,” Lange said. “It’s beautiful, organic. It just takes you. It’s like a locomotive.”
She gave props to Hopkins’ being able to recount his final monologue in one take, during the film’s Grand Guignol finale at the dinner table, as Titus murders his guests one by one (“he had already baked my children into pies,” she laughed). She told a hilarious story about Hopkins going around the table to each of his “victims” and subsequently chastising them one by one, still using the script’s dialogue, only performing as a different actor for each take. “He did [Burt] Lancaster. He did [Ralph] Richardson. He did [John] Gielgud. And he came over to me and he said “I’m saving Larry [Olivier] for you!”
At 50, in one of her most experimental roles, as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, Lange showed she was unafraid to use her body as a canvas. “She’s a ravenous character. All of them are. They’re devouring.” She went to some dark corners that would send most other 50 year old actresses running for the exit: she wore alternately outrageous and beautiful costumes (some rather bondage-inspired), she engaged in evil, murderous plotting, her body was covered in tribal tattoos, and she was frequently in some state of blowsy undress - sometimes nude. It was a testament to her bravery in giving her all to the character, even if perhaps, this state of heightened physicality wasn’t her preferred one.
As French director Jean Renoir once commented on the visage of an actor, “their art is stronger than their physical appearance. The spiritual supersedes the material.” Physicality has always been a double-edged sword for Lange. Insdorf remarked that the use of her body and her physical presence in inventive ways has always been a Lange trademark, especially in relation to actresses who came of age in the ‘80s alongside her like Meryl Streep, Sally Field, and Diane Keaton. Of all of the actresses in her age group, Lange has consistently been praised as being the most intuitive. Even still, as she has aged, her work has been consistently dogged by rumors of cosmetic surgery to her face, more so than other actresses in the same age bracket.
For everyone sitting on the edge of their seats, clamoring about to know if Jessica looks like Jocelyn Wildenstein in person, you can all chill out: in person, she looked natural and gorgeous in a slim, tailored jacket and pants, with hot black boots, but she also appeared to be in the best shape of her life. When her 2005 film Broken Flowers (opposite Bill Murray, directed by Jim Jarmusch) was released, Village Voice critic Jessica Winter had this to say on the women of the piece: “At least the somber stillness of his [Murray’s] visage is a matter of choice, which can’t be said for a couple of the female performers here, who don the plastic surgeon’s ghoulish mask of Botox, collagen, eye lifts, and cheekbone implants.”
This has not been the only time Lange’s face has been called into question—it is something critics have been buzzing over for about ten years or so. David Edelstein once snarked about her cameo in the film: “It’s a troubling sequence, made more troubling by the way in which Lange has aged. I’m afraid it has come to this with regard to actresses these days: You think, ‘Nature? Cosmetic surgery? Bad cosmetic surgery?’ Only her plastic surgeon knows for sure. But until we have sexual parity, we’re going to have to grapple with the problem of great actresses whose faces have gone slightly haywire.”
It is incomprehensible that, if indeed this is the route Lange has chosen to go it is insulting that the same industry that demands women over 40 chase this particular dragon of youth should then turn around and demonize, and in some cases, belittle a woman for trying to look her best. The age of women getting surgery today is getting younger and younger—why isn’t anyone talking about how absolutely fucked up it is that another Jessica (Simpson, 27), has seen more work done on her face and body than the perpetually under-construction highways of Michigan? This is much more of a telling red flag that our society is more interested in an accomplished woman of a certain age making a personal choice to enhance her appearance, rather than a young woman mutilating herself to become someone else’s idea of what “beautiful” is.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Lange’s appearance has always been a hot-button topic, perhaps because her critics can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept of how someone so naturally beautiful could be so gifted and remain firmly outside of the conventional Hollywood systems. When she was younger, she had to fight off persistent stereotypes about being too beautiful to be taken seriously after a stint as a model and her deliciously sexy turn in the 1979 remake of King Kong.
In a 1995 interview with Mal Vincent of the Virginian-Pilot she said “At first, I was so worried that no one would take me seriously, I thought I was too pretty. Then, it seems like only a day later, I’m 45 and everyone asks me about aging. Now, there are younger actresses and they’ll get some of the roles I might want. People ask why I don’t get plastic surgery—a little nip or a tuck. I don’t think so, although I’ve thought about it.”
In an interview with Dana Kennedy of Entertainment Weekly, Lange had this to say on the subject: ““In all the interviews I’ve done lately, I always get asked about plastic surgery. I think: ‘Would this same interviewer be asking this question of males in my age group?’ Would they actually say to De Niro, ‘Hey, you’re 50 years old, have you thought of having work done on your face?’ It’s such bullshit. It’s very insulting to assume that every woman as she ages is going to become so anxious about it that she’ll consider it.”
As far as I could see in my research, she has never confirmed or denied anything about actually altering her face, but over the subsequent years, she proved herself to be chameleonic, a woman who was able to transcend her appearance and toss aside vanity like few other performers can, surgery or no.
The Glass Menagerie on Broadway
Now that she is older, and challenging the conventions of what a woman of 58 should look like, she’s having just as many problems. So, in a brilliant move, for the upcoming Grey Gardens, in a grand theatrical tradition, she will be nearly unrecognizable as “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, a distant cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy who resides with her daughter “Little Edie” (played by Drew Barrymore) in a crumbling mansion in the Hamptons.
“Wait until you see this one!” Lange squealed with delight. The project will offer her another opportunity to separate her own identity from her character’s, and for the first time ever, she underwent a daily four-hour transformation via the make-up chair that included putting on a fat suit, a bald cap, a wig, putty, and the whole nine yards. They even sprayed fake “cellulite” onto her arms to get the characters’ body just right. Playing the woman over a span of 40 years offered Lange the chance to play the kind of dynamically-arced part she thought was non-existent. “It’s reassuring there are still these kinds of parts for actresses.”
And she sings for the first time as “Big Edie”! “I’ve never done that before,” she revealed. “I really can’t sing. I have a neurotic thing about singing deep in my psyche.” Fans may try and cite her turn as singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, but Lange said on that film, while she had the sound man turn the volume all the way up so she could synch with Cline’s real voice and nobody would hear her singing along, her real fear was that one day someone would turn the volume all the way down as a practical joke and expose her terrible voice.
Lange’s pet project, an adaptation of Collette’s Cheri has been on again and off again for many years, and the performer acknowledged that it is finally being made—without her! “They needed somebody younger [than me]. It’s proceeding,” she said with a trace of rue and a giggle. “I still feel like I’m probably about 30. I assume that people see you that way, until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and go ‘Whoa!’”. She went on to say that this was a lesson in humility that she learned while walking in the character’s shoes.
When Insdorf asked Lange a question about no longer playing the part of a sexually desired object in adolescent boys’ fantasies, it looked for a brief second like fire was going to shoot out of the actresses eyes, or like maybe she was going to answer as Frances Farmer on a bender.
Her character Ginny Cook-Smith, in the misunderstood A Thousand Acres (which I think is one of Lange’s best performances), famously says to her bitter ex-husband “you have it [the last word]. I don’t care.”
The real-life Jessica Lange, however, isn’t such a wallflower. The actress tossed her long blonde hair around after this question, and with a look of perplexity on her face, coupled with a moment of impeccable comedic timing (a skill that should be utilized more often, casting agents!), she said, after a pregnant pause, “Well, shit!”