Thursday, March 30, 2006


Jessica Lange: Body and Soul

April 2006

Kent Jones salutes the fearless screen presence of Jessica Lange.

It's fascinating to watch the careers of todays female stars, notable for their managerial savvy and self-protective skills. Witherspoon, Parker, Barrymore, and Diaz are quite a talented lot, and given the fact that they're in a business known for wasting its talent, especially its women, you can't blame them for controlling every square inch of their careers on screen and off. Each project, if not each move, seems to have been vetted and re-vetted, and they always seem to know precisely where they're going to land and exactly how hard. Witherspoon's justifiably vaunted performance in Walk the Line is a marvel of mental and physical engineering, but there are no ragged edges or gray areas - she's terrific on June Carter Cash's humility and righteousness, and she adds her patented spunkiness to good effect, but there's an overtone that has less to do with acting per se than with career management, a feeling of efficiency, containment, and economy of means. With all due allowance to the differences between the people they're playing, Witherspoon's performance makes a fascinating contrast with Jessica Lange's Patsy Cline.

Like any good Lange creation, her Patsy plays like a bullet fired with her first appearance (on the bandstand) that hits the target only with her exit from the action. Come to think of it, a plane crashing into a mountain and exploding into a beautiful ball of smoke and flame is the perfect ending to a Jessica Lange performance: pure energy and movement that can only be stopped by brute force - a frontal lobotomy, for instance, or a knife plunged into the neck - or, in this case, an act of God. Of all the soul sisters who came into their own during the Seventies and Eighties - Winger, Spacek, Clayburgh, Keaton - Lange is the most fearless, the most physical and the least cerebral. Not to imply that she's all about intuition, because Lange is a fiercely intelligent artist, but her method seems antithetical to that of the supremely meticulous Meryl Streep. Where Streep works point by point, Lange works from a basic vocabulary of moves that is retooled and modulated for every character: hand movements for emphasis that are sometimes sweeping, sometimes delicate, never less than exquisite; a penchant for quick change-ups in speed, lunges forward, and wounded withdrawals; an equally physical use of voice, which makes any given line reading a musical event; a fully dimensional sense of her own body and a very unusual if not singular feeling for line and volume. And then, of course, there are the eyes-hypnotically entrancing and always locked in, facing down errant husbands, domineering mothers, a father who might be a war criminal, even De Niro's blazing Cape Fear sociopath, with tangible self-possession."'re Max Cady aren't you?" she says to the goofy lunatic who's pulled up outside her house in his convertible. Her slightly sneering diction, her lightly creased smile (more quietly and believably lethal than anything in De Niro's broadly entertaining turn), and, most of all, her game presence, standing destruction down, make for a typically electric, voluptuous moment. Lange is finally the secret heart of Scorsese's underrated remake. The tension in Cape Fear doesn't build as much as it mutates - mother-daughter, husband-potential girlfriend, husband-wife, husband-assailant, family-assailant. A short-haired, alert, discreetly middleaged Lange puts muscle and bone into a portrait of a marriage gone sour, along with her equally fearless director and co-actor (Nick Nolte), and the domestic scenes-raw, tightly coiled, filled with a thousand little domestic irritations-stay in the memory for longer than anything that happens on the river.

Staring down the monster-this is the keynote of many Lange performances. One might say that it comes with the territory of the official cultural emergence of the Strong Independent Woman, but in Lange's case it's not a rhetorical gambit or a "statement" but an internally generated reflex. "I always have to find the simplest line, the most organic emotional thread," the actress has said, and it strikes me that locating the threat must be at the heart of her process. Lange hones in on her characters' conflicts, within and without, and each resulting performance is an ongoing, dynamic struggle to right the balance, resolve the tension. Much more than an aria of madness, in Frances her Frances Farmer is a soldier fighting battles on multiple fronts: against her mother, her straitlaced community, her professional exploiters, her doctors and attendants, her own unruly neural impulses, and finally - and so, so sadly and eloquently - her own mental containment. Carly Marshall in Blue Sky, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress (1994), is less agonized and more vivacious, a bright flag flying in the breeze, fighting her wildest urges and compulsions. Similarly, her highly enteraining duels with Sam Shepard's returning cowboy star in the shaggy Don't Come Knocking become face-offs with her own past vulnerability. To look closely at Lange's full-frontal career is to realize how many other actors, even the good ones, make an art of retreating, or digging in.

The legend goes that Lange, a Minnesota girl of Polish-Finnish extraction, was so entranced by a screening of Children of Paradise in the early Seventies that she left SoHo and her boyfriend behind and headed for Paris to study with the great mime Etienne Decroux. Did miming bring the physicality out of Lange, or had she found a discipline that allowed her to hone and refine what already came naturally? It certainly came in handy when she was playing to a blue screen for most of her debut in the 1976 discoid remake of King Kong. To revisit this entertaining de Laurentiis tinker toy is quite a jolt - was there really a time when moviemakers made comic book extravaganzas this unpretentious? Lange's Dwan ("Dwan - D-w-a-n - Dwan, like Dawn, except I switched two letters.") is, on paper, a funny variation on the ditzy chorus girl (she arrives on an inflatable raft, having escaped the explosion of a luxury yacht because she refused to watch Deep Throat with the rest of the passengers). The young Lange brings the role a lot extra, spilling out of the smutty AW magazine conception in much the same way that Dwan keeps spilling out of her rhinestone dresses. If, say, Goldie Hawn had played Dwan, then the full comic potential of a line like, "Put me down, you male chauvinist ape!" might have been realized. As Lange delivers it, you get the feeling that she really means it. Broad comedy is not her strong suit.

I will assume the minority opinion and say that The Postman Always Rings Twice was another false start. Not that Lange is bad in the film-it's a formidable performance and a fascinatingly imploded one, emphasizing the wounded hurt and devastation in Cora, the discomfort, the pockets of darkness. But she has no room to breathe, let alone move, and neither does the audience. This Postman is over-art-directed and overcomposed, the tempo too rigidly set, the tone too uniformly downbeat, and Nicholson, aside from the fact that he's too old for the part, seems like he's conducting a secret acting experiment and reporting back to Kubrick. Lange certainly had the equipment to pull off a good Cora, but both the actress and her character needed a little more room to stretch out. Which she got plenty of in both Frances and Tootsie, the latter earning her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (1982).

Allow me, for a moment, to step back and remember myself at 22, plunking down my $4.50 and coming out dazed by Lange and her extraordinary power in these two very different movies. And by her beauty. The adjective "luminous" is employed way too often to describe actresses-critics use it as liberally as the customers at Nathan's use ketchup. In Lange's case, it's just. Liberated from King Kong's airbrushed light and Postman's sallow compositions-and leaving behind all the scrims and fancy angles of All That Jazz - Lange revealed herself in full, and it was a shock. Who had skin so soft and glowing eyes so blue, a smile so big? Her joy was as overpowering as her waves of sadness, and her physical eloquence delivered the killer blow. I remember sitting in the audience, gazing up at the screen, and silently vocalizing what was surely a collective sentiment shared by young men across the country if not the world: "I surrender..."

Lange is about as captivating in Tootsie as it's possible for an actor to be - self-assured, effortlessly winning, going about the business of playing a charmingly naive character with an ease and a self-assurance that acts as a balm on the hardworking tone and relentless pace set by the star. By itself, her Julie Nichols is a nice comic performance. In tandem with her Frances Farmer, which came out the same year, it's astonishing. Lange is ferocious in Frances, and very, very scary. She commits herself to her character's instability and unpredictability as fully as her Tamora pledges revenge in Julie Taymor's Titus - it's her character's best defense in a hostile universe. Her scenes with the clinic director (Lane Smith) are probably the most terrifying in the movie, and they are remarkable for the fact that Lange the actress is embodying Farmer the actress exercising her own cunning, playing mind games with the obtuse doctor, hovering near physical violence, and, once she's cornered, retreating. Many actors have "done" madness, but few have understood its underlying logic and imperatives or described its contours so well. Lange's Frances overwhelms and finally dwarfs the filmmakers' Frances, and she is far more powerful and fully realized than the modish, lazy movie around her (on the other hand, someone was smart enough to turn the movie over to her in the first place). The same is true of many of Lange's movies, and it doesn't strike me as a result of vanity or excessive self-admiration (as it is with, for instance, Warren Beatty or Harrison Ford). Lange always works in tandem with her fellow actors, and never steps aside from the movie around her. In the end, this is a directorial problem - few have been up for the challenges she throws down without even trying.

Blue Sky is finally as ungainly as Frances, and Sweet Dreams now seems disappointingly monotonous, moving dutifully from one biopic chapter to the next just as Lange and Harris are getting started. Sam Shepard was smart enough to build the underrated Far North around her, but it's a modest, homemade enterprise. Lange met her match in Scorsese, but Cape Fear is not her movie, as hard as she and Nolte work with their director to turn the genre setup inside out. She has done wonderful and more self-effacing work in the air-filled 1986 adaptation of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart (probably her sexiest performance), Men Don't Leave and A Thousand Acres, and she's hilariously uptight and buttoned down in Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. Arguably, her shining hour thus far came in 1989 with Music Box. "She has the will and the technique to take a role that's really no more than a function of melodrama and turn this movie into a cello concerto," wrote Pauline Kael, ever so aptly.

Music Box is a fairly solid example of the late Eighties/early Nineties subgenre of the career woman under threat, her vulnerability located and her mettle tested. Remember Cher as a crack criminal lawyer? Sissy Spacek as a whistleblower? Or (God help us) Melanie Griffith's 1992 doubleheader as a WWII super-spy and an undercover cop? Probably not, but Lange's haunted Ann Talbot is hard to shake."The only thing I know about this film is that it's a love story. It's about this woman's devotion and love and commitment to her family and to her father," Lange said of Costa-Gavras and Joe Eszterhas's riff on the John Demjanjuk affair. Casting Armin Mueller-Stahl as the beloved father, a man who in all probability is a Nazi war criminal and who has asked his daughter to defend him in court, was a canny move. He is motionless, intransigent, unyielding; she is in constant motion, searching for the one vantage point that will allow her to see into her father's past. Lange doesn't exactly try to bend the film to her will, but the genre allows her to, and Costa-Gavras in turn allows her enough time and space to turn his issue movie into Kael's cello concerto. Thus, a moment that might have been tossed out of any other movie - Ann sitting on the stairs, the weight of middle age and the weight of the awful task before her all but inseparable, opening her robe and studying her body - becomes a central event. The then-topical issues - the not-so-veiled anti-Semitism of the Lake Forest set, the ethical traps and dilemmas of lawyering, the presence of ex-Nazis in the heartland-are finally so many stops on one woman's painful sentimental education and psychological readjustment.

This is, finally, one of the bravest and most naturally expressive actors who ever stepped in front of a camera. Let's hope she gets to work with more directors who are up for the challenge.

- Kent Jones

On April 17th Jessica Lange will be honored (with the Gala Tribute) at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Below you will find links to the center and to Film Comment Magazine where you can purchase this month's issue (with the above article). - Gala Tribute - Film Comment Magazine