Greatest of All Time: Jessica Lange (A Film Marathon)

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Jessica Lange goes down as one of the greatest of all time in my book. If I were an aspiring actor, she’s the one I’d study, emulate and hope to work with one day so she can make me cry on film. Aspiring actor or not, I would still jump at the opportunity to sit at her feet and listen to her talk about acting and life both in the industry and just in her shoes. I fell in love with Lange’s work on the television anthology, American Horror Story. This monologue in particular:

Her ageless beauty! The way she paces the dialogue! The way she breathes! Legendary.

Jessica Lange has crafted a prolific career in film, theater and television. As a young actor in 1970, she ran away from college and moved to Paris, where she studied mime. (One of my favorite fun facts about her.) Clearly, her career has only gone up since then. Lange won her first Golden Globe in her film debut, the 1976 King Kong and most recently, her third Emmy for Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries, a third Dorian Award and her first Critics’ Choice Television award for her work on American Horror Story in 2013. In 2014, Marc Jacobs chose her to be the premiere model of his new high-end beauty line, Marc Jacobs Beauty. She absolutely shut down the notion that an actress loses her staying power as she ages.

Although I’m very familiar with Lange’s work on American Horror Story, I realized I haven’t seen many of her films and decided The Marathon Stars Blogathon would be the perfect opportunity. What better way to appreciate and honor the woman I consider the Modern Queen of the Monologue? I thought it’d also be fun to see the steps she took in order to be where she is in her career, repeatedly nominated, honored countlessly and widely regarded as one of the greatest ever.

All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979)

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All That Jazz is a musical film directed by Bob Fosse. It’s semi-autobiographical and combines aspects of Fosse’s career with large-scale fantasy spectacles. It stars Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, a theater director who tries to juggle his work and personal life on top of serious stress-related illness. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of Jessica Lange as Angelique in these isolated, foggy instances. A lot of the time, the flirtation between Gideon and Angelique feels so far removed from Gideon’s hectic life, quiet and peaceful in comparison.

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Lange doesn’t have a leading role in the film, but her character is one of the most intriguing and most memorable. The first word that comes to mind is ethereal, a white veil draped over her and slowly removed. She’s the epitome of beauty and mystery. And her outfits are fantastic. That’s another thing I learned about Jessica Lange throughout this marathon — the woman can wear an outfit, a costume, even the most elaborate and extravagant, and she never gets lost in it. The costume never outshines her. Even at the beginning of her career with minimal dialogue, she’s a commanding presence that wordlessly demands attention.

Like an amuse-bouche in a multiple course meal, All That Jazz prepares you for Lange’s career, offering a glimpse into why she was put on screen. She draws you in with her beauty and makes you respect her and love her with her acting skills. Although Lange doesn’t have much screentime, All That Jazz is a fun movie musical, especially if you love larger than life musical numbers, the griminess of the industry and a whole lot of rhinestones.

Frances (Clifford, 1982)

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In 1982, Lange became the first performer in forty years to receive two Oscar nominations within the same year. She was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Frances and Best Acting in a Supporting Role for Tootsie, winning the latter.

Frances makes my soul ache. It’s the semi-biographical account of the life of Frances Farmer, played by Lange. The film follows Frances from high school, through her film career and institutionalization for supposed mental illness. I try to go into a movie knowing as little about it as possible, such is the case with Frances. This movie is so much more than I originally assumed. Women being wrongfully tossed into mental institutions in the 1940s is something I studied extensively in college and to see it in this film is a gut-wrenching surprise.

It’s full of heavy, heavy material and Lange surrenders herself to it completely. She would go through the script over and over, scene by scene, making deep connections between Frances’ life and her own and finding the emotion needed to do the role justice. And she succeeds. The scene where she hits rock bottom, literally bare and vulnerable, is so jarring, I couldn’t look away. Then, it turns out, that isn’t even rock bottom. She spirals lower and lower and I could feel her helplessness.

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This is also where I can see the beginnings of the seasoned veteran actor Jessica Lange take shape. One scene in particular, where she’s talking to the doctor at the mental institution. He gives her upsetting news and instead of a brief pause and delivering her line, Lange feels out the emotion, the reaction, through body language, shifting in her seat and twisting her arms around anxiously, before letting it out verbally. She also has this way of acting with her hands, a tool in her actor’s tool box that’s pretty consistent throughout her movies.

Lange puts forward an incredible performance, especially in scenes with Kim Stanley, who plays her mother continuously pushing her to act despite Frances’ wants, treating her more like property than a daughter. This movie is full of tension and heartbreak. It isn’t hard to see why Frances left Lange so drained. She gives this movie her all.

Tootsie (Pollack, 1982)

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After filming wrapped on the dark, emotionally draining Frances, Kim Stanley suggested Lange’s next project be “something light.” Lange took the advice and signed onto Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie in a supporting role opposite Dustin Hoffman.

Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an actor that’s respected for how he approaches acting, but notoriously hard to work with. After being told no one will hire him, Michael auditions for a female part dressed as a woman and is hired. Michael — or rather, his alter ego, Dorothy — plays an outspoken hospital administrator on a soap opera. Lange plays Julie Nichols, a soft-spoken yet spunk fan favorite soap star. She knows how the industry works, accepts it and works it.

Michael is instantly attracted to Julie, thus Dorothy quickly befriends her. Posing as a woman allows for Michael to get to know Julie as a person, a friend, rather than a man who wants to get to know a woman because he’s attracted to her. Through their friendship and how he’s treated as a woman, Michael gains perspective. By being as assertive as a man would, but looking like a woman, Michael, rather, Dorothy, inspires women everywhere, including Julie, who finds the courage to make changes in her life.

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Lange is at her best in a scene where Julie and Michael (in disguise as Dorothy) share a bed for the night. Usually, this convention would be used to up the sexual tension between the two leads, but here, in the dark, just before drifting to sleep, Julie talks about her childhood and her deceased mother, longing for the past and that innocence lost. It’s powerful and reveals so much about her character. I’ve always considered Lange the Modern Queen of the Monologue and this is an example of how she practiced and cultivated that skill.

Lange might have went for a lighter role, but Tootsie isn’t meaningless fluff. It’s a great combination of comedy and social commentary that calls out sexist attitudes and behavior toward women while remaining light and entertaining.

Losing Isaiah (Gyllenhaal, 1995)

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Jessica Lange plays Margaret Lewin, a social worker with a never-say-die attitude and a big heart. When baby Isaiah, is rushed to the ER after being left in the trash outside of a crack house, Margaret refuses to give up on him despite his plethora of health problems, including a predisposed addiction to crack cocaine. Lange nurses the baby back to health and decides to adopt him. Years later, Isaiah’s biological mother, Khaila Richards (Halle Berry), a former drug addict, gets her life together and wants Isaiah back, taking Margaret and her family to court.

I watch a lot of movies and I’d say a low percentage make me feel emotionally compromised. Not even Pixar’s masterful emotional manipulation has been able to make me a blubbering mess. That being said, this movie reminds me that, yes, I do have emotions and Jessica Lange knows just how to tap into them. In a court scene, Khaila’s lawyer (Samuel L. Jackson) uses strategic race-based arguments against Margaret while she in turn argues the importance of love and I could feel it, how much Margaret loved Isaiah. Between Lange and Jackson, the scene is intense as both sides make their point and I can’t imagine a better matchup for this type of verbal sparring.

One of my absolute favorite things about Jessica Lange is the way she can pace dialogue. She knows how fast or slow to talk, knows when to pause, to take a breath, to take two. She makes breathing look like a skill and an art. She also builds a complete character through gestures and body language. In the scene where Margaret finds out they’re being taken to court and calls her husband to tell him, she’s frantic and anxious and falling apart. Again with the hands, she scratches up and down the length of her arm, a sort of nervous tick. She doesn’t just act with her eyes and her voice, but her hands, all of her. She embodies the character.

Grey Gardens (Sucsy, 2009)

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Grey Gardens is a fictional account of the real lives of Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore) and her mother, Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier (Jessica Lange) in their beloved Grey Gardens estate between 1936-1975.

In Grey Gardens, Lange’s years and years of acting experience culminate and shine. She sings and does a dance punctuated with a hip thrust. She silently tears up, she outright cries and she’s so effortlessly charming even when she’s being a nagging mother. The cadence of her voice, how the slightest shift just brings life and character and cheek to the dialogue. The way she acts with her hands yet again and can elevate actions as mundane as petting a cat or running her fingers across the bill of her pianist’s hat in a silent show of affection.

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Her character is quick and sharp and so lonely. Her loneliness manifests is so many ways other than outright saying it. Though, when it does manifest through words, it’s with such bite. Edith even tries to use comedy to cover her loneliness. It’s funny until the context sets in and the emptiness follows. She creates that effect so well.  I’m less sold on Drew Barrymore’s performance, but those two work brilliantly together to portray this complicated yet lovely relationship between mother and daughter. I’m definitely sold on the idea that not only is Lange great, but she forces her scene partners to match her, resulting in a high level of quality acting all around.

Seeing Lange in old age makeup is necessary, I know, and initially distracting, but when she’s acting, especially with her eyes, it becomes less so. Her acting, what she says and how she says it is so captivating, the distractions disappear.

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2016 marks 40 years since Jessica Lange’s film debut it King Kong. 40 years of acting and she’s still going, set to return to Broadway this spring. After this movie marathon, I can firmly say she has only gotten better with age. She refuses to be put and kept in a box, continuing to take on different roles in different formats, slipping in and out of the skin of so many different kinds of characters. Most of all, her performances make me feel. I believe good actors can put on tremendous performances, but great ones make you feel. Jessica Lange is greatness. She’s a legend. She’s one of the greatest of all time.

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This has been my contribution to The Marathon Stars Blogathon. Please check out all the other wonderful posts, stars and movie marathons!

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3 thoughts on “Greatest of All Time: Jessica Lange (A Film Marathon)

  1. Virginie Pronovost March 11, 2016 / 1:14 pm

    Excellent article! We really feel your love for this actress while reading it. 🙂 Even if I’ve only seen 2 of her films, she’s also a favourite of mine. It’s hard to to like her. I absolutely loved her in All that Jazz and she was also great it Tootsie!

  2. March 13, 2016 / 1:15 pm

    I had seen Tootsie, but really became a fan of Jessica’s with AHS. But I need to dive into her filmography like you did! I really, really want to watch Frances now!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

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