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A Glamorous Hothouse Violet : Commentary: Jessica Lange’s striking performance in “Blue Sky” is belatedly released. How come this superb actress isn’t working more?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jessica Lange’s acting in “Blue Sky” leaves you awe-struck. It’s a great performance. Because the film, which was shot in 1990, is just now being released--it’s yet another foundling from the pre-bankrupt Orion Pictures era--its appearance is like a gift.

It’s an especially welcome gift because Lange hasn’t been acting much in the movies lately. (She’ll appear in “Losing Isaiah” in November.) She starred on TV in 1992 in “O Pioneers!” and, later that year, on Broadway as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But her two most recent movies are “Cape Fear” (1991) and “Night and the City” (1992).

You have to wonder how it is that Lange could give the performance she gave in “Blue Sky"--it’s probably her best, even better than her Frances Farmer in “Frances” or her Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams"--and keep away from the cameras for so long. The lack of good roles for actresses is no excuse. Lange is the kind of actress film artists write great roles for .

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Lange’s role in “Blue Sky” as Carly, a manic-depressive Army wife, is, at least superficially, one of those life-force sexpot vamps who periodically turn up in the movies in order to reduce stalwart men to foaming fumblers. She’s conceived as a sort of cross between a Tennessee Williams hothouse violet--a deranged, damaged maiden--and a late ‘50s/early ‘60s glamorpuss in the Marilyn Monroe style. (The action is set in 1962.)

Part of what Lange accomplishes with Carly is to demonstrate how close in neurotic temperament these two female incarnations really are. They both rise and fall on the fragilities of beauty. The loss of beauty--or at least its illusion--becomes the loss of self.

Carly knows she is still beautiful, and she exults in her own good fortune. She sashays with the humor of a woman who believes herself blessed--the gods must want her to entertain them too. Carly models her look on the reigning movie queens: Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Bardot. She has seized on movie-star glamour for its power to transpose her life into a swoony, scandalous fantasy. The irony is that Carly is an original--the more she mimics her fanzine idols the more she emerges in all her ravaged singularity. When she’s manic she’s too much for herself--too ferociously pent-up and passionate--and that’s exactly the state she craves. She needs the fix of delirium.

She’s a trial to her two daughters, who indulge her episodes with a mixture of horror and annoyance. (They’re like abused seraphim.) She’s a trial to her husband, Hank, an Army radiation scientist, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who decided a long time ago just to love her unconditionally. (The felt, underplayed graciousness of his performance helps make Lange’s possible. And, of course, few directors could work more wonders with actors than Tony Richardson--this was his last film.)

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But, on some essential level, Carly’s deliriums have so much more romantic feeling, so much more danger, than anything else in her family’s life that she has become indispensable to their will. She’s a maddening creature in full swoon but, when she’s in a generous mood, she transforms their dullsville life into a high-spirited casbah. (The black comedy of the piece is that Carly makes her husband and children miserable so she can commiserate with them in their misery and make them whole.)

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Carly’s high spirits lift her way off the ground, but she can’t stay up there forever. It’s when she comes down with a crash that she terrifies. When Hank--partly because of Carly’s take-it-all-off high jinks--is transferred at the start of the film from Hawaii to a military base in Alabama, Carly’s sensual, dolled-up funniness inflames to a full-scale rage. Her baby talk and sweet smiles, so transparently protective, burn away, and she flees her run-down new home until Hank tracks her down in a supply store like a cornered animal.

“I can see that radiation just coming off you,” she wails at Hank, who talks her down with an infinitely comforting patience. He rescues her again, and, yet again, she will betray him. But as she approaches her in this scene, Carly’s eyes shine in admiration for her rescuer. The harridan has turned into a supplicant.

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Carly’s rages are scary because they don’t have the self-dramatizing play-act quality of her swoony, rapt episodes. When she’s dancing her flamenco for a bunch of wide-eyed soldiers at the base in Hawaii, or even when she’s just dancing sinuously by herself, she has a dreamy, comic quality that lets us know she’s in on her own self-delusion. She plays to an audience even if that audience is herself. (In a sense, the role is all about the illusionary, crazy-making art of acting.)

But, when she feels trapped and cornered, her voice drops from a hushed Southern breathiness to a hard, low-slung rasp. (The vocal shifts are reminiscent of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche in the movie version of “Streetcar.”) Her movements becomes jagged. She’s not self-dramatizing in these moments; there’s no bravura, no studied self-awareness, nothing to distance her (or us) from her pain.

You can see why she avoids the pain--it strips away her camouflage and leaves her ragged and illusionless. When she’s high, she’s hellbent to stay that way. She has a split-second sensuality; she can turn it on in an instant--before the despair crowds in. When she thinks Hank is losing his love for her, she sits up at night while he sleeps; when he wakes up and sees her, she asks him if he still loves her and then, before he can answer, advances upon him like an uncoiled dream walker.

As the distressed Frances Farmer in “Frances,” Lange sometimes had the lurid, scary, powder-burned look of a figure in a Weegee photograph. In “Blue Sky,” Lange’s Carly, at low ebb, sometimes has the bereft, denuded look of a woman in an Edward Hopper painting. Carly can appear so languorously sad--it’s not the way we want to see her. (Sadness doesn’t make her soulful; it saps her.)

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You can almost forgive her hurtful sprees--like the way she carries on with the base commander in full view of everybody--because it’s her way of murdering despair. Carly’s seductions hurt everyone around her, but, for her, they’re not quite real. She doesn’t want to be “real.” She wants to retreat into her own movie-glamour authenticity, and the men she seduces are just play-actors in her pageant.

Carly ends up a heroine by rescuing Hank from a nasty military double-cross. After saving her so many times, she saves him. It’s a supreme act of love, and Lange has prepared us for Carly’s strength by already showing us, in flashes, the depth of that love and the mettle in her mania. Without this last-inning righteousness, Carly might seem too overpoweringly deluded, too neurotically “womanly” for modern audiences. But she’d be a great character even without this final triumph. Her greatness is in not holding anything back.

The real heroism in “Blue Sky” is the way Jessica Lange doesn’t hold anything back. She has so much to give. It’s a fierce display.


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