Living Legend: Jessica Lange

by Liz Smith

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“There are no explanations. There are no answers.”

So said Jessica Lange, at some point in her life.

That little quote, from whatever era Lange was speaking, pretty much sums up her on-and off-screen image.

She is one of the most inexplicable and compelling stars of her time—which is still our time. A year or two ago, Jessica Lange accepted an Emmy for her role in the hugely popular, massively grotesque series “American Horror Story.” Lange was diffused in her acceptance—sweet, sexy, powerful, powerless, off-center, compellingly focused. A legendary hot-mess of misty vulnerability and an air of surprise. Some, who were not familiar with Jessica, criticized (Was she stoned?). Not me. She had not changed a bit. During her entire career, Lange has held a hand up, shading her from the scorching sun of celebrity. She has accomplished something rare in the world of modern stardom—especially for a beautiful, sexy woman. She has maintained mystery and dignity. Her personal life has been singularly private.

In her work, she is often an open wound, emotions almost too close to the surface. She may be one of those actors who truly uses the art of emoting to sort out her life, live through fantasy for a little while, enabling her to cope with her real life in such an understated fashion.

Although Lange is only five-foot-seven, she appears taller, and was working as a model for Wilhelmina when, in classic Hollywood fashion, the movie producer Dino De Laurentiis saw a photo of her and said, in effect: “Get me that girl!” And so she was got. Lange made her movie debut in the 1976 remake of King Kong. It was then much despised, and more so now, for reasons that have nothing to do with Jeff Bridges ridiculous beard, the bad script, and clumsy direction—you’ll recall instead of climbing the Empire State Building, the infatuated Kong mounted the Twin Towers.

However, in the midst of this mess, Miss Lange immediately establishes the persona that would catapult her to superstardom just a few years later: a languid, vulnerable, provoking sexuality, and an innocence and tentative quality at odds with her bombshell body. And if this King Kong is remembered for anything, it will be the final scene, Lange, as Dwan, down from the Towers, standing by the body of Kong, enveloped by a screaming, intrusive, insensitive mob of paparazzi, as she herself weeps, realizing life as she ever knew it, is over. Forget the dead ape- it’s quite a metaphor for show business and stardom. And maybe Miss Lange herself made the connection?

Next Lange appeared in All That Jazz, then the steamy The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson, and then the grand double-slam of Tootsie and Frances. In the former, she was the aching, delectable soft center of Sydney Pollack’s cynical, farcical look at actors (just as Marilyn Monroe was the humanity in Billy Wilder’s similarly cross-dressed Some Like It Hot.)

Frances saw her as enacting the real-life tale of troubled movie actress Frances Farmer, whose unconventional approach to life and her career, not to mention a battle of will with her fierce mother, landed her in several mental facilities. Lange was Oscar-nominated for both Toostie as supporting actress, and Frances for lead. (In Frances she has the task, ably met, of going toe-to-toe with the legendary Method actress Kim Stanley as her mother.) She took the award for Tootsie.

At this career high water mark, her early marriage to Paco Grande, a photographer, ended, and she began a romance with ballet’s Mikhail Baryshnikov—he was then pretty much at his peak, too. They were a ravishing couple, had a child, married, and just as her Oscar nominations began rolling in, they divorced. Quietly. She would soon meet and begin an enduring relationship with actor/playwright Sam Shepherd. Marriage would eventually come—or did it?—after two children. Some say yes, others no. They lived away from the bright lights and rarely, if ever, discussed their relationship. They seemed to have separated within the past two years, but did they? Again, details are hard to pin down.

Lange would garner acclaim for her T.V. performance of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then another Oscar nomination essaying doomed country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams.

The roles kept rolling in. Some, like Cape Fear were hilariously overwrought—as was the entire Martin Scorcese film. Others, such as Blue Sky playing the movie-deluded, promiscuous wife of an Army office in the 1950s—calling once again on that inescapable Monroe-like vulnerability and insecurity—won her the Oscar for Best Actress.

Onstage she triumphed in London as Eugene O’Neill’s drug-addled matriarch, and on Broadway Lange was a devastating Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Watching her on opening night, inhabiting every aspect of his desperate woman—including a deep sexuality that “time could not alter” as she declares furiously toward the climax, I felt surely the role had at last found its perfect interpreter.

Time was marching on, but Lange frequently took long periods off the screen to attend to her family. Still, there were fine performances in Losing Isaiah (battling Halle Berry for the custody of a child)…Rob Roy (bravely surviving rape at the hands of Scottish lords)…Hush (as Gwyneth Paltrow’s murderously over-protective mother-in-law)…and Cousin Bette, icy as Balzac’s embittered poor relation. There was also another Oscar nomination for Music Box as a woman who is horrified to learn of her father’s Nazi past. And yet another Oscar nod for Country. (Mattering more than her nomination, was the introduction to her co-star, longtime love, Sam Shepard.)

Despite her Oscars and industry position, Lange more often than not appeared in lower budget, personal projects which seemed to satisfy her, if not always critics and the box-office.

Television, as prestigious and more challenging than feature films, offered her Sybil, Normal, and Grey Gardens reaping Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy (for “Gardens.”) And yet, for all this, she remained a mysterious figure, circumspect about her life with Sam Shepard, protective of her children. She published a fine book of her photography without fuss. Having once admitted to the dark side of her personality—frequent depression—she continued to live through her various works, and perservered through whatever her demons may have been, in blessed silence. Lange has never over-shared.

In 2011, the FX Channel offered Lange the lead in a series aptly titled “American Horror Story.” Having now run four seasons, the cast has a clutch of regulars along with another revolving group of actors. Each season, the plot changes,
but Lange is the fascinating center—as a malevolent nurse, or a witch or the Marlene Dietrich-styled head of a traveling freak show.

Maturity has sharpened her striking bone structure, but the off-center emotionality, the vulnerability, the undeniable sensual appeal is still very much present. Even in the harsh, wicked characters she portrays in “American Horror Story,” the hapless heroine of King Kong is never really that far away.

Jessica Lange has closets and shelves full of awards. But apparently, that is not where she “lives.” Given her looks and talent, in a different time, with a different, less reticent personality, she might have become what we think of as a “greater star.” A red-carpet star with romances and scandals and non-stop interviews about the “pain” of revealing her intimate secrets. But she has, in opposition of Oscar Wilde’s dictum, saved her life for herself and her loved ones, and her genius for her art.

I believe the great Jessica Lange made the correct decision. She is an extraordinary and unique actor, who in many ways, has only just begun.

I can’t wait for the third act, myself.