Dear Jessica Lange

For decades, I’ve questioned your talent. I concluded you were overrated used solely for your sex appeal, and I did not take you seriously. A Marilyn Monroe. A Tippi Hedron. Less than Faye Dunaway and slightly more than Melanie Griffith. You are a combination of breathless ambiguity and sexual coquettish that appears helpless and manipulative — a true femme fatale.

The 1982 biopic of Hollywood actress, Frances Farmer, was a muddled mess, but what a treat to see you in an unforgettable performance garnering an Oscar nomination. That year Meryl Streep won for Sophie’s Choice. Frances was the right performance but the wrong year to go up against Streep’s best delivery of her career. You gave Frances depth and subtlety to wide-sweeping emotions; do you think it was the best performance of your long career?

Frances is based on the sad, troubled life of the precocious teenager in the 1930s whose journal-to-essay concludes there is no God. It alienates her community but attracts enough attention to get Frances to Hollywood and Broadway. During the thirties and forties, her defiant personality marks her as a trouble-maker. She is taken advantage of, black-listed, and sent to various mental hospitals. Her civil liberties are denied and her body violated. What’s worse is her relationship with her mother who takes the phrase “vicarious living” to extremes. The wimpy father is powerless to stop the catfights and institutionalization of their daughter.

How does one control the spirit of Francis? Why, ice-pick therapy, of course. Somehow she survives a lobotomy and Frances became a soulless version of herself. Sam Shepard is the quasi-narrator-strange love interest who loves her unconditionally throughout the decades, but his role as a Hollywood reporter, Harry York, is ambiguous and wasted. But what does shine through is his love for Frances. Shepard does a fine job given the limitations of the script. Their chemistry continued two years later when Shepard and Lange co-star in Country (1984).  

I don’t blame you, Jessica, I blame the scriptwriters Nicholas Kazan, Eric Gergren, and Christopher De Vore who failed to get on the same page about what the film was about. I do like institution movies. There is some perverse horror in watching how patients are mistreated. Sorry to tell you, although, I bet you will agree The Snake Pit (1948) is better solely because the film had a coherent vision.

In 2017, I watched you play Joan Crawford in the television series Feud. Jessica, you were marvelous! I started to think I was wrong about your acting abilities. The other day, I was curious enough to look at your filmography. I forgot you had won Best Actress in Blue Sky (1995). You won Best Supporting Actress in 1983 for Tootsie. You have had great success in television with multiple Emmy wins for American Horror Story–were you good as that demonic nun? I never watched the show, but I can imagine that unearthly, breathless cadence of yours. I can see your smoldering eyes and deceptive smirk and bet you were unnerving. You also won a Tony for the 2016 production for the lead in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Were you as good as Katharine Hepburn? There’s more — three Golden Globes, and a slew of sandbox statues. My, your mantle is crowded.

I confess I have been wrong about you. Mea Culpa, Jessica. You are quite more than the sex toy of King Kong.





43 Comments on “Dear Jessica Lange

  1. She certainly redeemed herself in ‘Feud’, though I preferred Sarandon as Bette Davis.
    I liked Lange in ‘Rob Roy’, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, the ‘Cape Fear’ remake, and ‘Music Box’. But I have always thought that she played various roles in a very similar style.
    My ‘change of mind’ was over Ethan Hawke. I didn’t care for him that much, then along came ‘Gattaca’, ‘Predestination’, and ‘Training Day’. Now, I like him. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete. x

  2. Like you I overlooked her because of Kong. When I found out that she was with Sam Shepherd, who I admire both as a playwright and an actor, I began to look back at some of her work. Then she and Sam moved a few miles from me and I saw her shopping in the stores. And then whenever her ex, Baryshnikov came to town and she always brought their daughter Shura to the theater to visit, I found out what a warm person she is. And now when I see her in her various roles I realize just how good of an actress she is. Her role in Tootsie comes closes the real Jessica.
    As far as not giving an actor credit, I did it with Leonard Nimoy. Up until I began working with him on his one-man show, VINCENT. I thought of him as a TV actor in a TV show I had never watched. Boy was I wrong. He is an excellent actor and a real renaissance man, and and I am so fortunate to have had him for a friend.

    • Hi Don! ARRRGGG. I completely forgot she married Baryshnikov! I had the hugest crush on him when I was in high school. I thought his leaps were spellbinding. It didn’t hurt he was cute. That’s really fascinating you brushed elbows with Jessica in the supermarket. Ha! Leonard Nimoy I adore — I especially liked the recent documentary on him by his son ‘;For the Love of Spock’. I knew he initially didn’t want to be typecast. I knew he was a workaholic and as the decades past he grew to respect his alter ego. I’m happy to hear in life he was wonderful and your estimation of him improved. I think that happens. One phase of our life we are smug and jugdemental. Then time goes by and I forgot what it was that made me dislike her/him. Maybe I was jealous she had married Mikhail!

  3. “Tootsie” to “Feud” and good stuff in-between…I own the Frances Farmer autobiography AND a book written about her, and the movies botched her story in so many ways as you minion..that said, she is mesmerizing in the role…

      • Two reasons Cindy: first, I was born and raised in Seattle with a love of entertainment, and she was a “local who made good”…and as a fan of the history of Hollywood, I was interested in her as an empowered woman who refused to play Hollywood’s game, and it cost her a career and her life…I just posted my story on the book “Catch And Kill”, and the sickening way that women are preyed upon, and forced to compromise in so many ways in this business is still in sad evidence today…

  4. I was a fan of Jessica Lange right from the begging. Ok, King King (1976) didn’t give an indication of what was to come, but both Frances and Toosie (in the same year!) were definitely highlights in an illustrious career.

  5. Always liked her. Haven’t seen much of her work in recent years. It’s so easy to lose track of people in our massive entertainment industry. I’m glad she has done well.

  6. You fail to mention that the chemistry between sam and Jessica continued until they split up in 2009, and their relationship resulted in two children. She was one of my favorite actresses, and I saw Frances several times in its theatrical run. On the other hand, I walked out after an hour of Sophies Choice. Aside from her immense talent as an actress, she glowed on the screen as intensely as did Grace Kelly, As for the script. the only flaw in my mind was the use of nefarious materiall regarding her treatment in the institution. She never had a lobotomy. That was a fiction that originated with one of my ex bosses, the film critic William Arnold, who wrote a faulty biography of her that was the basis of much of the film. But Jessica played all of her scenes so beautifully. that they might have been poorly written, i dont know, i was too infatuated to notice. At the time, Jessica Langge was the personfication of what film acting was all about, and i luxuriated in her every gesture.

    • I am negligent concerning the chemistry between Sam and Jessica. No wonder, if they were partners and had two children out of it.
      I like the phrase “I luxuriated in her every gesture.” Can I steal that?

      • steal as much as you like. a coinciicence. just this week i stole a line from ben franklin, three can keep a secret if two of them are dead…..and two days after writing the song, the line resurfaed in the irishman.

        • Yes, Ben F. Is my favorite, and his Autobiography was a big influence. I had heard of that aphorism and recognized it in The, too.

          • i have been working on a horror script called Benjamin Franklinstein. he discovers more than electricity when he is flying the kite.

          • Ha! I’d like to read it. Script. Are you into movies again? I wonder if you miss being a paid film critic? With all your connections, I’m surprised you haven’t written any movie scripts (unless you told me and I missed it.) You seem to have done everything…

          • i have made several films, but they are not commercial films, but ethnographic ones. im working now on a series of exploitation film scripts in order to try to make some money. i miss many things about my past life, but such tings caot be recaptured. much as i enjoyed my work as a film critic, with the dismantaling of the free press during the obama years there is no longer a viable platform for paid criticism, just as there is o longer a music industry, an auto industry, or retail outlets oursite of the malls. most of the movie theatres have closed, and those that remain open show only digital product…and the few movies that would be worth reviewing get little or no theatrical exposure. i would hate to have to depend on my livelihood by writing about the crap that is currently in high visibility distribution. but i am working on the second voume of cinema penitentary, which covers the decline and fall of independent film making, distribution, , and exhibition.

          • Sounds depressing.
            Everything feels too much like 1984.
            Imagine me trying to break into the literary market! Not the same, either.

          • not enough people know how to read. when i was growing up, most of the educated adults read all the novels. they knew what was on the best seller lists, and writers were distinguished guests on talk shows. libraries were more popular than beauty salons. in areas where there was no library, the bookmobile cisited twice a week. now not even the editors at publishing houses know how to read. 1984 was about engand in 1948. things have become s much worse now. there trult is no national culture. people take entertainment pills in isolation.

          • I couldn’t agree with you more. Sad. But, I don’t write to make money, I write because I have to. Cliche, but there you go.

          • that is not a cliche. it is the dividing line between art and commerce. the artists works from compulsion. for instance, i spent one year making over a hundred short ethnographic films. i would walk around untill i saw something happening that interested me, film it, then the next day would edit it. much of what i filmed was also shot by videographers woring for the television station.their work was shoddy, empty, ugly. they did it becaue it was their job, their livlihood, they had to do it. my work was at least to me, beautiful, poetic, essential. because i was compelled to do it. i wasnt paid to do it. so i see my films as art although some may objectivelyy see them as the same throwaway crap seen on the television news. maybe even worse than that. after a year of this, i set about work on a feature that incorporated the ideas i had developed through the making of the shorts, to a more ambitious purpose. is the result any good? it doesnt matter, because the artist reaches a point in life when the work is beyond good or bad. it no longer matters if it means anything to anyone except the one who made it. and so here it is. maybe you can tell me.

          • I have set myself to write 6 books that represent the 20th century of U.S. history creating historical characters that had little voice up to now. I do so not to be part of the “me,too” movement. Not for some high er cause. I am not arrogant enough to think I have something to say that hasn’t already been seen. It is an exercise. I love getting into the minds of my characters and have them shape themselves in my mind. It’s an awesome feeling. To be so self-absorbed is dangerous. It is a high better than the best bottle of wine I could buy.
            I was thinking about speculative fiction this morning. Also predicting in my my mind the natural tendency as one gets older we become nostalgic for the past because it was comforting. Today I feel old-fashioned and not a part of what entertains most people. I feel most days like an imposter or outdated. So the novels I write are comforting because they aren’t about today but of a previous time. I do believe all ages of time have universal themes. When I write about the past, I feel connected to the present. Did that make sense?
            Anyway, I will happily look at your video when I have a break later on. 🙂

          • thre are so many things to be said that havent been seaid before..not to mention all the things that have been said and forgotten. just like no two snowflakes are the same, there is an infinite variety of shapes, every birth is the beginning of a new universe.

          • i think a better example and more to the point of your interest might be the difference between my paid work as a film critic and, after the newspaper folded, the work i did without pay along with other former writers for the paper who wanted to keep it alive. when i wrote for pay, everything was on assignment. even when i had nothing to say about a film, i had to produce a certain word count. even when i was enthusuastic about something, there was little room for me to express my own views, as the format of the review was severely limiting. and finally, misleading headlines were written by a headline writer and editors and someties even proofreaders altered my meaning. so that sort of writng has nothing to do with art. but when i was free to write what i wanted, how i wanted, without any restraints, my writing on film, while not art, arose from an artistic temperament, a compulsion, and raal engagement. although my readership swindled from 250,000 to less than a hundred, i felt i was actually communicating with more people,

          • Interesting. Your life is authentic and I admire that. I chase after money and will jump through hoops because I’m dutiful. But it takes away and distracts my time from the creative process. I can’t stand it. If I had a dollar everytime I felt like running away and hiding out in a motel room for a few months so I can write without distractions, I’d be a millionare. To be an artist is one of the more selfish things to be. I can’t turn my back on loved ones.
            I can’t wait to retire in six years so my day is free. I only hope I’ll be alive. There’s so many projects in my mind and so many genres to play around with. Sigh.

  7. When I first saw King Kong I said to myself, “just what we need, another actor coasting by on her looks!” After watching Frances and Tootsie, I had to eat my words. One of my all-time favorite actors! Frances, Tootsie, Country, Sweet Dreams, etc., I can’t pick one. She’s always great! She even stole American Horror Story from her co-stars…

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