WOMEN IN FILM : JESSICA LANGE
I will be starting a monthly column dedicated to women in film. In this column I will select an actress to showcase eachy month. I hope to give a brief biography and include a breakdown of their career. The desired effect – to highlight an actress to all of you and hopefully point out some films that should be seen starring these wonderful women. I will choose from a wide variety of actresses, and if you would like me to highlight one of your favorites please let me know. For the first column, I have chosen my favorite actress of all time: Jessica Lange. Ms. Lange has won 2 Oscars (along with 4 other nominations), 4 Golden Globes (and 7 more nominations), and numerous other awards for her work in film, television, and theatre. As Jessica’s career is seeing an immense resurgence (with her fantastic work in last years Grey Gardens on HBO and her stunningly creepy work on FX’s American Horror Story) I would like to celebrate her life and career thus far.
Jessica Phyllis Lange was born April 20, 1949. In her younger life she devoted herself to studying art and received a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan and study visual art. She then was accepted into the Guthrie Theatre School in Minnesota. While in attendance she recieved the Anton Chekhov Fine Arts Award, which was only awarded to 1 actor per year nationally. Before finishing her degree she decided to move to Paris and continue pursuing a career in acting. In Paris she found modest success as a model, and was signed to the most famous modeling agency of the time Wilhemina Models. After booking many modeling gigs in the US she uprooted and went to New York where she continued to model. Once in New York, Lange attracted the attention of filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis who cast the unkown Lange as the lead in is big budget remake of King Kong in 1976. Lange beat out the already established Barbara Streisand for the role, as well as Bo Derek. Her screen test consisted of three short scenes, one in which she was to throw a fit and hit the giant ape in the nose. She swung at a pillow hanging from the ceiling. On set of the film rumors of a romance between Lange and Jeff Bridges circled, although both deny the affair. Lange was thrown into a leading role in a big budget film and admits being very uncomfortable on set.
The response to King Kong was tepid at best. If there was anything good to be talked about in any of the films reviews, it is Jessica Lange in her screen debut. “Lange’s as memorable as she is mesmerizing!” “In the end, the best special effect is actually that of Jessica Lange who makes a stunning debut here.” She even won a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Debut Performance and the film was a monetary success. Jessica however left the film with not many fond memories and was very upset by the final product and its overall negative reception. She then left film for three years.
Her return to film was a small but showy performance in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Lange is credited as Angelique, however she represents the Angel of Death in the film. With limited screen time, she steals every scene she appears in. It was also this time when Lange met famous russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov with whom she was married. The union produced her first child – Aleksandra. The marriage however was short lived. Lange then starred in How to Beat the High Co$t of Living, a silly comedy co-starring Jane Curtain and Susan Saint James. Besides the film being Jessica’s first foray into comedy, and it being Curtain’s film debut, it is rather forgettable.
After these 3 films, Lange began a string of films which she is known for. The year was 1981 and Jessica had her heart set on the role of Cora in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Jack Nicholson, who was already on the fast track to super stardom, was cast as the lead. The auditions for the role of Cora drew out for a long time. However director Rob Rafelson has his mind made up with Jessica Lange. On the first day of auditions he wrote on a slip of paper the name of the actress he knew he wanted to cast in the role. He sealed the name in an envelope and handed it to the casting director. Then he would see auditions from Meryl Streep, Lindsay Crouse, Raquel Welch, among others. After Lange was chosen and cast, director Rafelson gave Lange the sealed envelope with her name in it, so she would know she was his choice all along.
The story of Postman is that of Frank Chambers (Nicholson) a wild drifter who stops by a local diner run by Cora Smith (Lange) and her much older husband Nick. Frank and Cora begin an affair from the start and plot to murder Cora’s husband so the two can be together forever. The film is arguably the start of the 1980’s sexual adult thrillers which would go on to include titles such as Fatal Attraction. Here Lange is front and center, alongside a powerful costar, with challenging material. Lange’s preparation for the role of Cora is well documented. She worked on the role heavily before filming began, deciding to base the character of B-movie actress Barbara Payton. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lange explained that she saw Cora as a failed actress who had moved to Hollywood and dealt with rejection after rejection. The fact that she now worked in a diner was even more humiliating. Costar Jack Nicholson gifted Lange with Payton’s autobiography “I Am Not Ashamed” which she carried with her on set at all times. The film also features Lange’s first sex scene. The scene was so steamy that controversy arose as audiences believed that the sex was real and not simulated. It remains today one of the rawest and sexual scenes in film history if you ask me. The film did make a great deal of money, based on the buzz surrounding its strong sexuality. However, the critics met the film with general poor response. Again, as with King Kong, the standout was Lange. Stepping into a role once played by Lana Turner, among others, Lange really makes it her own. I think this film holds up well over time, perhaps better than it played upon first release. Lange and Nicholson are stunning together. Read any review of this film and you will see the praises for Lange. It was this film which lead to her next two roles in 1982 which prove to be two of her best.
Director Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie is still regarded as one of the best comedies ever made. The story follows Michael Dorsey (played by Dustin Hoffman at his comedic best) an out of work actor who makes it big by creating a drag persona Dorothy Michaels in order to get work. As Dorothy he is cast on a popular soap opera starring opposite the charming and beautiful Julie Nichols (Lange). Michael falls in love with Julie and the comedy begins. She see’s Dorothy as an older sister and he sees her as a potential lover. Jessica Lange is pitch perfect in Tootsie. Her comedic timing is hysterical and the movie also provides her with many dramatic scenes as she is faced with Michael’s duplicity. Lange, along with Meryl Streep (who had just starred with Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer) both helped coach Hoffman create Dorothy’s voice. The two gave Hoffman a copy of Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire and would coach him on how to make his voice more ladylike. Lange also worked alongside Any Warhol’s transvestite superstar Holly Woodlawn, to create Dorothy’s movements. The set was known as being a happy one which encouraged the actors to improvise and play off of one another. The scene where Lange goes to grab the telephone and accidentally grabs a corn cob, was an accident. Because Lange never missed a beat and went on with the scene – it was left in. I dare you to watch the film and not fall in love with Jessica Lange. There have been many gorgeous faces onscreen before, but Lange is something completely different. She is all at once the girl next door and the drop dead gorgeous model type. Tootsie won Jessica Lange many awards. She picked up a second Golden Globe, this time for best supporting actress. She also won over 10 critics awards. For Tootsie Jessica received her first of many Oscar nominations. She went on to win her first Oscar for Tootsie, best supporting actress. On that same night Jessica was also nominated for Best Actress for another film, becoming 1 of only 10 actors to be nominated twice in the same year (the other actors include: Sigourney Weaver, Al Pachino, Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Barry Fitzgerald, Holly Hunter, Jamie Foxx, Fay Bainter, Teresa Wright, and Julianne Moore).
The night of her dual nominations, she was also nominated for her work as Frances Farmer in the film Frances. Picking a favorite Jessica Lange performance is tough for me, but many consider this to be her finest work (and I think I agree). It is highly known that Lange fought extremely hard for the role of famed actress and activist Frances Farmer. Her competition for the role included some of the biggest names of the time: Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Liza Minnelli, Mia Farrow, and Susan Sarandon. The film follows the rise of Frances Farmer to Hollywood royalty and then her dramatic demise as she is blacklisted. Refusing to conform to Hollywood’s standards, Farmer was reduced to the status of an “insane crazy woman” and spent the remainder of her life locked away in rehab facilities and finally an asylum for the criminally insane where she suffered a lobotomy. The transformation that Lange makes in this movie is stunning. It is easily one of the best female performances ever captured in the medium of film. I highly recommend that you see it, if you have not. Lange worked closely with Lois Kibbee, a friend of Farmers who had been working with her on a book about her life. Lange was so committed to nailing the role that she begged the film be shot in sequence, as she felt it would be all the more devastating to her as she portrayed the character. However due to the films low budget, it had to be shot out of sequence. The film also features a stunning performance by Kim Stanley as Farmer’s overbearing mother. It is rumored that Lange and Stanley were brutal towards one another during the filming on and off set. It was later revealed in an interview by Stanley that the two planned it this way, to solidify that the two never got along. After the film ended the two remained good friends.
Also very important to note, during the filming of Frances, Jessica met and fell in love with Sam Shepard. Shepard was a huge star in the theatre wolrd and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Buried Child. In Frances Shepard plays Farmer’s long time lover Harry York. The chemistry yet again is stunning. You can almost sense that Lange and Shepard were falling in love during the films opening scenes with the two. The film is highly important to Lange as it was a role she fought extremely hard for and where she met Sam Shepard. The two are still married today and have two children Hannah and Samuel. The critics went nuts over Lange’s performance. She was nominated for every award under the sun, including the Oscar. However Lange only won 1 award for the film, the best actress prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. She was in an interesting pickle as she also was starring in Tootsie which she was winning everything for, and she had internal competition in the best actress race from Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. As the awards season played out Streep swept all of the best actress awards, while Lange won everything for Tootsie. It’s interesting to think about. I wonder if Tootsie had been another year if Lange would have won for her Frances Farmer. I surely admit that Mery Streep is acting royalty (she’s a shoe-in for this column) and her performance in Sophie’s Choice is breathtaking. But I ask you to watch both films in the same week with an open mind. (Don’t kill me here) I prefer Jessica. It’s a tough conundrum because I cannot say that Streep didn’t deserve to win, she did. But I feel that Jessica was equally as deserving. Because of this epic showdown, it started a rather lame gossip rag competition between Lange and Streep which would last for years. Streep had won this round. However, the two actually were very good friends. Lange’s performance as Frances Farmer was ranked #85 in Premiere magazine’s list of best performances of all time.
Two years passed in which Lange and Shepard started their family, and Jessica made her return in a television Broadcast of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof starring Lange as Maggie the Cat. She stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones and reunites with Kim Stanley, now playing her mother-in-law. In this she is a delightfully malicious sex kitten. It’s available on dvd and well worth your time.
Following Cat she returned to the silver screen in the criminally underrated Country. Starring alongside her husband Sam Shepard, the two play Gilbert and Jewell Ivy. The two are farmers who are facing eviction because they are providing no financial returns. Instead of giving into the system, Lange’s fiesty Jewell decides to fight against big business and save the farm to ensure that she provides for her large family. The film was the first release from Touchstone Pictures. It was a passion project for both Lange and Shepard who had producer credits. It garnered Lange her second Oscar nomination for best actress, and another Golden Globe nomination.
Next up was Sweet Dreams in which Jessica portrays the legendary country music singer Patsy Cline. This marks Jessica’s third straight Best Actress nomination. Like Frances, many fans consider this to be one of Jessica’s finest moments. In the ongoing Jessica vs. Meryl “battle” this round went to Lange. Streep fought valiantly for the role going through many screen tests at a point in her career where she no longer had to do such things. When the role went to Lange, it was rumored that Streep was very unhappy. However in an interview with Streep in 1999 she stated this performance as her favorite ever by an actress. She also said: “I couldn’t imagine the movie without Jessica Lange. It’s a perfect performance.” Critics and audiences alike agreed. The role of Patsy Cline lets Jessica sink her teeth in deep again. It plays to all of her strengths and is a performance that goes down in history as one of the best interpretations of a famous figure. She stars alongside Ed Harris, and met a lifelong friend in John Goodman whom she would later fight for to star alongside in a future project.
It was this point in Jessica’s career where she had established herself as Hollywood royalty. She was on every critics listing of favorite actresses. It seemed she couldn’t do a performance without be showered with praise and awards. But, similarly to Frances Farmer, Lange had no interest in a Hollywood lifestyle. Instead of living in Hollywood or New York she and Sam Shepard kept their home in Minnesota. Lange rarely does any interviews and this started during the time. She went on record in one saying “I’d rather my performances speak for themselves.”
Next up she shared the screen with Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton in the film version of the popular play Crimes of the Heart which once again co-stared Lange’s husband Sam Shepard. Lange was pregnant during the filming of this movie. She then shot Far North a story of a eccentric family surrounding the character of Kate (Lange) who goes home to visit her father in the hospital. It’s a lesser seen film, and actually very hard to find. Because of it, it’s the one Lange film I have not seen. Next up was Everybody’s All-American co-starring Dennis Quaid and directed by Taylor Hackford. It’s the story of Gavin Gray (Quaid) who was a college football superstar, however his time is faded and it causes a strain with his wife Babs (Lange). Jessica is a delight in this film as we see 25 years pass by in the life of the couple. In the beginning she is enchanting as the Magnolia Queen, a local pageant much like a homecoming Queen. As time passes she has to switch gears and help her husband face the reality that the college years are over. Out of Jessica’s lesser seen films, this is one of my favorite performances.
Next up was Music Box, one of my favorite performances of all time. The film was written by Joe Eszterhas and was written for Jane Fonda to star in. However the director, Costa-Gavras, feared Fonda was too old for the role and preferred Jessica Lange. Fonda was actually paid 1.25 million as compensation for losing the role. The story is that of Anne Talbot, a lawyer who is defending her father in court against suspected Nazi war crimes. Her father is played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, and the two play perfectly off of one another. It is a thriller of the highest proportion and takes many twists and turns as Anne has to come face to face with the truth about her father, and her family lineage. After the film was released, Esztehas own father was accused of war crimes. The film was rather controversial at the time, but was still a critical success. Lange was nominated for another Oscar and Golden Globe for her performance, and won many critic awards. The film has an uncanny way of making its audience face the question: “What do we really know about our parents.” I recommend this to you in the highest way possible. It seemed at this point that Lange was unstoppable, no one during this time was able to match her in stellar performance after stellar performance.
Following this Lange starred alongside Joan Cusak and Kathy Bates in Men Don’t Leave. Another film which has Lange starring as the determined matriarch of a put upon family, this is a lesser seen gem in the crown of a fantastic career. Lange plays a mother of two sons who is dealing with the death of her husband. Struggling with being unemployed and facing $60,000 of debt, Lange relocates the family to Baltimore and struggles to keep afloat. Once again Lange gets to play with a character who’s sanity is teetering, a type of role that she always nails.
Next up in 1991 Jessica starred in the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear alongside Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro. I recently chose this film as my favorite remake of all time for Film Misery’s question of the week. The film marks Jessica’s first foray in the horror/thriller genre. She plays Leigh Bowden, wife of criminal lawyer Sam Bowden. Sam was the lawyer who put notorious criminal Max Cady (DeNiro) in jail, and as he is released he sets out to react brutal revenge against the family. The film is terrifying and Jessica Lange never looks better with her new short haircut. Jessica also famously fought for a scene to be included with her and DeNiro. In the original script Leigh only meets Max Cady during the films climax on the boat. However Lange approached Scorsese saying a scene should be added where the two meet previously. Scorsese liked the idea and the two worked along with the screenwriter to create the powerful scene where talk outside of the house. The film holds up extremely well today and remains one of the most terrifying thrillers to date. It also marks the rise of Juliette Lewis, as Lange’s daughter. Both Lewis and DeNiro were awarded Oscar nominations for the film
Next Jessica returned to television and garnered another Golden Globe nomination for her work in O Pioneers! This is another film where Jessica is cast as a matriarch of a farming family, similarly to her work in Country. Next up she reunited with Robert DeNiro in Night and the City. The film was originally to be directed by Martin Scorsese as well, and it was he who pushed for the casting of Lange and DeNiro, listing them as 2 of his favorite actors to work with. However he left the film to direct Casino and Irwin Winkler took over. The film surrounds DeNiro as a failed lawyer turned boxing promoter and Lange as a common waitress. Here Lange is severely underwritten and it seems the entire project may have lost steam when Scorsese moved on.
Completed in 1991, Jessica’s next film Blue Sky was not released until 1994, because of Orion pictures bankruptcy. Sadly the films director Tony Richardson passed away from AIDS 3 years before the film was released. Lange formed quite a bond with Richardson on set and saw him through his final days. It is because of this that Lange is still a huge supporter of all AIDS charities, holding many fundraisers out of her own home. Jessica Lange’s performance in Blue Sky is a sight to behold. Here she won her second Oscar, this time for best actress. She stars as Carly Marshall, wife of Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) who is responsible for monitoring atomic bomb testings in the military. Carly is many things all at once. She is the life of the party, a Marilyn Monroe-like bombshell. She is also mentally unstable and throughout the movie these cracks continue to form until they crumble. This performance is comparable to her role as Frances Farmer as she throws everything she’s got into the role. In a year of rather weak performances by lead actresses Jessica ran away with every award. One Oscar pundit said: “There’s no real reason to even have nominees for best actress this year. We should just call it the Jessica Lange award.” She also won yet another Golden Globe award along with pretty much every critical award there was. This is another, in a long list, of perfect performances by Jessica Lange. She allows herself to go over the top, without ever seeming phony. It’s a performance you must see to believe.
Lange had taken a 3 year hiatus and next up she starred opposite Halle Berry in Losing Isaiah a powerful story of a custody battle between maternal and adoptive mothers. Although I find it a good film, with a terrific supporting performance by Lange, its one that she was not very pleased with. In a rare interview she admitted: “I let myself get talked into ‘Losing Isaiah’ because I hadn’t worked for awhile. I knew it wasn’t right, the script wasn’t right, there was no ending. It just didn’t feel right, and it never got right. It was a really difficult and painful experience.” Although it doesn’t hold up with other films in her catalog, I still think it has its moments, and Lange as usual is the standout. After this Jessica replaced Miranda Richardson in Rob Roy a Robin Hood-like swashbuckling action film co-staring Liam Neeson set in 18th century Scotland. The films standout was Tim Roth who received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role. Jessica is absolutely gorgeous in the film, however her character is not given any moments of weight (which is something you never do to Jessica Lange in my book).
Jessica returned to television again for a remake of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. This was her second foray into William’s work for television. She actually also starred in this show in the West End in London. She cites Williams as her favorite writer and has devoted herself to starring in as many of his works as possible (along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she also starred in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway). This performance, for me, rivals her performance in Frances. For her role as Blanche DuBois, Lange won yet another Golden Globe award for best actress and was nominated for an Emmy. I truly believe if this had been a film version, she would have won another Oscar. Taking on a role famously played by Vivan Leigh was quite the risk. I think this film, and especially the performance by Lange, are even better than the original film version. Like Cat you can also find this on dvd. Lange unleashes every bit of talent within in her to make her Blanche the ultimate one. Yet again we have Lange cast in the central role of a woman who’s sanity is failing. This is the type of performance that any given actress should study. It’s one many actresses will never give. The range of emotions are wide and Lange nails everything. Her chemisty with Diane Lane as Stella is also for the history books. An interesting story is how hard Jessica Lange fought with director Glen Jordan to cast longtime friend John Goodman as Mitch. Lange worked alongside Goodman helping him prepare his audition, and the hard work paid off. The two share a magical chemistry, that outweighs Alec Baldwin as Stanley. The film isn’t perfect, but Lange has never been better. You must see this.
Michelle Pfeiffer approached Jessica Lange and offered her a role in A Thousand Acres, a film Pfeiffer had been personally working on for years. As sole producer for the film, Pfeiffer made this her dream project. Acres is a loose adptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Pfeiffer’s dream cast included herself, Lange, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the equvilant of Lear’s daughters Goneril, Reagan, and Cordelia. She had wanted Paul Newman in the Lear role but he turned it down, so it went to Jason Robards. The film seemed doomed from the start. Rumors spread that all extra’s had to sign contracts which stated they were not allowed to approach Ms. Pfeiffer or Ms. Lange on set. (This has been denied by both parties) In total, the film took 5 years to be made, with a very long and delayed shooting schedule. Although Pfeiffer and Lange got along well, the cast and crew fought the entire time. During the editing phase Jessica become angry at the final product of the film. She battled with the producers after many scenes went through tedious re-editing. Lange said the re-editing didn’t progress the plot of the film and that the movie as a whole would suffer. After seeing the final product Lange said the only thing that worked were the performances, and the movie itself was terrible. The critics agreed and it was poorly reviewed. It also lost money at the box office. Pfeiffer, even though not pleased with the final product, went on every talk show possible to promote the film (something she had refused to do her entire career). All this aside, Lange still managed to pull off a fantastic performance and she was awarded yet another Golden Globe nomination for best actress. And if the film got any praise, it was usually for Lange’s performance. Following this film Jessica took a hiatus from filming, the only credit over the next year would be voice work in the television series Stories From My Childhood in which she voiced the Swan Princess.
Jessica returned in 1998 with the delightfully over the top Hush. Here she was nominated for her first and only Razzie award for worst actress. I laughingly disagree of course. Jessica’s Martha Baring is rather like her Blanche DuBois, only on drugs. Look up scenery chewing, and you will see a photo of Jessica from this film. Its obvious she is having the time of her life here. She probably knew it was rather weak material and set out to steal the movie out from under her younger co-star Gwyneth Paltrow who was rising to stardom at the time. She plays the overprotective and perhaps murderous plantation owning mother who just doesn’t want to let her son go. It’s a hysterical performance that is downright chilling one moment and downright silly the next. Whenever I need a good time, I pop this into my dvd player, and it cheers me up immediately. The same year Jessica chews more scenery in Cousin Bette where she stars as a bitter spinster opposite Elizabeth Shue. It’s also a fun film, this one actually a comedy. However, I’ll admit I prefer her balls-t0-the-wall performance in Hush. Neither performances rank among her best, or even near. Both however are fun performances that I am certainly glad she did. After years of brilliant and taxing dramatic performances, I am sure she needed a break – and these two films provided that in spades.
1999 would bring us Titus directed by Julie Taymore. This would mark Jessica’s first time performing Shakespeare on stage or screen. If you have seen this movie, surely you will be shocked as she nails it. I was unaware of this until currently, thinking that Jessica surely had done Shakespeare many times onstage. No, not the case. Here she stars opposite Anthony Hopkins in one of Shakespeare’s goriest of all tragedies. Her Queen Tamora is (yet again) one of her finest performances. Here she is threatening and deadly, but its scaled back from her overplay in Hush. First off, she looks amazing. In younger years she was always cast in roles which showcased her beauty, but as she aged she was cast in more typical motherly roles. Here she is back with a passion. As the Queen of the Goths she could out-seduce even the hottest young ingenue in Hollywood. She’s never looked better, and shows here how she has aged gracefully. She is costumed amazingly. The look only compliments the performance. Here she manages to out-perform Hopkins along with many other Shakespeare actors who have spent their life performing the bards work. She has a monologue mid-movie which is one of my favorite moments in her career. When she suddenly stares into the camera and says “I’ll find a day to massacre them all” you believe it. Just try not to tremble in your boots. This entire film I think is a glorious masterpiece. It remains one of my favorite Shakespeare re-tellings. If you haven’t, check it out. Come for Jessica’s amazing performance and stay for the fantastic film.
Following a two year hiatus, Jessica returned in Prozac Nation based on the best selling memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel. The movie is based on Wurtzel’s life, especially her first year at Harvard. It’s a study on depression and drug use. Christina Ricci plays Elizabeth and Jessica portrays her mother, Mrs. Wurtzel. It also stars Michelle Williams, Anne Heche, and Johnathen Rhys Myers. It’s an interesting, if heavily flawed film. Sadly it never properly saw the light of day. It was planned for a theatrical release, when Wurtzel herself made some rather controversial statements about 9/11. It was then shelved. When revisited, Miramax shelved it again because of the unlikable nature of the main character. Wurtzel also went on to publicly say that she thought the movie was “horrible”. The only thing she did like … Jessica Lange. Lange herself was mentioned in the memoir as being an actress that Wurtzel wished she could be like.
Next up was the HBO film Normal. Yet again I find myself saying this is one of the best performances in the Lange collection. For this film she garnered yet another Golden Globe and Emmy nomination, along with a GLAAD media award for best actress. Jessica stars as Irma Applewood, wife to Roy Applewood. The two are well respected church-going folk in a small town community. They are loving parents to their two children as well. The town is thrown into an uproar when Roy announces that he feels he has been born in the wrong body and will be moving forward with a sex change operation. The story then follows the families transition that follows this decision. Lange as Irma is astonishing. Playing against what you may expect, Irma decides to support her husband as he transitions into Ruth. Normal is one of the most heartbreaking and emotional love stories I’ve ever seen. Jessica continues in the tradition of sharing amazing onscreen chemistry with her leading man. When I compare this with her previous costars (Nicholson, Hoffman, Nolte, Lee Jones, etc) I think that she and Wilkinson make the best pair. The two share years of story within in a 2 hour film. Although an HBO film this was selected by the 2003 Sundance film festival. Director Jane Anderson used 3 previous films as inspiration for Normal which included Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Tender Mercies, and Lange’s own Country. I recommend this film with highest marks. One scene in Jessica’s entire filmography that stands out to me in particular is from this film. When sitting with the local preacher who recommends that Irma leave her husband, she merely shakes her head and says no, stating: “He’s my life…. He’s my life.”
Next up is one that you can skip over. Masked and Anonymous is a Bob Dylan passion project. The entire cast is full of big names (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Angela Basset, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Luke Wilson, and others) who all took pay cuts in order to be in a film with Dylan. It’s a pretty dreary and dreadful attempt. If there is a high point, it’s Lange who stars as Nina Veronica. Nina is an industry hustler with money on her mind. Reading through a couple of reviews, no one had anything bad to say about her in this – and if something positive was said about the movie it was usually about her. If you are going to skip over a film in her filmography though, this would be the one. She has minimal screen time and on paper is not given much to do.
In 2003 Jessica worked with director Tim Burton in Big Fish. The story surrounds a son trying to learn more about his dying father. To do this he dives head first into the many stories and myths his father has passed down to him through life. Lange stars as Sandra Bloom, wife of the dying Ed Bloom (Albert Finney). Her character is a little underused, but she makes the most of her screen time and shares a very romantic moment with Finney in the bathtub. What I enjoyed most about the film was the work done by Allison Lohman, who plays Lange’s character in childhood. The two worked together on Lange’s physicality and the results are as bright as day. I can only imagine how lucky Lohman must have been to have worked hands on with Lange while creating a character. Big Fish was a huge monetary success, the largest Jessica had seen in years of her career. One hoped that it would be a jumpstart to put her in more mainstream films. But that wasn’t the case as her next 5 films were independent or television productions.
Next Lange had a cameo in Jim Jarmusch’ Broken Flowers. Don Johnston (played by Bill Murray) recieves a letter which informs him he has a son, it is left unsigned by the childs mother. So he sets out to visit all of his old flames to find out who it may be. These colorful women include Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Tilda Swinton, and Lange. Interestingly Jim Jarmusch asked each of the 4 women to write their own version of the “pink letter”, as if the child was there’s. He then based the film on the letter’s the women wrote. Jessica’s created character is Carmen – a pet psychic. I think all 4 women pull equally as exciting performances. The film allows Jessica her first lesbian character – as she is now in a relationship with Chloe Sevigny.
Don’t Come Knocking would be Jessica’s next and it is another onscreen reunion with her husband Sam Shepard, who also wrote the film. Shepard wrote it so that he and Lange could star in another film together, and include one of their new favorite actresses Sarah Polley. The film surrounds Howard Spence (Shepard) who used to be a Hollywood Western moviestar. Now his career is over and depression has taken over as he drowns his sorrows in any liquor he can find. Howard reconnects with his old sweetheart, Doreen (Lange), and finds out that he may have a child. This sets him in motion to clean up his act. Lange again stars as a waitress in a diner. This is a quiet performance, and one that I placed on my list of the best 100 performances in the past 10 years. Lange rarely gets a role that just “lets her be”, if that makes sense. Here she is so natural its as if she isn’t acting – she just is. This is a testament to the performance, as Lange is known for these dramatic characters that she takes to places of raw emotional velocity. Here she scales it all back. And watching her onscreen with the man to whom she has shared her life with, is also a treat. It’s rarely seen, and worth your time.
Next up is Neverwas which is ultimately forgettable. Lange herself has admitted to never seeing the film. It’s a stellar cast (Ian McKelland, Vera Farmiga, Alan Cumming, Brittany Murphy, Nick Nolte) but it never gets off the ground. There are many similarities to Big Fish as it deals with the wild stories of a novelist father. Lange is given the role of the alcoholic Katherine Pierson. The only unique things about the film is it pairs her as Nick Nolte’s wife again (after Cape Fear), and its special in the case that Lange turns in a solid performance from a shoddy script. If you do watch this one, I suggest you fast forward until you see her on screen.
Bonneville should have been great, but never really proved to be as good as its cast. A road trip film starring Lange, Kathy Bates, and Joan Allen sounds fantastic right? Well sadly its not great. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. Lange plays the central character Arvilla, who’s husband has passed away. She has to travel across the US in the family Bonneville to deliver his ashes to her ungrateful daughter. She takes along her 2 best friends, one of which is a rowdy party starter (Bates) and one who an uptight housewife (Allen). The film was produced by Bates who hand chose the cast. You can tell the 3 ladies have chemistry, but it almost left me wanting to a hidden camera video of them meeting for lunch rehearsing the material. It never lives up to its potential. Once again, this is becoming a pattern, Lange is the shining star. She’s the heart of the film, and its another tender role for her which is a nice addition to her luminous career of headstrong women. This was followed by a 2007 remake of Sybil in which Lange takes on the role played by Joanne Woodward. Although it adds nothing to the original, Lange is particularly good alongside Tammy Blanchard who takes on the Sally Field role.
After a 2 year absence from acting, Jessica returned with one of her best (if not the best) performances of her career. When I found out that HBO films acquired the rights to Grey Gardens I was skeptical. The Maysles Brother documentary remains my favorite doc of all time. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen it. It’s the true life story of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale. Big Edie (now played by Lange) was once a rising star in the singing world, and Little Edie (her played by Drew Barrymore) was a socialite and model. The two lived the high life in their mansion on the Hampton beach. However as the years have passed, the home has become a dilapidated mess. The original documentary shows the two women and their routines in the house, living on in the past as nothing changes. It’s a deeply moving story of mother and daughter. I was highly against any sort of remake of this film. However when I received the news that Lange was cast, boy did my tune change! I was shocked however to discover that she would be playing the elderly Ms. Beale – as this film version would show the entire story of the mother and daughter. Then when I heard Drew Barrymore was playing Little Edie, I got discouraged. I knew at least I would have Jessica to love.
In preparation for the film, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore moved in together. They shared an apartment for 2 weeks without leaving and associating with the outside world. It really paid off, as the chemistry shared here rivals the best in cinema history. The two nail their perspective roles, with Lange being especially on point. We get to see the younger Edith Beale, which fans of the documentary have never seen. Here Lange gets to lay a foundation and make the role her own, so that in the later years (which we are more familiar with) we see why she is the way she is. Simply put, this could be the crown jewel in Jessica’s crown. She nails the scenes from the documentary. She transforms into Edith Beale physically and mentally. As she sings “Tea For Two”, you could play the film side by side with the doc and nary a difference would you see. I actually got the pleasure of seeing a screening of this in the theatre. When Jessica finished “Tea for Two” the audience broke out in applause. This is the kind of performance that could not have been pulled off by any other actress. It served as a tour-de-force return! And I am happy to report that Drew Barrymore more than holds her own and successfully inhabits Little Edie with the same verve as Jessica. For her role Jessica was nominated for yet another Golden Globe, a SAG award, and won an Emmy for Best Actress in a Television movie or miniseries. I do believe that had this been on a film version, as opposed to made for television, that Jessica would have received another Oscar nomination and perhaps win. She certainly deserved it. If you haven’t seen this RUN don’t walk and pick up a copy.
Now we arrive to today. Jessica can be seen every Wednesday night on FX starring in American Horror Story. Her role as Constance is an amalgam of all of the wonderful things she has done in the past. It’s her first foray into a weekly sitcom, after turning down many offers over the years. Creator Ryan Murphy has said he “begged on his knees” for Jessica to join the show. It’s a real treat that she did. Currently the show is on its 4th episode and is receiving the highest ratings in FX’s history. As many reviews have pointed out, Lange is the standout. As the creepy next-door neighbor Constance, Lange is continuing to chew scenery week in and week out. It’s a fun and freaky show I recommend you start watching (they are about to replay the first 3 episodes this week in order to lead up to their 2-part Halloween special). I think its a done deal that come time for this years television awards, Lange will be in the running. I think we shall be seeing some best supporting actress wins coming her way very soon. We also have The Vow co-starring Sam Neil, Rachel McAdams, and Channing Tatum being released on Valetine’s Day 2012. The Big Valley co-starring Richard Dreyfuss is currently in post-production as well.
So there you have it, a run down of the career of Jessica Lange. For those of you who stayed with me through this entire column, I thank you. Since Lange is my favorite actress I went into much detail about her career and the women she has portrayed. In the future I may not go that deep, but I felt I owed it to an actress that I love and respect so much.
So, in the end I hope to receive some comments from you regarding Ms. Lange and your favorite moments from her career. Below I have listed my favorite 10 performances from Lange, and I truly hope you will watch the one’s you haven’t seen and get back to me.
My Personal Top 10 Jessica Lange Performances