Hollywood has always been the place to be for models aspiring to loftier goals. Time spent as an idealized image of beauty and sex appeal can open doors for many a young model with dreams of glory on the big screen. That was how Jessica Lange made it to the big time. Unfortunately for her, those early pretty face endeavors were the means by which some attempted to shatter her big screen dreams before they could begin. It was only when others had the good sense to let her show the world what she could really do as an actress that Jessica earned her rightful standing as something a whole lot more than just a pretty face.
Jessica Phyllis Lange came into being on April 20th, 1949 in the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota. The daughter of a traveling salesman with a penchant for alcohol, she endured a relatively chaotic childhood, moving over a dozen times to towns all over Minnesota in support of her father's profession before eventually settling down long enough for her to graduate from high school in her hometown in the mid 1960s.
In 1967, she received a scholarship to study art at The University of Minnesota. There she met and began dating Spanish photographer Francisco Grande. Jessica and Grande married in 1970 and ushered in their new matrimonial bonds by doing the decidedly en vogue thing at that time - namely dropping out of society and bumming their way across the US in a beat up truck, then later traveling through South America and Europe.
All that time spent on the road might have cured Jessica of any wanderlust she inherited from her father, but it wasn't sufficient to cure her of her freewheeling lifestyle. Eventually she and Grande settled down in France, where for two years Jessica made the rather unusual choice to study mime, of all things, under the famed tutelage of performer Étienne Decroux. Having grown apart from Grande shortly after settling in Paris, she essentially resumed the life of a single woman, filling her days with every creative endeavor she could find, among them painting, dance and acting at a small theater company.
Living the bohemian dream and sharing an apartment with the likes of 70s modelling giants Jerry Hall and Grace Jones (an experience no doubt chock full of juicy tales all on its own), Jessica came to the attention of the prestigious Wilhelmina modelling agency, which quickly signed her up. In 1973, she returned to the States, moving to NYC and working as a waitress at the Lion's Head Tavern in the forever bohemian-friendly Greenwich Village.
Cleaning up tables, painting, dancing, acting, modelling, walking against the wind - Jessica had immersed herself into a little bit of everything the life of a creative person had to offer a young 20-something in the big city. Around this time Jessica got herself noticed by famed producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was on the hunt for an ingenue to play the damsel in distress in his new film, a remake of the 1933 classic KING KONG. Seeing something special in the bright-eyed model from Minnesota, he cast Jessica in the part of Dwan (not Dawn, Dwan. D-W-A-N, Dwan. That's her name. You know, like Dawn, except that she switched two letters to make it more memorable). The film turned out to be big hit in 1976, earning enough money to make it the 5th highest money earner that year. It also created several memorable scenes, many involving Jessica and the tasty outfits she wore in her dealings with her character's large and lovestruck ape friend who meets an unfortunate end.
While the film was a success for De Laurentiis, it was widely panned by critics, who put much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the film's leading lady. Playing a ditsy airhead and with very little in the way of meaningful dialogue to work with, Jessica's performance was understandably limited. Rather than note this obvious drawback as the main reason for her poor performance, most critics decided to simply chock it up to a model trying and failing to be an actress, dismissing her outright and in the process effectively sabotaging her future in Hollywood. And as a result, things did indeed take a disastrous turn in Jessica's acting career for some time after that. Her brutal treatment from the critics delivered unto her a 3-year dry spell, during which she appeared in nothing. At the time, it looked as though Jessica's career would end before it even had a chance to begin.
It was around this time that Jessica began a relationship with famed Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Having been estranged from Grande for some time at that point (she didn't divorce him officially until 1981, a divorce that resulted in Jessica having to pay him an undisclosed amount of money in alimony), she and Baryshnikov had one child out of wedlock together, never choosing to marry. Their relationship ended in 1982. Jessica also had something of a relationship with producer Bob Fosse around this time. They remained good friends until his death in 1987. Her closeness with Fosse provided her a lifeline to hang onto until bigger and better things waiting just around the bend presented themselves.
In 1979, Fosse cast Jessica as the Angel of Death in his semi-autobiographical film ALL THAT JAZZ. This performance produced yet another brutal panning from critics. Things were not looking good for her and by the 80's, Jessica was in need of a hit. Thankfully, one was just around the corner and promised to erase all her bad press up to that point. Playing the unhappy wife of a Greek lunch wagon proprietor in the sexually ramped up remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, Jessica and co-star Jack Nicholson steamed up the screen and chewed it up as well, playing sultry lovers conspiring to murder an unwanted spouse. The film still got mixed reviews, however this time around Jessica was rightfully seen as the bright spot of the film and her performance widely hailed by many of the critics who had written her off a few years before.
After that, the hits just kept on coming for Jessica, ushering in one of the most successful and acclaimed periods in her career. 1982 saw her deliver a one-two punch, first in the form of the film FRANCES, in which she explored the tragic story of the disillusioned and troubled actress Frances Farmer. Wanting to honestly connect with Farmer to deliver on the highly emotional requirements of the role, Jessica literally buried herself in the part, using pieces of her own life and memories of her time as a wandering youth to bring some authenticity to the role. The net effect of all this was a powerful performance that while being praised by many, left Jessica drained physically, mentally and emotionally.
Taking the advice of her people who recommended she follow FRANCES with something lighter, Jessica's second big hit of 1982, the gender-bending comedy TOOTSIE, proved to be one of the best and most fondly remembered movies of her career. Playing the troubled star of a daytime soap opera who finds herself befriending her show's strange new cast member, she once again proved herself a capable actress by successfully standing out despite the threat of being upstaged by the mere sight of Dustin Hoffman in drag. The two had great chemistry in the film despite the strange subject matter, which helped make it the second biggest hit of that year, right behind E.T.
Beyond box office and critical success, Jessica's back to back hits in 1982 gave her distinction come award season as well, where she became one of only a handful of actors ever to be nominated twice in the same year for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress honors. She took home the Oscar for her supporting role in TOOTSIE that year. 1982 also saw her take up with a new man, actor and playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she went on to have 2 more children during their almost 30-year relationship. She and Shepard appeared together in the 1984 film COUNTRY, centering on the lives of a family trying stay on the farm during the farming crisis of the early 1980s.
The early 80s produced a slew of biopics exploring the lives of early country and rock star legends. Jessica's contribution to this subject matter came with her lead role in what is perhaps this writer's favorite of her many films, SWEET DREAMS. Exploring the troubled life of the famed country singer Patsy Cline, Jessica went in a totally different direction with this role, playing a plain spoken firebrand of a woman who changed the game for female country singers, only to die in tragic yet familiar circumstances shortly after achieving fame and fortune. Jessica once again disappeared into the role, playing the crossover music star so well that she essentially became Patsy for generations of movie fans to follow. She's still pretty much who I think of when I think about Patsy Cline. That might not be fair to Patsy, but her performance earned Jessica an Oscar nomination anyway, the 3rd of six nominations she's received so far in her career.
Smaller, more personal roles followed for Jessica throughout the rest of the 80s, with films like CRIMES OF THE HEART with Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton and EVERYBODY'S ALL-AMERICAN with Dennis Quaid. Another of my personal favorites, 1990's MEN DON'T LEAVE, saw her play a widowed wife and mother forced to uproot her two kids (played by a very young Chris O'Donnell and Charlie Korsmo) from their suburban life and move to the city. Jessica's portrayal of the broken-hearted woman left with nothing and no idea how to live comes across as one of the more vulnerable and affecting roles of her career.
In 1991, Jessica starred in the Martin Scorsese remake of the classic CAPE FEAR. Once again cast in a remake seeking to turn up the intensity of the original, she gave a powerful performance as the desperate wife and mother terrorized by a vengeful ex-con, portrayed so well by the great Robert DeNiro. 3 years later Jessica impressed again with her role as a mentally unbalanced wife of an Army scientist in the film BLUE SKY. In the film Jessica plays an adventurous woman prone to outburst and controversy who creates chaos and disorder in her wake, making herself a perpetual thorn in the side of both her husband and military brass. Jessica's performance won her a second Oscar that year.
As the 90s gave way to the new millennium, Jessica remained a recognizable name in movies, appearing in films like ROB ROY alongside Liam Neeson, PROZAC NATION with a very naked Christina Ricci as well as the generally underrated Tim Burton passion project, BIG FISH in 2003. In 2009 Jessica took her career to yet another new place with her HBO movie GREY GARDENS, based on the legendary documentary by Albert and David Maysles. The film explored the lives of eventual shut-ins Edith Beale and her daughter, also named Edith and the strange circumstances that lead them to become virtual hermits in their ramshackle home in East Hampton, New York. Jessica's performance and uncanny similarity to the real Edith Beale was striking and profound, thus earning her a well deserved Emmy.
Now almost 65, Jessica hasn't slowed down at all. She currently plays not one, but three different characters on the hit FX show American Horror Story. She still makes movies, performs on Broadway and commits to everything she does with the same skill and dedication that has secured her place as Hollywood royalty. And to think there was a time not too long ago when folks actually thought she didn't have the chops. Good on ya Jessica for spending the last 30 years making them all eat their words.