Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Birthday Girls: Jessica Lange

One more April shower of actressexual adoration timed to one more birthday, and then we'll move back to looking at some specific performances. Plenty of other fascinating performers will celebrate birthdays this month (for example, Judy Davis on the 23rd), but the only one I had to make a point of publicly adulating was Jessica Lange, who's in that rarefied company with Emma and Katharine and Tilda of performers I cannot even imagine my high school years without. If you've seen the best of these films, hopefully you can't imagine your life without them, either. If this post prompts you to take a gamble on uneven but nonetheless remarkable and impassioned films like Frances, Sweet Dreams, Country, or Cape Fear, then I'll be one delighted fan. But even if you're one of those who looks at a Lange performance, even the most celebrated ones, and wonders what all the fuss is about—don't worry, this post is for you, too.

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Blogger Andrew K. said...

Another great entry, I always feel bad for Jessica Lange. People have this tendency to hate her that I just don't quite understand. I've heard both her Oscar wins referred to as somewhere near the bottom of the rung which I think is silly (on both counts). I'd have probably have voted for her in Frances even, but I'm no Meryl lover.

There does seem to be a slight harshness to Jessica though, for me she's a little in the vein of Bette Davis (but that could be a miscalculation on my part). But she always comes off as bitingly candid sometimes in her interviews.

I'm not a big fan of Losing Isaiah but I always remember Lange (and Berry actually) with fondness. What's most notable about Jessica there is that same harshness. The role reads as such a stock good one, but she always takes it a bit further. Not exactly "bitchy" but...

She's not particularly my favourite actress, but she readily impresses me and I do think she was best in show in Grey Gardens. Good call on the similarities between her and close. I remember watching the Emmy's last year and thinking how the two had shifted focus from film. Lange's win made me sad though, I did want her to win but there was this slight sadness as she went up she seemed palpably moved at the honour, and I remember her saying something to the effect of she doesn't get offered roles that are as a good anymore, and I really can't say why. I think she's better than a number of her peers still getting lauded.

(On Big Fish...ha...I actually liked her much in it. I loved the chemistry she had with Finney.)

Okay, this was an overly long comment. Apologies for the loquaciousness.

3:29 AM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

(Long comment alert: Lange clearly inspires the wordy.)

Hat-trick! A third consecutive piece about someone for whom I share your affection absolutely, and a wonderful piece at that.

She certainly isn't very fashionable to like these days, and as you say, she hasn't done much to reward the faithful. (But faithful I remain, and not just because I'd feel like a bad Sam Shepard devotee if I didn't.)

I was unexpectedly delighted by her crumpled warmth and practicality in "Normal," not least because it had been pitched so heavily as The Tom Wilkinson Show -- I liked him in it too, but it's her face I remember -- but NOTHING else has stuck for me since, oh, "A Thousand Acres," and that just barely. (I'd completely forgotten she was in "Broken Flowers" until you reminded me, but then I'd completely forgotten just about everyone in it except Frances Conroy.)

It's as if the near-immediate unpopularity of that second Oscar stalled her career second wind before it even began, à la Swank, which I find unfair for several reasons: 1) I actually like the unhinged bravado of that performance quite a lot, 2) I think it was handily the best of that piss-weak slate of nominees, the dreariness of which she could hardly be blamed for, and 3) realizing that they had a dud pack, voters quite sensibly took the opportunity to give a mini-career award for her remarkable 1980s oeuvre, which her "Tootsie" Oscar was both too early and too atypical to reasonably represent.

I'd also like to throw in a shout-out for her work in "Sweet Dreams," which has suffered a little unfairly from comparisons to Spacek's admittedly near-peerless Loretta Lynn. Okay, so Lange didn't do her own singing, but it's a witty, resourceful characterisation in so many more crucial ways.

3:44 AM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I really don't know if I have the right to talk about Lange, since I haven't seen her most celebrated performances, but I have to say this: I don't remember her being boring in anything but I also never thought "Lange is in it? Really? Great! I'll watch it!"

I wish I could say a nice as well as a bad thing for you and Lange but I really can't find a way to keep the balance. Your piece was great as usual and Lange.. well, you said it (kind of) so I guess I'm allowed to say it too. At the Emmy ceremony her face scared me! I haven't seen Grey Gardens (Did the shooting happen before the bottox?) but I'm guessing she can't look much better than how she looks when going to an awards show. If it makes her feel better, I was listening to "My favourite things" while reading the piece. Well, it ended when I finished the first paragraph but so what?

I remember reading a piece, some years ago, about Lange being the anti-Streep. I don't remember the reasoning behind it but perhaps it shows that you can't be a huge fan of both? (And since I'm a huge fan of Meryl...)

5:24 AM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

And by the way, you watched Tilda's movies in highschool?? You don't seem traumatized at all! :p

5:29 AM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger buff said...

Big Fish is classic Jessica Lange. Like Meryl, she can read from the White Pages directory, and I would be thoroughly entertained. Two of her smaller pics, Don't Come Knocking and Bonneville were of a mature Jessica, who I find equally appealing.

I really enjoy the Birthday Girl posts. Mega hairy muscle hugs of thanks for saluting these fine acresses.

12:47 PM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Thanks for this - I've been really enjoying your recent run of actress profiles. Personally, I love how angular Lange's screen presence can seem, how unwilling to play the soft, appealing sides of her characters too hard. I rewatched 'Big Fish' quite recently without much expectations, but she isn't just the background decoration that I remember - with almost no lines, she gets across a sense of this woman who has had to make peace with her husband's eccentricities, and finds herself getting irritated with her son's lack of understanding whilst empathising at the same time. And she does all this with her back to the camera, over Albert Finney's left shoulder.

I get why people overlook her King Kong performance - I mean, who wants to watch that again - but she's so funny and sharp, even when playing Dwan's 'dumb blonde' moments. Its funny for such a light-weight film, but I can't help feeling that her performance there is a kind of watershed, a harbinger for this new generation of actresses that would start redefining Hollywood's approach to women after a decade of thin roles - Streep, Close, Sigourney Weaver, Kathleen Turner, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Davis, perhaps even Bette Midler in 'The Rose'.

2:05 PM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Just caught up on these spectacular Birthday pieces, and Jesus, your Julie Christie piece is definitive. She's such a tricky actress to write about, and I really think you nailed her, so to speak. Kudos for traveling into her obscure, hard-to-see work, too.

Just to recap on several of these: I second the "Stella Maris" love, and I do love Pickford in "My Best Girl." I have also seen "Coquette" about four or five times. Maybe there's a self-help group for "Coquette" addicts? Acting that bad really is as rare as great acting, and maybe even rarer, unexplored country.

Emma Thompson; I just saw "An Education," and I think she steals it in her brief scenes (not a hard task, admittedly). Just the way she stands up from behind her desk and straightens her skirt made me laugh. And I think she takes delight in skewering our expectations of a Warm, Wise Headmistress and revealing in lightning fast strokes that this woman she's playing is a total oaf.

Your Thompson piece made me wonder if anyone ten years or so younger than us can really understand just how huge she was in the 90's. I wonder, too, how much of her fame and our fondness for her were due to all the brilliant interviews she did then, all the razzle-dazzle of her publicity. As with Hepburn, all that publicity merges into what we feel when we watch them, and it can be hard to separate it all out. With Streep, too, there's always been a knack for publicity, for self-promotion.

Whereas with Lange...having read all these (great afternoon!) and ended on her, suddenly her whole career seems very unlikely and odd and scary. And that's part of why we both love her, but that's also why she's too wild, too volatile, too marginal to have the love of a wide public. It's strange that she became such a big star in the 80's in the first place, and I think she knows that.

I do love that she hasn't cluttered her filmography with an FX series (I can't stand Glenn Close, by the way, but I'd need a long, long time to explain why) or an appearance on "Law and Order: SVU." Surely she's been asked. Or maybe not? Anyway, there is no rage like Old Lady Rage, and if Lange keeps in good health, there will be plenty of good elderly screams and howls from her yet, even if it's every other year on HBO.

2:20 PM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

Nick, sorry for being totally off-topic, but I don't see Cicely Tyson ranked on your Best Actress page. Also, I was happy to see Audrey Hepburn make the honor roll. Horray!

9:15 PM, April 20, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I'm not a fan of Lange at all. But this writeup is really evocative and helps me come a little closer to understanding the devotion she inspires in certain critics.

it's probably because I'm not a fan that my favorite performances by her are aytpical ones: Tootsie and Crimes of the Heart.

12:46 AM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

Interesting that you get the impression we're out of synch on Lange. I feel we've barely discussed her, which is odd, as I'm actually a pretty huge fan (as I am of Thompson, natch, with Christie a little further down the list). So I've hung on every word of these appreciations, while sharing your frustration in all three cases that the last decade or more has seen them retreat from the spotlight (or the kind of work they deserve).

I still have two major Lange perfs to see -- Blue Sky and Sweet Dreams -- but it was entirely your enthusiasm that got me to record and watch Country a couple of years ago, and I'm glad I did. Don't much like her in Crimes of the Heart, though she's not Keaton-level problematic, and that film is just a mess anyway; like you I think Frances is blistering and essential work for all its cardboard surroundings. Fascinating that we get the duet with Stanley there too.

Since you don't mention them, what do you think of her performances in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Rob Roy? For me she's not quite there yet in the Rafelson film, but as with Cape Fear she has a knack for doing the unexpected with wifely-duty roles, and I remember her scenes from Rob Roy surprisingly vividly given that it was 15 years ago.

Anyway... what a series of posts! You've outdone yourself.

3:19 AM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Andrew: I appreciate the loquaciousness! And I am glad we agree about what she does to recuperate her stock role in Losing Isaiah, even though she notoriously hated the movie and was all but working out of spite from the minute she learned about the pat, reworked finale.

@Guy: I agree with every word of this, especially in your praise of Sweet Dreams, of which I am hugely fond. I'm glad she pipped a miffed-at-the-time Meryl Streep for the part, who would have been wonderful at the singing (and probably wonderful, in general), but would have had a tough time serving up Patsy's gutsiness and her masochism in such a tight clench, with the perfect naturalism that Lange achieves here. A wonderful performance.

@James: Lange and Streep have hugely different styles, but I'm living proof that you can be a proud member of both camps.

@Buff: Always glad to know you're still reading along!

@Laika: Your comment reminds me that while I was watching Big Fish, I saw some flashes of the resourceful Lange I know and love, but those memories got a little washed out by the overall driftiness and eager self-marketing of the movie. But I bet you're right about what you say here. I actually haven't seen King Kong, and my comments about it here are only intended to reflect industry attitudes of the time; I expect I'll enjoy the performance when I eventually track it down, in just the ways you say.

1:26 AM, April 25, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dan: Well, we already knew we were on the same page with Lange, but it wasn't until I drew up this post that I realized how diligently she's tried to avoid making dreck, or taking pure paycheck gigs. So no wonder she's so angry when something blows up in her face halfway through shooting, or even earlier, like American and Isaiah and Hush, although I'm so happy that Hush exists. It's such definitive trash.

@CCW: Thanks for being off-topic, since that was just a major error in html. I have fixed it. As you will have suspected, or maybe already knew, I'm a tremendous fan of that Tyson performance and am eager for everyone to know it!

@Nathaniel: I think you'd like her in Sweet Dreams if you took a chance on it. She's not in Frances/mannered mode at all. Do you like her in Cape Fear?

@Tim: Oops! I wonder why I thought this? Surely I should have known we couldn't possibly be at odds on such a crucial point! I remember how well you responded to Country, one of the first dramas I ever rented that felt genuinely eye-opening to me, and still seems so persuasively of its idiom. I do like her in Rob Roy, and just as you say, I haven't seen it since it was in theaters but remember her scene after the rape pretty indelibly, and some early exchanges of marital bliss with Neeson. (She frequently lists this as one of her favorites of her own movies, and performances.) I actually haven't seen Postman, which is shocking.

1:33 AM, April 25, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic post on Lange's career. You should check out some of my posts in the message board under her IMDB.com profile page. I'm markalexisp.

Anyway, you and I have such a kindred view of Lange, her strengths and her weaknesses. Kudos!

6:36 PM, July 15, 2011  

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