A Langeducation: 10 Essential Jessica Lange Scenes

Furious smokers, farm wives, iconic theater roles, women on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and a small truckload of little gold statues. Obviously, we are counting down Jessica Lange’s 10 greatest scenes.

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, a 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.

Honorable mentions:

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. A Thousand Acres (Jocelyn Moorehouse, 1997)
“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.

9. Grey Gardens (Michael Sucsy, 2009)
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.

8. A Streetcar Named Desire (Glenn Jordan, 1995)
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.

7. Music Box (Costa-Gavras, 1989)
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.

6.American Horror Story Season 2: Asylum, “Nor’easter” (John Uppendahl, 2012)
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.

5. Country (Richard Pearce, 1984)
“No sale!”

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.

4. Frances (Graeme Clifford, 1982)
“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 when 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.

3. American Horror Story Season One, “Spooky Little Girl” (John Scott, 2011)
“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.

2. Blue Sky (Tony Richardson, 1994)
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.

1. Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
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.

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