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Meryl Streep, in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
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Best Actress: Perennials Jessica Lange
5 Nominations (82, 84, 85, 89, 94)
1 Win (94)
1 Supporting Nomination (82)
1 Supporting Win (82)

click boldfaced years for profiles of those races

I wrote this article in 2011 and have not updated it to encompass more recent work, including Lange's award-winning work in the various iterations of TV's American Horror Story.

Fandom of Jessica Lange feels in some ways like the most natural disposition in the world. Who would foreswear it, and for God's sakes, why? But there is also something disreputable about it. For as many people who love her, there seem to be a comparable number whom she sets on edge. Certainly by the early 1990s, and possibly earlier, to stump for Lange was to stand for a palpably divisive cause. Meeting another ardent Lange enthusiast feels somehow riskier, more intimate than meeting someone who likes Bette Davis or Julie Andrews or Jodie Foster as much as you do. She herself isn't a "type" and her loyalists don't conform to one, either; you often find that fellow cinephiles with whom you typically agree are unpredictable or out of synch with you on the topic of Lange. Conversely, whenever another actor lists Lange as a guiding influence or personal cause célèbre, I grow instantly, unreasonably fond of the actor in question: easy to do when it's Holly Hunter, less so when it's Rosie Perez.

"Is it a crime to look at Lange?" was posed as a nonsense question in IHuckabees, but as with many jokes, there's a nib of truth to it, especially given the well-known truth shared among this actress's admirers, and responsible for the lion's share of our excitement: that she's frequently more brilliant than you can imagine anyone else being in the same parts, or in any parts, but she often skirts gaudiness and self-repetition in passages of her best work, and she's been outright bad on more occasions than peers like Meryl Streep or Sissy Spacek have been. She has the wildness and idiosyncratic power of someone like Kim Stanley or Gena Rowlands, but where Stanley's real wheelhouse was the theater and Rowlands's came in nervy, reckless counter-cinema, Lange at her peak was a fixture of the kind of middlebrow, modest but marketable movies that are exactly the sorts of vehicles her hungry, impassioned style seems destined to explode. Sometimes, she's too much, or stuck on the wrong settings; sometimes, she can't or won't disguise how little she thinks of the movie she's in. But when she enters her zone, where almost anyone else would wilt or shiver apart, she's utterly without equal.

As with Streep, it was tough in the 1980s to stumble into an Academy Awards ceremony where Lange wasn't a nominee. If Streep was the immovable claimant of the 1982 Best Actress prize from the moment Sophie's Choice opened, and probably well before that, Lange's double nominations for Frances (reviewed here) and Tootsie marked an equally storied achievement. The photos of both women standing side-by-side backstage and clutching their trophies not only make for an especially august one-two punch of winners but impart a fantasy scene that feels as though Oscar finally, and with perfect provocation, did what we often wish he would do and called a tie. Even so, that's not enough for Lange disciples like me, who think Jessica's Frances is an even more galvanizing portrait than Meryl's Sophie, and who remain jealous of a victory that most Oscar junkies would classify as one of the category's unimpeachable coronations.

Like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons, Lange earned notices for Frances and the previous year's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice that boiled over with rapturous, slightly scared enthusiasm: "We didn't know that she could do that." And like Close, Lange has spent much of her subsequent film career struggling to get cast in any other roles besides the ones that initially, ironically, seemed so beyond her reach. Still, the circumstances are importantly different. Close had time to demonstrate in Garp and The Big Chill and The Natural how pristine and upright and somehow noble she was, so the big break, when it came, was in the tone and shape of her roles. Before Postman and Frances, though, Lange was an actress-model with a big stress on the second term: the screaming beauty from King Kong and the lithe, wicked death's head in All That Jazz. So in her case, the headline news was that she could act at all. And how! Even though Tootsie earned her the Oscar, she's barely had another film role that invited anything similar from her, with the exceptions of her gentle, compassionate underplaying of the improvising single mom in Men Don't Leave and, in some ways, the undistinguished supporting role in Wim Wenders's Don't Come Knocking, which has none of the bruised qualities of lunar soap actress Julie Nichols or lonely but durable Beth McCauley but at least it doesn't require her to fly up the wall or angrily shake the tears out of her face. No wonder that Tootsie and Men Don't Leave are a lot of people's favorite Lange films. She's so furious and volatile in so many of the others—as the seething wife in Cape Fear, the unstable Bardot wannabe in Blue Sky (reviewed here), the crazed villains in Hush and Titus—that she's not an easy actress to get next to. Despite the consistent and strongly marked mannerisms of many a Lange performance, she's not the kind of actor who dulls her effects by detouring our attention to her own craftsmanship. When she's angry, she feels angry—not in that Fatal Attraction way that feels discomfiting in its precise, incisive detailing, but in a way that signals that both the actress and the character have given over fully to their wrath, and that someone, possibly even Lange, is going to get hurt. The same principle inheres in the voluminous sadness she summons as the primary touchstone of some performances, like the one she gives as the most taciturn sister in Crimes of the Heart, and for long, important passages of almost all her others. It's not a sadness you read or interpret, and it has no fine, genteel qualities. It's like a vortex, or a throat: its muscles just swallow the audience, and sometimes the rest of the movie. This can constitute a boon or a problem, depending on how sturdy the rest of the film is and whether it's banking at all on the kind of formal decorousness or clean, glassy structures that a fully-pistoned Lange performance tends to sandblast or erode.

Anger and sorrow: they're what Lange does best, so it's no wonder how many times she's been recruited to fuse them together. The farm wife in Country, another farm wife in A Thousand Acres (reviewed here), the adoptive mother in Losing Isaiah, the disillusioned lawyer in Music Box: they're all characterized by species of functional melancholy until they withstand or uncover something that really inflames their bile and blood. Which also means that anger, in a Lange film, is often the principal byproduct of gaining information, maybe even the coefficient of her basic intelligence. Her characters don't get dolorous when they learn something, which is why she feels so fresh and tensile in melodramas. Instead, her characters start out baleful and then they undergo some form of caustic education and then they get good and mad. Like a lot of people, I tend to retreat from anger in myself or in others, and in some ways, I'm surprised that I was so smitten so early with an actress who was such a steady conduit of it. But Lange's rages, in the best cases, point a legitimate, even articulate arrow at something worth decrying. Country and Music Box, otherwise very different movies, are prototypical examples; Blue Sky falters because it flails at furnishing a plausible source, much less a functioning narrative, beneath all the flamboyantly high dudgeon into which it keeps goading the diva.

The tentative, pablum-fed cinema of the American 80s needed anger and sorrow like this. Even when the emotions of Lange's characters are prompted by a man—and they tended to be virile, tough, complicated men, like Ed Harris in Sweet Dreams, Alec Baldwin in A Streetcar Named Desire, Liam Neeson in Rob Roy, or Tommy Lee Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—the emotions plainly exceed these men. Lange is an eager, generous, carnally committed interactor on screen, but her leading men offer provisional frames of reference for wellsprings of feeling that you sense she'd be tapping even without them. And for that very reason, she gets these estimable, authoritative actors looking awed by her, and primed for the chance to play up to a leading lady who intimidates and inspires them.

I'm indulging lots of the standbys and clichés about Lange, and I haven't even gotten to her patent, restless, refreshing Midwesternness in a profession full of blooming Californians, New England valedictorians, and southern magnolias. But there are swaths of Lange's career, for better and worse, that are harder to know what to say about. I have avoided Everybody's All American because she so famously reviled it and Far North because everyone else did, but I'll eventually come around. Tim Burton's Big Fish is the only movie she's made in twenty years that got any eyeballs on it in theaters, and there's not a thing to see in it. I'm tempted to call it her blandest performance, lacking even the compelling slash-marks and unevenness of her leopard-queen gusto in Titus or of the incongruous, interesting spectacle of seeing her attempt 19th-century period and devilish social critique in Des McAnuff's strange but fun Balzac adaptation Cousin Bette. Her voice and her bodily carriage personify middle-aged sexiness opposite Bill Murray for a solid stretch of the disappointing Broken Flowers (reviewed here), even if her new, Botoxed face is a disappointment, like watching a lioness mess around with lipstick. I could take or leave most of her last decade of work, as I suspect could she. The keepers, for me, are her subtle, unexpectedly soft touch with the tough, the tender, and the comically exasperated beats in Jane Anderson's Normal as well as her sly, couture vulgarity as a sort of postapocalyptic TV-studio shill in the Bob Dylan vanity project Masked and Anonymous (reviewed here and here). She'll never be eligible to headline the kinds of popular larks that Meryl is emceeing these days, but in her off-the-radar way she, too, may be gravitating toward comedy. I didn't see anything new in her familiar, ccasionally shrill performance in the flashback scenes of Grey Gardens, but the pert, skeptical lucidity she brings to her old-age scenes yield some of the picture's funniest as well as its sharpest moments. Drew Barrymore's still best in show in that feature, but that in itself is revealing in a positive way. Imagining Lange not as the isolated griever, stormer, wailer, or crusader of her 80s projects but as an engaged mentor-collaborator with younger women in Hollywood opens hugely intriguing possibilities for where she could still go.

Will that Grey Gardens Emmy be enough to spark a Lange revival? Is her agent feeling motivated? Is she eager for his calls? Few Hollywood actresses have ever commanded the camera as stunningly as Lange does: as Frances Farmer gradually computes that her personal, intellectual ambitions for Hollywood artistry have nothing to do with its baselines and business protocols; as Julie Nichols tells Michael Dorsey while they stroll down a sidewalk that she "knows what he meant"; as Jewell Ivy grasps that her family and their fields can't presume a shred of respect or protection from the dishonestly folksy politics of the Reagan era; as her vital but erratic Patsy Cline magnetizes to the libido and the hot temper of husband Charlie Dick; as Ann Talbot pieces together the hard truths of her bloodline; as Leigh Bowden begs for clemency from the rampaging killer Max Cady, in her tearful but stern way; as Nina Veronica hustles a boardroom of network execs to endorse a benefit concert that makes her personally want to throw up. But surely there are more duos and ensembles that are yearning for Lange to join, either with vaunted comrades from her past like Jones and Shepard or with new colleagues as unpredictable as Barrymore. I love that she shuns the tacky mall-movie cameos and subpar television that have beefed up the bank accounts of her peers in recent years, but that's no excuse for younger film fans to miss what she brings to the table. There's a whole new generation of actors and filmmakers and audiences with whom Lange has barely interacted. I'm eager to see her knock another performance or two out of the park, but honestly, I'm just as eager to start arguing about her again. FAQs / Leave a Comment

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