From Reverence to Rage

If it hardly seems two decades since Jessica Lange first lit up the radar screen of American cinema, perhaps we--and the Walker Art Center, which is hosting a Lange retrospective throughout October--can be forgiven for disregarding the early years of primate clutches (King Kong, 1976) and death-angel cameos (All That Jazz, 1979). Around the time that she scored an Academy Award for her shimmering, sad soap-opera actress in Tootsie (1982), Lange began to choose roles that allowed her more emotional play: the outrageous, institutionalized Frances Farmer (Frances); Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; and the saucy, manic-depressive Carly in Blue Sky, which earned her another Oscar.

Critic Molly Haskell, who will interview the Cloquet, Minnesota, native Friday evening in a sold-out Regis Dialogue at the Walker, describes the typical Lange character as "a woman whose emotions invariably dominate her keen intelligence." To me, that's like saying that all Macintosh apples have dark-brown seeds: Almost every female character out of Hollywood fits Haskell's sketch, with the exception of those whose emotions dominate their dull intelligence. Speaking on the phone from her occasional home in Stillwater, Lange herself is more specific: "My favorite characters are usually the ones who are kind of out there on the edge, who are almost tipping over that edge into madness." Even her saner characters, like the farm wife in Country, are often pushed into what she calls "extreme emotional situations."

Lange's blonde, round, stereotypically all-American beauty leaves her characters' upheavals and disintegrations all the more startling--and tangled. The head cheerleader should appear vulnerable, but not, as Lange's Broadway co-star Amy Madigan once put it, scarily so. She should be perky, but not ferocious, not wild, not mad (in either sense); she should not feel so intensely. Lange resists the notion that her roles deliberately fuck with a long-cherished image of receptive, generous femininity. But in my mind, that's exactly what makes her acting so wise, and so emblematic of these changing times.

Lange and I spoke last week on an unseasonably warm morning that she described as "glorious." Like any good Minnesotan, she is polite and comfortably engaging, and she knows how to talk weather.

CITY PAGES: Retrospectives tend to be put together when the artist is at the tail end of a career bell curve. What's it like to be granted this one at age 48--when, as you've said recently, you feel like you're just hitting your stride as an actor?

JESSICA LANGE: Maybe that's all an illusion--maybe I'm really at the end of the bell curve [laughs]. It is an odd sensation, looking back, when you feel like you're just getting started. But there are a half-dozen or 10 films that I'm really proud of, and if that's what you need to make a retrospective, then I guess it's not too premature.

CP: Did the Walker ask you for your favorite films?

JL: They had their choices, and they were pretty much the same as mine. I think they added one or two that hadn't been on my original list: Men Don't Leave, for instance. Not that I don't like it--it's just one that I don't think of real often. The way it was released and distributed, it was not seen widely. It actually is a good little movie.

CP: A Thousand Acres represents the first time you've worked with another woman actor of your stature--not only starring with Michelle Pfeiffer, but buying the book rights with her and collaborating on the production. What, if anything, did you take away from that experience?

JL: I loved working with Michelle; there was a real communion as far as how we approached the work... I felt, with her, an absolute natural quality to the work. From a business point of view, the film is so fresh in my mind, it's very hard for me to think of it in terms of what it brought or what it didn't bring--I think that's all left to see. I had a tremendous disappointment in the film--not in working with Michelle, or in the work that we did, but in what's finally up on the screen, which is not at all what I had hoped the film would be. The thing is, we had the wrong director. She [Jocelyn Moorhouse] didn't make the film that needed to be made. There's no blame there, you can't blame anybody but yourself, because ultimately you were in on the decision to hire this particular person. We made a huge mistake, and you pay the consequences of this.

CP: Your film persona has a sort of soft quality that other critics have described as "vulnerability" or "sexiness." The films you've been in have exploited that classic feminine softness; but at the same time you also seem to take advantage of it by playing off it, playing against it, screwing with it. Like in A Thousand Acres...  

JL: In that particular case, I felt that with the character of Ginny, there's a time in her life where she stops developing, especially in relation to her father. I tried to do that in the film: In those moments with her father, she does still appear--I wanted her to appear--as a 15-year-old girl, because that's when her emotional development, especially in relation to him, ended. You see it often, actually, with women, probably more so in the South than up here--I hate to make these kind of generalizations--that little girl quality that is used so very effectively.

CP: With Carly in Blue Sky, you also played off a sort of seductive girlishness.

JL: Definitely Blue Sky--she's like a spoiled child. But that was very specific to her. And again, that's in relation to her husband, because remaining a child was her excuse for getting away with this kind of irrational, and kind of unconscionable, behavior--with her promiscuity and everything else she does.

CP: I read an interview just a few weeks ago where you said you were done with those sorts of freak-out, breakdown, wild-hair roles.

JL: I know [laughs]. I usually say things like that after I've just finished one. Because it does take its toll. You spend three or four months investigating the dark side of human nature, or the madness... I mean, people might wonder why I've done Blanche DuBois three separate times. It's because the character still remains fascinating to me. But every time I finish doing it, I think, Ah God, why am I doing this? It's nuts. I don't want to keep playing crazy people.

CP: What other kinds of roles might you do instead?

JL: Well, that's the problem, because to play just kind of a straight...[sighs] I mean, I've tried that before, and I must say, I've been bored to death. So...I don't know. I'm going to do a production in London of Long Day's Journey Into Night, so right there I'm back in the throes of what I said I don't want to do anymore [laughs]. Of course that role's a twist that I haven't done--a character that's not mad but who's a servant to a kind of greater evil. I've also got a film coming up that's different from anything I've done before: We're doing an adaptation of a Colette novel, called Chéri. It's a real love story, but there's a twist to it--I guess that's what I'm always looking for, y'know, for that twist when the story somehow transcends the ordinary.

CP: Sigourney Weaver complained recently in Movieline about the one-sidedness of the current cinema wave of May-December romances--all these sixtysomething men courting 20- and 30-year-olds, and not even a peep about how weird it is. She said she wanted to star with Johnny Depp, which reminds me of the Chéri story.

JL: Chéri might actually shock people--there's a huge age difference there, and it's gonna turn things around a great deal for people to see a 48-year-old woman with an 18-year-old boy. What's acceptable for a man to do is not necessarily acceptable for a woman [laughs]. So I'm actually looking forward to it--you know [sounding sly], it's kind of a silly system out there.

CP: I wonder why the movies have been shy about exploring the older woman/younger man scenario--they're usually so obsessed with sexual taboos.

JL: Well, I don't think you could say that films nowadays are really delving into any kind of dangerous area--it seems to me we've hit about the safest period of filmmaking since I've been involved. When you compare the kind of films that were being done, say, in the '70s and the kind of films being done now, it looks like everybody's running pretty scared out there, doing what's politically correct, what's acceptable, and what's commercial.

CP: Perhaps the sight of older women being passionate disturbs some people. The Graduate definitely made that idea seem very creepy.

JL: But she's very predatory, very destructive. With Chéri, it really is a love story, and completely reciprocal: Both are desperately in love but driven apart by this very thing. You can probably count on one hand the films that have dealt with that. What was that one--in the '60s, or was it the early '70s, with Ruth Gordon? Harold and Maude. That made a lot of people very nervous; that really was a difference in age [laughs]. This one won't be quite that bad.  

CP: Have you ever heard the Nirvana song, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"?

JL: You know, my daughter played that for me.

CP: It amazes me how pertinent Frances continues to be--not only to Kurt Cobain's situation, but to the media madness around Princess Di's death. There's that scene where Farmer's mother cries something like, "You've got to go back to Hollywood! Your fans need you!" What, if anything, do you think performers owe their fans?

JL: I've never bought into that. I think an artist, whether you're an actor or a musician or whatever, your first obligation is to your craft and to what makes you happy doing it. But I'm probably not the best person to comment, because I've never felt that kind of pressure. I mean, I'm not a rock star, I'm not a huge movie star. I don't get pursued on the street, I don't need bodyguards... I don't even know who my fans are, to tell you the truth [laughs]. I don't feel connected to that part of it whatsoever.

CP: Which has partly been your choice.

Jessica Lange: In Retrospect runs through October 29 at the Walker Art Center, with double-features each Wednesday at 7 p.m. and a sneak preview of Lange's most recent film, Cousin Bette, on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m.

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