Only a handful of living American actresses belong in the pantheon of true talents: Meryl Streep definitely; Joanne Woodward, Sissy Spacek, and Sally Field, formerly; Jodie Foster, perhaps. And then there is Jessica Lange. In the course of her 33-year career, Lange has received six Oscar nominations and two statues (Best Supporting for Tootsie in 1983, Best Actresses for Blue Sky in 1995), earning her not only a place on the film world’s Mount Olympus, but arguably some astral plane of her own. Though she is a star in the Old Hollywood sense—the name Jessica Lange, whether or not you have watched her films, is familiar, even iconic—she is still known primarily for her gifts as an actress. Famous as she is, she does not suffer from the syndrome of so many celebrities today: Jessica Lange the person with a personal life never eclipses Jessica Lange the actor in a role.
On a recent bright, warm afternoon in Beverly Hills, Lange sat for a cup of tea in the garden of the Four Seasons Hotel. She had come to discuss her role as Edith Bouvier Beale (aka “Big Edie”) in the HBO film Grey Gardens, for which she is expected to receive an Emmy nomination next week, as well as an upcoming exhibition of her photographic work. ( “Jessica Lange: 50 Photographs” opens July 11 at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica; it will hang through September.) “Oh, real tea!” she exclaims, as the waitress delivers a pot of loose-leaf English Breakfast, complete with tea-ritual accessories. Despite her dignified, almost-regal good looks—Lange is statuesque, with alpine-high cheekbones—there is something girlish about the 60-year-old actress. Her eyes smile with a sense of curiosity and mischief. Yet she also has the serene, centered air of someone who has lived her life on her own terms.
Her specialty is the seemingly fragile woman with, as she calls it, “a spine of steel.”
“I just came here for the day, literally,” Lange says, in that distinct voice, rich and caramel-smooth but with a faint lilt of the Upper Midwest. Unlike almost any actor with a full-fledged film career, Lange has never called Los Angeles home. Instead, she and her longtime partner, playwright and actor Sam Shepard, lived for nine years in Stillwater, Minnesota, a town not far from where Lange was born and raised, and then, for another nine years, on a farm in Virginia. “I left New York when my children were little, just to, you know, raise them in a different environment,” she says. “Then I figured I’d done enough of…” she trails off, as she tends to when the conversation turns personal. She and Shepard now live in Manhattan’s West Village, but they keep “a cabin” in Northern Minnesota.
As Lange talks, it becomes evident that, like most charismatic people, she is a tangle of interesting contradictions: sexy yet self-contained, straight-shooting but also skittish. Jack Nicholson, her co-star on The Postman Always Rings Twice, famously called her “a delicate fawn crossed with a Buick.” (He may also have been referring a certain emotional heft—in her case, a fragile concreteness—that frequently characterizes those from the middle of the country. “Good solid upbringing, isn’t it? she asks, upon learning of my Iowa roots. And then: “I think it gets you through some tough spots.”)
When I ask about the secret to her enduring relationship with Shepard—the pair, who met in 1982 on the set of Frances, have never married but have been together for more than 25 years—she coils up ever so slightly. “I don’t know,” she says, growing quiet and charmingly flustered, “You’ve got to have some deep connection… it’s a lot of history and knowing somebody really well, and… It’s being interested in somebody after 25 years; they still fascinate you.” (The couple has two children together, a boy and a girl, ages 21 and 22; Lange also has a 27-year-old daughter with Mikhail Barishnikov.)
Lange is more at ease discussing Grey Gardens, her latest film project, which will be released on DVD July 14. Directed by Michael Sucsy, the film is a re-imagining of the popular 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, the brothers who trained their camera’s cold eye on Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (“Little Edie”), the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. The reclusive pair was found living together in bohemian squalor (feeding bread to raccoons and feral cats, taking meals in their beds) in their rambling old house, nicknamed Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, New York; a few years later, the Maysles arrived to film. Big and Little Edie (played in the remake by Drew Barrymore) surely rank as one of the most flawed mother-daughter pairs in history—they break the sound barrier of co-dependency—with Big Edie assuaging her loneliness by guilt-tripping her daughter into remaining with her at home, and Little Edie subordinating herself to her mother as a way of avoiding the harsh realities of the outside world.
“At this age, for an actress… to keep working at that level and quality of work that you used to… that’s rare now.”
The HBO film tunnels back into the past to recreate the circumstances that led to the Beales’ baroque dysfunction. “It’s a great role,” says Lange, “The scope of it. The fact that I could play this woman over a 40-year time period was really exciting…to try to imagine or re-imagine her life earlier, I mean, for an actor it was just luscious, you know?”
During the 40-year period the film covers, the Edies evolve into a single maladjusted organism. Each is resentful of the other—and, crucially, angry with herself—for being unable to escape their mutual dependency. This narrative of grievance forms the backbone of both films; for Big and Little Edie, the issue, at every moment, is the entirety of their shared life. “You just can’t stand that the whole world is going to know the truth… about how you’ve held me back all these years!” Little Edie hollers at her mother. “You don’t leave—you say you will but you never do,” her mother counters. As is the case with most familial relationships, the truth is too complicated to parse. Their symbiosis is both nightmare and fantasy.
Lange plays Big Edie with to-the-letter precision. Edith Beale’s voice, her loopy singing, her casual cruelty (“You can’t dance at all,” she tells her daughter), her unwavering but pathological determination to remain tethered to Grey Gardens: The exactitude with which Lange portrays all this is eerie. But Lange strove for mimesis. When the voice coach hired to train her asked whether she would prefer to perform her own version of “Tea for Two,” one of Big Edie’s amateur singing numbers, or to study the documentary and replicate it, Lange chose the latter. “I said, you can’t get any better than this, and there’s no reason to change a beat. So we studied every"—she pauses for emphasis—"single"—pauses again—"tiny facial expression, gesture, voice, everything.” Lange, in fact, continued to watch the original documentary throughout the shoot. “It would be the first thing I’d do when I’d come to the set in the morning; everyday, I’d put it in. And I would listen to her voice, because as soon as I found her voice, I could find the character.”
Still, the role presented its challenges, even for a veteran like Lange. Grey Gardens was, for instance, the first film for which Lange had to sing. “I’m thrilled I got away with it, you know?” (When Lange played Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, she lip-synced.) The actress also felt the pressure of playing an “iconic character,” for which there existed tangible, visual, historical evidence. “You had the voice, the accent, all the mannerisms, and to try to thread it all together so that it was believable… and then to sing, and to dance…” she says. She knew that if she got it wrong, the film’s many obsessed fans—they watch the documentary like others watch Star Trek or Donnie Darko—would inform her of her errors. “I hadn’t watched the documentary when it first came out. I wasn’t, you know, one of those people,” she says, jokingly referring to the Grey Gardens disciples.
But for Lange, there was only one approach, the one she has chosen throughout her career: to throw herself into the part with unselfconscious abandon. “I said, ‘OK, you can’t second-guess yourself and you cannot be cautious... I’ve done this before with other parts, and I wanted to be reckless again, as an actor, instead of cautious.” It’s not hard to guess the roles to which Lange was referring. She memorably played Frances Farmer, the actresses who was unfairly committed in Frances, and Carly Marshall, the unstable housewife in Blue Sky. On stage, she inhabited Mary Tyrone, sunk deep into her morphine addiction, and Blanche DuBois, sunk just as deep into despair.
Famous as she is, she does not suffer from the syndrome of so many celebrities today. Jessica Lange the person with a personal life never eclipses Jessica Lange the actor in a role.
Lange has frequently portrayed women teetering on the edge, those who the world of the play calls crazy but the audience in the theater might not. Her specialty is the seemingly fragile woman with, as she calls it, “a spine of steel.” Big Edie Beale was no exception. “She said, 'Screw it, I’m going to do what I want to do.'” Lange particularly valued the part because meaty roles have become increasingly uncommon for actresses of a certain age. “At this age,” Lange says, “for an actress… to keep working at that level and quality of work that you used to… that’s rare now.”
Though she never says so explicitly, one wonders whether Lange’s serious pursuit of photography is an attempt to continue to make the highest quality work, albeit in a different medium. Her photographs are, in a word, impressive. Grainy black-and-white images, shot with a Leica M6 and without a flash at weird, unexpected angles, they project a discomfiting atmosphere of mystery. (You can view them here.) Looking at them, one feels simultaneously lonesome and connected. Many of her photos are intensely intimate (a couple embracing on a dance floor, a father dangling his daughter ), and it’s clear the actress is as talented at slipping into a situation and snapping a candid as she is at slipping into a character.
Perhaps, too, her photographs are an attempt to take control, to be, for once, the viewer rather than the viewed. Lange says as much: “The thing of constantly being observed, which you are as an actor, as a photographer, you’ve got that instrument, that camera, between you and whatever is your subject. I love the anonymity of photography.” Or, as punk poetess Patti Smith, who wrote the introduction to 50 Photographs by Jessica Lange, a compilation of her work, puts it: “As an actress, she has been captured by the same light she is drawn to.”
Amanda Fortini has written for The New Yorker, Slate, Elle, and New York, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.