Jessica Lange: Is This Any Way to Run a Career?

Early in her career, Jessica Lange made two relentlessly movies--The Postman Always Rings Twice and Frances -- in rapid succession. At this point, her friend and Frances co-star, Kim Stanley, suggested that she accept a role in "the first comedy you're offered." The first comedy she was offered was Tootsie, for which Lange won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. The question, then, is Where has Kim Stanley been since then? Where was Kim Stanley when Lange was getting ready to make Far North, was gearing up for Sweet Dreams, was reading the script for Everybody's All-American? Where was Kim Stanley when Jessica Lange really needed her?

One thing you can say for Lange--and there are many good things you can say for her--is that she seems to have a pretty sound idea of where her films fit into the history of American cinema. Asked if she expects to see any sequels to her movies in the theaters any time soon, Lange whimsically shakes her head and sighs, "No." No, there will be no Country II, no Far North by Northwest, no Sweeter Dreams, no First Blood: Crimes of the Heart Part II. Indeed, Lange doesn't even want to think about where Jewell Ivy and her beleaguered family from Country are today.

"Don't even ask" she sighs "They lost the farm, probably, and they're making do the best they can in some small town". She says this while sitting in an inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, not far from the farm where she lives with Sam Shepard and their three kids. Also located nearly is Thomas Jefferson's ancestral abode, Monticello. It is ironic that Large should be discussing a highly praised but not terribly lucrative film about the plight of well-meaning farmers who couldn't make a go of it, because Thomas Jefferson was a highly praised, well-meaning farmer who couldn't make a go of it, ending up $1 million in debt. Of course, Jefferson, like Lange, had other qualities.

The more obvious of those qualities were on display in her first movie, King Kong, in which an ape dwarfed in size only by Dino Delaurentiis's ego put the finger on her. After digging her way out of that artistic crypt by showing that she could act like hell--in Postman and Frances--Lange hauled down an Oscar with an adroit performance as an ethereal bim-bo-who-wants-to-grow in Tootsie. Since then, she has spent the better part of a decade making movies that are definitely not shoring up the fragile financial infrastructure of the film industry, even if she does keep getting good reviews.

Yes, Lange has mastered the art of giving solid performances in a series of bombs, near-bombs, "little" films, and projects involving her husband. These include the charming but unnecessary Sweet Dreams, the loopy Crimes of the Heart, the idiotic Everybody's All-American and the unfathomable Far North. Her unflagging ability to do good work in works that aren't too good may be artistically admirable, but if Yo-Yo Ma kept giving virtuoso performances with the Albuquerque Philharmonic, people might start to complain.

Lange is now trying to extricate herself from these mid-career doldrums by appearing in two new movies. Typically, there have been problems getting them off the assembly line. Men Don't Leave, finished in 1988 but shelved ever since, is the first film Risky Business director Paul Brickman has made in six, going on seven years. A wry, compact drama with comic overtones, it's about a newly widowed mother of two boys who tries to start a new life in downtown Baltimore.

And Music Box, completed in early 1989, marks a comeback of sorts for Constantin Costa-Gavras, the earnest but heavy-handed leftist filmmaker whose last project was the abysmal Betrayed, an implausible neofascist/ FBI love story. Lange, who always gives good, and often great, performances, needs to get some points on the scoreboard, but it remains to be seen whether roles as a lower-middle-class single mother trying to cope, or a Hungarian-American barrister forced to defend a father accused of monstrous war crimes, is what the doctor ordered. As yet, there is no sound of movie-viewing America gunning the engines of their station wagons to get to the early show.

The decision to make what one pundit calls "movies that matter" probably began with Frances, but reached its fullest expression in Country, the 1984 film about a doomed Iowa farming family, which Lange co-produced. This searing indictment of Jimmy Carter's grain embargo, Ronald Reagan's ruthless economic policies, the Federal Farm Home Loan Board, the United States Department of Agriculture, the American banking community, Modern Civilization, and anything else that happened to get in the line of fire, was a microcosm of Lange's career: a well-acted, well-scripted, well-directed movie that never seriously challenged Gone With the Wind for box office supremacy. Lange, who subsequently made headlines by testifying about the plight of the farmers before a Congressional subcommittee with time on its hands, is still pretty upset about the way Touchstone handled her pet project.

"The weekend it was released, the man who'd been the champion of the film got replaced," she recalls. "In came a new regime: Katzenberg and Eisner. Just those names--Katzenberg and Eisner--sound like a cartoon strip. It makes me chuckle when I think of it."

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