By John H. Foote
In the eighties there were five major actresses dominating movie screens with their work, always in the running for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, continuing to prove women were viable at the box office.
Those actresses were Sally Field, Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, the great Meryl Streep, and the often- underrated Jessica Lange.
Lange was often maligned as “that poor girl from King Kong” when they should have realized she was, by far, the very best thing in the film. Rather than play a screaming woman in distress, Lange played Dwan (that name man) as a survivor, seducing the ape as she seduced men, finally seeing Kong as a victim. She was marvelous in one mess of a movie
Three years after that mess of a movie she was cast by her friend Bob Fosse as the Angel of Death in his masterful All That Jazz (1979), an autobiographical fantasy about the director. Dressed in white, her blonde hair never as beautiful, her eyes locking on her prey, enticing him to come close to her, she was magnificent. At the end of the film as Joe (Roy Scheider) moves ever closer to someone awaiting him at the end of a tunnel, we see it is her, smiling, ready to receive him.
That performance impressed Hollywood enough to see Lange in a different light and, almost at once, her career was altered. Lead roles came in major films, she won an Oscar in a fine comedy, and through the eighties and early nineties gave an array of great performances, all in the shadow of Meryl Streep.
All actresses in movies have stood firmly in the formidable shadow of Streep. Everyone. Lange was fortunate to give performances that permitted her, from time to time, to step out into the light, away from that shadow.
She turned to Broadway in the nineties and has returned several times, appearing in such classics as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire (also filmed for TV), Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Glass Menagerie, all to great acclaim. Onscreen she tackled Shakespeare in Titus (1999) as the treacherous Queen, further rounding out her gifts.
These days Lange is best known for her award-winning work on television’s American Horror Story, a long running anthology series in which she has excelled.
Here are her finest performances in films through her career.
Honourable Mentions: ALL THAT JAZZ (1979), NORMAL (2001), ROB ROY (1995). TITUS (1999), COUSIN BETTE (2000).
10. SWEET DREAMS (1985)
Patsy Cline was best known as a country and western crooner, but those in the industry saw her as a torch singer with her marvelous voice. Though Lange does not do her own singing, she embodies the role in every way, creating Patsy Cline before our eyes. She had a troubled marriage, as she and her husband often fought bitterly, but always ended up in one another’s arms. As her fame grew, her husband struggled, leading to fights between them that were often not solved as she was heading out the door. Though she does not do her singing, she appears to be singing, equally difficult. Where the actress soars is in creating Cline, and leaving us with that heartbreaking moment when she knows she is doomed, the plane is about to crash. The look in her eyes will haunt you long after the film has ended.
9. TOOTSIE (1982)
Lange won an Oscar for supporting actress in this comedy, the finest in American film. Her performance as Julie is deceptively breezy and light, when in fact it is deep and a fine portrayal of a woman in pain. One of the stars of a network daytime drama, she encounters an actor who has dressed as a woman to get work. The entire world, including Julie, know him, er, her as Dorothy Michaels, and they quickly become fast friends, best friends, Julie confiding in Dorothy, trusting her with her darkest secrets, taking her home for Thanksgiving to where she grew up. When unmasked, Michael encounters her on the street where she admits tearfully that she misses Dorothy. Lange is wonderful as that unattainable beauty who becomes attainable to Michael because he was her friend, her best friend. The actress was exquisite.
8. MUSIC BOX (1989)
A tough uncompromising film that must be the nightmare of children born to men and women who supported Hitler and sympathized with the Nazi Party. Anna, portrayed by Lange, is a successful lawyer working in the United States, supporting her son and father who lives with her. When authorities come and arrest her father for war crimes during the Second World War she believes a mistake has been made, but the men seem very confident. She does not know her father as anything else than gentle, loving and kind and is reeling in shock. Defending her father in court, she does some digging of her own, and is horrified at what she discovers. The man she knew as her father is a monster. It is a tough-minded movie, and Lange is superb, radiating intelligence and moral indignation. And this time, the Academy took note, honouring her with a nomination for Best Actress.
7. GREY GARDENS (2006)
In a tour de force of acting Lange and Drew Barrymore are astounding as Big Edie and Little Edie, a bizarre mother and daughter related to Jacqueline Kennedy. After spending their lives in luxury, their husband-father abandons them, the massive home they live in falls into disrepair until they are living in squalor. Cats run rampant, dropping feces throughout the old house, raccoons and other wild life make it their home as well, opening the home up to diseases. All the while the two women, being filmed for what became a popular documentary, do not seem to care that they look like unstable, mentally ill fools. Lange is outstanding under layers of latex as Big Edie, a triumphant performance but I thought Barrymore stole the movie with a career best performance. One without the other would fail, they feed off one another.
6. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981)
As Cora, the wife of the older Greek that runs a diner/service station, Lange is sexually charged and electrifying. When Frank, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, arrives the sparks fly, and a torrid affair begins. Lange is superb, carnality incarnate as she walks around the restaurant boldly showing her curves to the men and Frank who dine there. When she and Frank finally make love, they tear at each other like animals in heat. Lange is like a golden lioness, begging Frank to take her, almost intimidating him with her heat. Now that they have found each other they plot to kill her husband, and their lives which should be filled with joy, are dark, empty of happiness. The actress deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Actress but incredibly, ridiculously so, was snubbed entirely. How often has Nicholson been blown off the screen?
5. BLUE SKY (1994)
For her fine performance as an unstable military wife, Lange finally won a long overdue Best Actress Oscar. Strangely the film had been sitting in a vault for more than a year, so long that the director died! In a fierce, brave performance, Lange gives herself over to the character and lets loose with a solid piece of acting. Oscar worthy? No, but it was her time. As the wild, out of control, sexual hellion she is terrific, a great physical performance in an otherwise ordinary film. Without her performance, which elevates the film into a different realm, would we even be discussing the film? As it is we are discussing Lange, not the film.
4. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1995)
After great success on stage, the play was shot for TV, opened up into a film version. Though not as powerful as the iconic 1951 version, Lange was astonishing as Blanche Du Bois, dominating the film with a near ghostly performance. That said she brought to the screen the most sexual Blanche we had ever seen, her curvy body in near constant motion, like a cat in heat, teasing, daring, though she gets far more than she deserved with the brutish Stanley. Vivien Leigh remains the greatest Blanche I have ever seen, but Lange nips at her heals portraying a fragile, broken woman clinging to her last shred of hope, only to see it smashed by a dance she starts with her sister’s husband, well played by Alec Baldwin.
3. COUNTRY (1984)
Another highly underrated film, part of the farm trilogy of films released in 1984 that explored the plight of the American farmer at a time when the government was calling loans. This film explores a family who has lived on the same land for 100 years, have borrowed to the max and the bank is calling in the loans, all of them. Their plan is to foreclose on the farmers with massive loans, sell off their equipment and then they farm the land. Lange is Jewell, the matriarch of the family doing her best to keep the farm in her father’s family and keep her husband strong after he takes to drinking. The film feels like a modern day The Grapes of Wrath (1940) with Lange outstanding as Jewell, very much like Henry Fonda in that 1940 classic. The actress commands the screen with a towering performance worthy of an Oscar that, sadly did not come.
2. FRANCES (1982)
Lange silenced any and all critics who questioned her acting talent with her searing performance as thirties actress Frances Farmer, an outspoken woman years ahead of her time, rumoured to have undergone a frontal lobotomy by her doctors to help control her rage. Farmer was a talented actress who believed art should make a statement, which is why she began fighting the studio she signed with almost at once. She eventually left Hollywood for Broadway, working with the politically charged Group Theatre, operated by Harold Clurman and a young Elia Kazan. Thinking she has found a home with the artists at the Group Theatre, she is betrayed by them too, and her life spirals downward until she is in a mental institution being raped by the guards and patients. Somehow, she climbs out of this house of horrors and gets back into entertainment, though much less than before. Lange gives a fearless performance, giving herself over to Farmer in every possible way. Had Meryl Streep not been miraculous in Sophie’s Choice (1982), that Oscar might have gone to Lange.
1. MEN DON’T LEAVE (1990)
Though likely the most unseen performance of her career, she delivered the finest work of her career. Portraying a recently widowed farmer’s wife, she uproots her sons and moved to the city to start life new. Deeply depressed, she fails to see her sons are acting out, the youngest by stealing, the oldest in the arms of an older nurse. That nurse drags Lange out of her bed and slowly brings her back to the land of the living. Lange is just unbelievable in the film, capturing the horrible darkness of depression and that long road out of it. We feel her pain, first of grief and shock from losing her husband, then allowing herself to fall deeper into the dark pit of despair. She loses control of her life and is unaware of her boys struggling with their own lives. Finally giving in to the young nurse her son is sleeping with, she begins the toughest process…healing. The film belongs entirely to Lange with a compassionate, firm performance from Joan Cusack as the nurse. Incredibly, no one saw this film, thus no nominations came, though Lange should have won…period.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”