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F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation, “There are no second acts in American life,” continues to be quoted despite having been disproved time and again. The most dramatic second act may have been Ronald Reagan's transformation from B movie actor to president of the United States. Jessica Lange also proved that second acts are possible, and like Reagan, who never lived down his role opposite a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo, she had a monkey to contend with. Moviegoers first saw her squirming in the paw of a 40-foot ape known as Kong.

Born on April 30, 1949 in Cloquet, Minnesota, Jessica Phyliss Lange's family lived like gypsies, moving constantly as her father changed jobs. Eventually the family, which included two older sisters and a younger brother, settled in Minnesota.  

“I never felt like I belonged in Minnesota when I was growing up there,” she said. “That's why I was out the door as soon as I turned 18.” By then she was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, but she didn't stick around long enough to finish the year.

Infatuated with a visiting photography professor named Paco Grande, she took off with him to visit New York and Paris. The two were eventually married and settled in New York where Lange tried to decide on a career.

After seeing Jean-Louis Barrault as a mime in the 1945 French film, Les Enfants du Paradis, she made the decision to study mime in Paris with Etienne Decroux. The interest in mime didn't do much for her marriage, but it proved a stepping stone to acting which she studied on her return to New York. To earn money, she worked as a waitress and signed up as a model with the Wilhelmina Agency.

“I have been a waitress, and I was a damn fine waitress too,” she said, but dismissed the claim that she was a successful model. “I doubt that anybody could find a published photograph of me.” 

Modeling was strictly a way to supplement her income. “The year I modeled was the most painful year of my life,” she said. “Editors would always talk to you in the third person as though you were merely a piece of merchandise.”

It was through the modeling agency that she landed her first big-screen role, playing Dwan, the heroine of producer Dino De Laurentiis' remake of 1933's King Kong. Arriving in theaters at Christmas 1976 with a then astronomical $25 million budget and even greater ballyhoo, the star, of course, was the giant monkey. But the beast needed a beauty to tug at his heart strings, and the 25-year-old Lange inhabited that role more convincingly than Rick Baker filled Kong's hairy suit. Blonde and beautiful with a pair of eyes so bewitching that it's not surprising she could tame the King of the Jungle, the Lange was poised for superstardom.

A box-office hit, King Kong nonetheless inspired more snickers than awe from audiences, and critics savaged the beast as gleefully as the Army's helicopters did at the film's climax. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby described the film as having “something for everybody, including the witless,” and found the heroine “aggressively unpleasant and out of place in this sort of movie.” Canby blamed the script for that, not Miss Lange, but having to spout some of the campiest dialogue in film history (such as calling Kong “a male chauvinist ape”), Lange did not emerge unscathed.

“It was my first movie,” she told Roger Ebert at the time of its release, “and people would take me aside and tell me that no matter how many more movies I made, I'd never make another one like this.”  

Lange could thank her lucky stars for that, but after sliding out of Kong's hirsute grasp, it didn't look like she would make any kind of movie ever again. Her acting career came to an immediate standstill for three years. In later years, Lange would express no regrets about accepting the role that started and almost ended her career. “It wasn't something I thought twice about...I mean, I was a waitress living in a fifth floor walk-up in the Village at the time.”

In 1979, she managed to snag a role in the comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living, and thanks to director/choreographer Bob Fosse, landed a small part in his autobiographical All That Jazz.

A year earlier, she had auditioned for the role that went to Mary Steenbergen in Goin' South which Jack Nicholson starred in as well as directed. After agreeing to star in Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nicholson remembered Lange and recommended her for the role of Cora with whom he is drawn into a love affair that leads to murder. In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert described the film as a “triumph of atmosphere” marked by dazzling performances, but wondered “What is this movie saying about its characters?” The film didn't remain in theaters for long, but appearing opposite Jack Nicholson only enhanced her reputation which would soar a year later.

In an acting class, her coach recommended she read a book about the tragic life of actress Frances Farmer, suggesting that she would be ideal to play the role if they ever made a film of her story. It turned out that Graeme Clifford, the editor on The Postman Always Rings Twice, was planning to do just that. “Graeme told me he'd sit in the editing room all day watching me up there, and all the time he was imagining me as Frances.”

The film followed the strong willed Farmer from her Seattle girlhood to fame on Broadway and in Hollywood, to her horrifying experiences in a mental hospital.

“All my life I've harbored anger rather than expressed it at the moment,” Lange said. “Once I started on Frances, I discovered it was literally a bottomless well. It devastated me to maintain that for eighteen weeks, to be immersed in this state of rage for twelve to eighteen hours a day. It spilled all over into other areas of my life. I was really hell to be around.”

Suddenly, Lange was back in the spotlight, but this time there was no giant ape competing with her for attention. Though critics were not wholly approving of Frances as a whole, Lange was praised for her performance, hailed by Sheila Benson in The Los Angeles Times as “a combination of forcefulness, intelligence and a haunting sensuality.” Vincent Canby in The New York Times found her performance “so unfaltering, so tough, so intelligent and humane that it seems as if Miss Lange is just now, at long last, making her motion picture debut.”

Recognizing the emotional ordeal that Lange experienced in making the film, Kim Stanley, the veteran actress who played her mother, recommended she make a comedy next to “get your mind off this.”

Dustin Hoffman was attracted to Tootsie in the hope of discovering “what makes a man, what makes a woman, what is gender?” Most reports suggest that there were few laughs on the set of the gender bending comedy as the star repeatedly clashed with director Sydney Pollock. 

“You know, that was one of those that I had no idea how it was going to work out, to tell you the truth,” she said.

It turned out at Christmas 1982 to be a huge critical and popular success. Hoffman in drag commanded most of the attention, but Lange, having already impressed the critics with the heavy dramatics of Frances, was Hollywood's woman of the year. In The Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called Lange “more of a knockout than Frances Farmer ever was...everything Marilyn Monroe was supposed to be in Some Like It Hot, and a great deal more besides.” Of 1982, Lange said “It was one of those years when everything just explodes.” In addition to her career triumphs, her daughter Shura was born, she was divorced from her first husband, and began a long-term romantic relationship with actor/playwright Sam Shepard.

On Oscar night, Lange was competing in two categories: best actress for Frances and best supporting actress for Tootsie, winning for the latter. “Says right here,” she said when checking the envelope containing her name before expressing gratitude “to have had Dustin Hoffman as my leading lady.”

With many family-owned farms facing devastation in the '80s due to policies inaugurated by President Carter in the previous decade, and carried on by his successor, Ronald Reagan, “farm movies” became a minor trend, but 1994's Country was the best of the bunch.

“This movie observes ordinary American lives carefully, and passionately," Roger Ebert wrote.  The performances are so true you feel this really is a family.”

Lange received another best actress Oscar nomination for her performance, and would receive another nomination the following year for resurrecting legendary country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams.

“That's another of those films that were just blessed,” Lange recalled years later. “I worked on my voice for Sweet Dreams but only to match my speaking voice to Patsy's actual singing voice. That was my way into the character. All I did for months before I started filming was drive around New Mexico in my little bathtub Porsche with Patsy Cline blasting on the tape player. It was so much fun, and it was a very liberating part for me to do because it made me open up.”

Janet Maslin of The New York Times did not find Lange's lip-synching to Cline's recordings to be detrimental to her performance(in contrast to Sissy Spacek who did her own singing as Loretta Lynn in the earlier Coal Miner's Daughter) and agreed that Lange took the right approach. “What elevates these (concert) scenes from the usual concert simulations - and what gives the entire film its tremendous immediacy - is the extraordinary way in which Miss Lange has molded herself to fit the music,” adding that she “makes herself a perfect physical extension of the violent, changeable, emotionally expressive woman who can be heard on these recordings.” Roger Ebert did not disagree that Lange was exceptional, but was less enthused about the film, saying that “some lives make better stories than others,” and Cline's was a “bad country song even before it ended in a plane crash.”

For the 1986 film version of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Crimes of the Heart, Lange joined Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek. Such a dynamic trio almost guaranteed equally dynamic results, but writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby found that they were “individually splendid” but “collectively lost” in a film that “has the dubious distinction of calling attention to just about everything the play isn't, and was never meant to be.”

Lange chose her roles through a simple formula: “Can I visualize myself playing those scenes? If that happens, then I know that I will probably end up doing it.” Unfortunately, some of those roles she could visualize herself playing were in films unworthy of her talents. One such project was 1990's Music Box. On the plus side, it was directed by the esteemed Costa-Gavras, but that could not compensate for a script by Hollywood's highest paid hack, Joe Eszterhas.

Lange played a woman whose father is accused of war crimes, but as Peter Travers observed in Rolling Stone, “Eszterhas has merely recycled the courtroom theatrics of his hit Jagged Edge and slapped on a Holocaust theme. Real-life tragedy has been used to hype cheap melodrama. It's more than offensive; it's vile.” Roger Ebert agreed, but added that the film not only recycled Jagged Edge but also Gavras and Eszterhas' previous collaboration, Betrayed. Travers was prophetic, however, when saying that the film “seems to exist for one dubious purpose: to snag an Oscar nomination for Jessica Lange.” Sure enough, Lange was nominated.

The next two years were notable for her appearance with Robert DeNiro in back-to-back remakes. The first, Cape Fear, had the advantage of Martin Scorsese behind the camera for a more graphically violent, as well as more psychologically complex, update of the 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck as an attorney confronted by a vengeful Robert Mitchum. Over-heated and veering uncomfortably from the thriller genre into the realm of horror, it was nonetheless entertaining. Its box-office success also gave its director the clout to pursue worthier personal projects in the future. 1992's Night and the City was a remake of the 1950 film noir classic with DeNiro taking on Richard Widmark's role as hustler Harry Fabian. For Lange, two female roles from the original were combined with less than satisfying results.

Much more satisfying for Lange in 1992 was her Broadway debut in a production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Lange had already proven herself a superb interpreter of Williams' heroines with a sexy turn as Maggie in a 1995 TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now she earned raves as Blanche in role she would also play on the London stage to even greater acclaim.In the next decade, a more mature Lange would take on the lead in The Glass Menagerie.

Ironically, Lange's only 1994 release, Blue Sky, had been filmed three years earlier but shelved when Orion Pictures declared bankruptcy. The film was the final one for director Tony Richardson who had died of AIDS related complications shortly after production wrapped. As the mentally unbalanced wife of a straight-laced Army engineer played by Tommy Lee Jones, Lange was a sexy free spirit who even the military could not control. Variety hailed the role as one that gave Lange “unlimited opportunities to emote and strut her stuff,” and Lange would win her second Oscar – her first in the leading Best Actress category – for this romantic drama.

As Lange moved into her mid-40s, her roles became less frequent but more varied. She was memorable as Liam Neeson's wife in 1995's Rob Roy, took on her first Shakespearean role opposite Anthony Hopkins in 1999's Titus, and was downright frightening as Christina Ricci's unstable mother in the film version of Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation.

“Sometimes you take things because you want to work with a certain actor, or you want to work with a director, even if the script or the part's not that great,” Lange said. Neither the script nor the part in 2003's Masked and Anonymous came remotely close to greatness or even competence, but like John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Ed Harris, and other notables, Lange couldn't resist appearing on-screen with music legend Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, Masked and Anonymous emerged as a pretentious and downright amateurish mess that the bard wisely co-wrote using a pseudonym. As the chain smoking Nina Veronica, a producer who lures Dylan's Jack Fate out of retirement for one last gig, Lange acquitted herself better than most of the cast, but the film is as much of a curio on her resume as it is for Dylan himself.

Tim Burton did much better by Lange in the same year's Big Fish, an imaginative fantasy in which she shared the screen with the great Albert Finney.

Increasingly, Lange is turning to television. “TV is sort of the only way to go for an actress my age to make a decent salary.” With Tammy Blanchard, she played the doctor confronted with a patient with multiple personalities in a remake of the 1976 mini-series that starred Sally Field.

But whether she works on the big or small screen, Lange's priorities remain her family. “For me, nothing has even taken precedence over being a mother and having a family and a home.”

Home for her is in a cabin in the tiny town of Stillwater, located on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. “There's something in the water up there that connects me to that place. But there's also this sense of isolation and loneliness about it that I've never been able to shake.”

Living in a cabin doesn't mean she ignores the world beyond her windows, however. She is a vocal opponent of both the Iraq war and President Bush. The same woman who bravely faced King Kong is not afraid to speak out: "George W. Bush really has whipped up the most poisonous scenario of neighbor against neighbor over the war in Iraq,” she said.

No second acts in American life?

Lange proved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong by bouncing back after the debacle of King Kong, and there will no doubt be more acts to come for this now legendary actress and star. Still she says, “I never think of the future. I never imagine what comes next.”

--by Brian W. Fairbanks

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