Object Becoming Subject, or, Is It a Crime to Look at Lange? – Part One

by Matt Mazur

Jessica Lange in Bonneville

“She’s like a delicate fawn crossed with a Buick”

— Jack Nicholson on Jessica Lange

Spending the night with Jessica Lange is a rare and lovely thing. She is an enigmatic icon who guards her privacy with the same fierceness with which she approached her most famous acting roles. We can safely say Lange has been given the shaft by Hollywood, like most actresses of her age. Lange has been relegated, essentially, to cameos in films by directors like Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders.

And now, the actress is about to come back in a big way with a role she calls “huge”, nicely balanced by subtle, nuanced work in an indie feature. But where exactly did she go?

On the final night of the 92nd Street Y’s excellent 2007-08 film/lecture series, Reel Pieces in New York City (which has, of late, included whip-smart guests like Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day Lewis, and Laura Linney), Lange roared back about the state of women in film, her body of work, and her next project, an adaptation of the Maysles’ brothers’ elegiac documentary Grey Gardens.

Striking and commanding at age 58, the dramatic powder keg who gave us, among other expert creations, Frances Farmer (in Frances), Tamora Queen of the Goths (Titus), and the sex-a-holic Carly Marshall (in 94’s Blue Sky, which won her the Best Actress Oscar), is poised for a special kind of return with several promising projects in development and/or in the can, this despite the fact that she never really went too far away in the first place.

After she won her second Oscar in early 1995 (her first was for Supporting Actress in 1982’s Tootsie), Lange, like many actresses in her age group, began appearing less and less on the big screen. According to the actress and activist, she was just not being offered the kinds of roles that would inspire her to leave her home and her family. She wasn’t being offered anything of substance at all, really. In a sharp contrast to say, France, where legends like Catherine Deneuve are working consistently (with success) into their golden years, the landscape of American film seems to be devoid of interesting women over 50.

To combat this, Lange is gearing up for battle by putting on layers of prosthetic putty and theatrical make-up as armor for her next film, and challenging the stereotypes of how audiences expect a woman of nearly 60 to act and look in both Grey Gardens, and to a lesser degree her newest offering, the female buddy picture Bonneville, in which she appears onscreen as a new brand of woman over 50 — sensual, at ease, and soft.

The normally reclusive and shy star appeared onstage following the American premiere of her newest film Bonneville (co-starring Joan Allen and Kathy Bates), relaxed and engaging, opposite moderator Dr. Annette Insdorf (Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University) for an open, honest chat about her technique, the power of rehearsal, and her inspirations. Insdorf cannily captured a side of the performer that is normally closed to the public, eschewing the discussion of almost perfunctory Lange myths, instead drawing out delicious anecdotes about the actresses’ craft that had remained hitherto hidden.

Insdorf, following the screening of Bonneville, asked Lange about working with first time writers and directors, something the performer isn’t afraid of. “I had a safety net”, said Lange, referring to co-stars Allen and Bates. “There was a genuine affection that kind of rises to the top in the story”. She acknowledged being shocked at seeing a script that included three plum roles for women over 50. “Wow! That was beyond our reality in a way, and it was worth investigating.” Lange pointed to 2007’s most acclaimed films — Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men, and stated the obvious – “There aren’t a lot of big Hollywood films that come my way, there never were. That well has dried up pretty much,” she chuckled. “There are a few, small, decent roles for women.”

Influenced by Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, the music of The Band, and studying Buddhism, the Lange on display in Bonneville is not like the damaged, overtly sensual sirens audiences have come to expect from the actress. In the film she plays Arvilla, an Idaho native whose older husband has suddenly died. She enlists the help of her two girlfriends to drive his ashes back to his daughter in California. It’s the first time in a while that the actress has turned her fury inward producing some of her most introspective work. Bonneville is very much an indie-spirited road movie (Lange said that her favorites of the genre include Five Easy Pieces and Badlands), but its nature is light, and it is buoyed by three veteran women’s chemistry.

As unusual as it actually is to see three women over 50 carrying a film, it has become even more unusual to find Lange in a leading role. “You don’t say one day that you’re just going to start playing mothers,” she said, indicating that she had been pigeonholed into a certain niche. Between 1999 and 2006, Lange appeared primarily in supporting roles, and according to her, this was all she was getting offered because of her commitment to her most treasured role as a family woman. She said that when her kids were younger, they would gamely go on location like “gypsies” with their dogs and their stuff and have fun. As her family grew older, and the children started to have lives of their own, Lange found it more interesting to not take work. “”Its amazing being an actor,” Lange cooed. “[But] I didn’t want to leave my house.”

Instead, she headed, like many astute women her age, for television, and the stage, two safe havens in the American pop culture landscape that offer women over 50 a respite.

“I must have been crazy or delusional or something,” Lange said. “To go from Blanche (Dubois, in the New York and London productions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), 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. Mary Tyrone is bar none the greatest female character in the English language. She’s bottomless. She’s a joy to play. I want to get back to play her again.”

Lange has not ever been afraid to criticize her own work. When Insdorf brought up one of her little-seen roles, in 2001’s Prozac Nation as a recent highlight, Lange seemed shocked. “Really?! I’ve never seen it.”

Jessica Lange in Normal

Her role in the underrated Normal, in which she plays Irma, the small town wife of a transsexual, almost didn’t happen in the first place — she initially didn’t want to take the part because she was hesitant that the film’s subject matter wouldn’t be translated with the proper dignity. She said that when she learned her co-star would be Tom Wilkinson, she was willing to give it a shot.

Lange felt like the character’s face should begin as very “tight” and slowly become softer and softer, until she was “radiant” and filled with light by the end, as she gave her husband, who has just undergone gender reassignment surgery, a strand of pearls as a gesture of love and acceptance. This was the point in her life where she began studying Buddhism, and the principles of unconditional love, and said this immeasurably helped her in this difficult performance.

Despite being one of her most singular characters, this perfectionist still feels that the finished product could have been even better. “It feels like the ball was dropped”. She credited HBO (producers of Normal and Grey Gardens) with being the premiere place for women over 50 to find these kinds of interesting, multi-dimensional roles — the kind that she prefers to watch on her own time.

My stock question, to let you all in on one of my little secrets, lately, has been “what are your favorite female performances?” When I have asked this question in the past to film fans, directors, and other actors, almost instinctually, many automatically respond: “Jessica Lange in Frances“. When I was offered this potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend this event, I became determined to ask Lange, too, this very question during Reel Pieces.

The format of the lecture that followed the Bonneville screening allowed only for questions written on index cards and fielded by the moderator — no mere mortal would address Lange directly. Somehow, my question was one of three audience questions Lange responded to. And I immediately was afraid she wouldn’t answer the question at all after the incident earlier in the evening, when someone asked “who are your heroes?” (for one of the three questions). This provoked her response: “I hate those questions! I should be prepared for these kinds of questions!” She then buried her face in exasperation until she came up with the Dalai Lama.

Almost immediately, caught off guard, she cited Vivien Leigh’s work in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire as one of her all-time favorites. “She was really out of this world. What she did was brilliant.” She went on to cite both Katharine Hepburn’s later work (notably in On Golden Pond — she loved the realistic details of the relationship between Hepburn and co-star Henry Fonda), and Myrna Loy. “She was always perfect. I’ve been watching a lot of movies from the ’30s, preparing for Grey Gardens. Those babes, they were great. They were all great.”

What we have in Bonneville is Lange at a crossroads emotionally and physically, joining the pantheon of women she admires, much like Hepburn and Loy did. Women of their generation enjoyed working well into their older years, in a variety of roles, light and heavy. She plays her age, and her experience shows through. As Arvilla, she comes across as more warm, vulnerable, and vibrantly sexy than ever (but more on that later…). It’s a vanity-free, relaxed portrayal that finds her in a place where the tastes of a fickle ticket-buying public are changing as quickly as the technology of filmmaking.

“There is a disconnect between the actor and the director,” she offered, citing her work with directors Costa-Gavras (Music Box, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Karel Reisz (Sweet Dreams, and Tony Richardson (of Blue Sky, whom she called “a great, exotic bird”). “You could really feel his energy. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is a separation. Nothing went past him. That, to me, is an actor’s director. There is an art to film directing and directing an actor that, in a lot of cases, falls by the wayside. Not one of these directors ever sat behind a monitor, nothing went past them.”

Stay tuned for Part Two on Thursday.