Steeled Magnolia : It seems as if Jessica Lange is a supermarket shelf of emotions. And that doesn't even count what she manages to do on the screen.

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'I'm really happy for the first time in my life, and I don't know where it came from," says actress Jessica Lange.

"I know this sounds like hocus-pocus, but I do believe our Saturnian lessons come in cycles, and that it takes a big shock like death or profound disappointment to get you moving to the next stage. My father's death six years ago was a huge turning point for me, and with his passing something transpired that's allowed me to move out of an area where I'd been held captive for a long time."

Currently in the running for a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a manic-depressive Army wife in the Orion film "Blue Sky," Lange's performance already netted her this year's best actress award from the L.A. Film Critics and the Golden Globes.

She also stars opposite Halle Berry in Stephen Gyllenhaal's "Losing Isaiah," which opened Friday, and turns up again on April 7 in "Rob Roy," a historical epic set in Scotland that also stars Liam Neeson.

Lange's definitely on a roll--nonetheless, her optimistic frame of mind is surprising, considering that she's in the midst of playing Blanche DuBois, the tortured heroine of the Tennessee Williams' classic "A Streetcar Named Desire." The film, which airs this fall on CBS and also stars Alec Baldwin, will serve as Lange's farewell to the part she played on Broadway for six months in 1992.

"There aren't many characters in American literature as tormented as Blanche, and it's amazing what this work can do to you physically," Lange says during a conversation in her dressing room. "When you're acting, your nervous system doesn't understand that it's just pretend, and lying in bed last night I could feel everything trembling.

"In doing the play I realized it was imperative that I learn how to not be devoured by the characters I play, and I'm working much differently now," she adds.

"Instead of setting specific tasks for myself or thinking about what the expectations of the scene are, I try to get myself into a neutral state and then I just start. I've found that if you get yourself into the right state, the emotions will come and they'll come very purely and powerfully."

Lange got decidedly mixed reviews when she played Blanche on Broadway, but as one watches her on director Glenn Jordan's set, she seems remarkably well cast. The sexuality that ignited her performance as Carly in "Blue Sky" is reigned in and blanketed with an aura of wistful melancholy and bone-rattling fatigue--qualities central to the character of Blanche DuBois. Dressed in a pastel, floral-printed chiffon dress, white hose and heels, her hair bobbed and tinted the color of champagne, she has a fragile, faded loveliness that extends to her manners. Lange always seems to be doing several things at once, yet her ladylike composure never wavers despite an unending barrage of things demanding her attention.

During her half-hour lunch break she confers with her publicist over what to wear to the Oscars, while seeing two of her children off to an art class. Baldwin drops by for a brief word, the phone rings frequently, her lunch arrives. She leaves it untouched, choosing instead to do needlepoint while she talks. It's hard to know how much of this soft-spoken gentility is Blanche and how much is Lange; however she's doing it, she manages to come across as open, graceful and grounded.

In conversation, Lange returns repeatedly to her children, who she says made her feel secure for the first time, taught her not to take herself too seriously, helped her grow up.

"With the arrival of my family, I felt tethered to life for the first time, and the restlessness that plagued me when I was younger finally disappeared," she says.

"I used to have real bouts of depression--I say that not having been in the depths of depression for a couple of years, thinking it's a thing of the past, and maybe it's not," she cautiously adds. "When I was on my own, I could stay in bed for a week at a time and not talk to anybody, but with children you can't allow yourself to wallow in those depths too long.

"Nonetheless, though my dark side is dormant right now, it continues to play a big role in whatever capacity I have to be creative--that's the well I'm able to tap into where all the anguish, rage and sadness are stored."

One imagines Lange dipped into that well frequently in recent years. From the hyper-emotional "Blue Sky," which was originally slated for release in 1991 but was shelved during Orion's bankruptcy, she starred in Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear," then moved on to six months of Blanche on Broadway.

"Losing Isaiah" finds her cast as a frustrated social worker who adopts a crack baby, only to have the courts take him two years later. Shortly after wrapping that film, she raced off to Scotland to shoot "Rob Roy," wherein she's a stalwart wife who is raped and sees her house burn down. None of those roles, however, proved as taxing as Blanche DuBois.

"This is an exhausting part and though I'm enjoying doing it, I'll be glad when we're done," she admits.

Says Glenn Jordan, who worked with Lange in 1993 on a television adaptation of the Willa Cather novel "O Pioneers!":

"I saw Jessica do the play on Broadway, and the scale of everything is different here. She's more comfortable performing for the camera, and the camera has really opened her performance up--she's at the peak of her craft right now, and is doing brilliant work as Blanche. As someone once said of Jack Lemmon, Jessica's like a supermarket and whatever you want, she's got it in there--there's a shelf with every emotion and nuance on it."

One gets the feeling that the relationship between actress and director was a bit less copacetic on the set of "Losing Isaiah," a film Lange admits she has reservations about.

"It was a Robert Frank picture that made me want to do that film," she says. "I knew (artist) Robert Frank well in New York in the early days--we lived in the same building and did a short film, 'Home Is Where the Heart Is,' together--and I always loved this picture from his book 'The Americans' of a black nurse holding a white baby. When I read the script I thought, if we could get one hint of the power of that Frank photograph in this film, it would be really exciting.

"Unfortunately, the film doesn't go deep enough," she says. "I also think they didn't know what the hell to do with the ending, so they settled on an ending that's neither here nor there.

"From the beginning I made it clear I felt it was important that the stories of both women in the story be equally developed, and I don't know if that happened. It's never made clear, for instance, why my character felt compelled to adopt this child--this is a point I fought for like a dog, and I resent the fact that I was led to believe it would be included in the film and then was not. You begin to feel like they had a secret agenda the whole time.

"Actors are always at the mercy of the integrity of the director. It's a leap of faith, and sometimes you leap into the abyss and it doesn't pay off."

Leaping into the abyss is an activity Lange took up early in life. Born in Cloquet, Minn., in 1949, the third of four children, she recalls "we were a clannish, tumultuous family, and as a child I can remember watching things like 'The Donna Reed Show' on television, and thinking that what was going on in our family was absolutely nightmarish. The media of that time created a totally false image of what family was."

Her father, Al Lange, was a restless, hard-drinking man who changed jobs frequently and had moved his family 12 times by the time Jessica reached her last year of high school.

"My father was a very extreme personality, and in a sense it was up to my mother to hold our family together--which she did. I think the reason I was so ripe for motherhood was because I had such an extraordinary mother--she's always been a haven of peace, calm and protection I knew I could count on.

"There was no high culture in northern Minnesota where I grew up, so my main reference point was the old movies I saw on television," says Lange, who now lives on a farm in Virginia with her companion of 13 years, playwright Sam Shepard; her 14-year-old daughter, Shura, from a six-year relationship with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and her two children with Shepard, 9-year-old daughter Hannah and 7-year-old son Walker.

"I came of age at a provocative time. I graduated from high school in 1967 and hit the road right after that," says Lange, who received an art scholarship to the University of Minnesota, but ditched her college career three months later for life on the road with Paco Grande, a 26-year-old Spaniard whom she married in 1970.

"I don't know if it would be possible to live that way now, just being on the road and never having a home, because it was very specific to that time," she says. "You'd move from town to town, maybe end up in New York, hear about somebody who was driving to California, and for no reason at all you'd get in the car and drive across America with strangers. You'd spend nights in houses where you didn't even know who lived there.

"I stopped living that way because things began to turn around 1972," she adds. "Once the dust settled from Watergate and the Vietnam War was over, the things that had galvanized my generation evaporated, and the country seemed like it wanted to wash its hands of the Left entirely."

After living briefly in Europe, Lange returned to New York when her relationship with Grande began to unravel (they divorced in 1982), where she worked as a waitress while attending acting classes. She'd just begun to toy with a modeling career in 1975 when Dino De Laurentiis spotted her photograph at the Wilhelmina Agency and cast her in his remake of "King Kong." To say that this vilified film of 1976 got Lange's acting career off to a shaky start would be an understatement. Five years later, however, she proved herself a force to be reckoned with with her incendiary performance as Cora in Bob Rafelson's remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

The next year she netted a best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the Sydney Pollack comedy "Tootsie"; however, it was her performance in another film of that year, "Frances," the story of the tragic life of actress Frances Farmer, that firmly established her as one of America's premier actresses.

"Shooting 'Frances' took me to one of the lowest physical and emotional ebbs of my life," recalls Lange, who was then approaching the end of an affair with Baryshnikov that began in 1976 when they met at a party at Buck Henry's house in Hollywood. "I was much younger then and hadn't yet learned how to protect myself from this work, so I internalized every bit of Frances' suffering and was just devastated by the part. When we broke for Christmas I went home to Minnesota looking like a ghost--I was so tormented!"

As unsettling as the work was the torrid love affair that erupted between Lange and her co-star, Sam Shepard.

"It's a wild time, being in the first throes of romance with a man," she says, smiling at the memory.

Two years after hooking up with Shepard, Lange co-produced and starred in "Country," a film about the crisis in America's farming community that clearly reflected his presence in her life. She went on to starring roles in six more American films in the '80s, receiving best actress nominations for her work in two of them, "Sweet Dreams," and "The Music Box." Her performance in "Blue Sky" will no doubt take its place alongside those as one of the best loved of her career.

"I'd just done 'Men Don't Leave' and 'The Music Box,' and there wasn't an ounce of glamour or sexuality in either of those two characters, so part of the reason I wanted to do 'Blue Sky' was because it wasn't a dowdy character. Then when I read the script, Carly just leaped off the page," says Lange of the film, whose director, Tony Richardson, died shortly after it wrapped in 1991 and never saw it released.

Of her next film, "Rob Roy," Lange says "it was the relationship between the man (Neeson) and the woman in the story that interested me. They have a romantic marriage that's very sexual, but at the same time, they're friends and equals.

"When we were shooting 'Rob Roy,' I felt something shift," she adds. "I don't know if this is the key, but I was tremendously happy when we were shooting that film. The work came from a place of calm and quiet, rather than someplace frantic. Maybe it had something to do with Scotland--I felt a tremendous affinity for that country, even though I'd never been there in my life and am of Finnish descent. Whatever the reason, within the last six months I've begun to feel for the first time like maybe I understand acting."

Says "Rob Roy's" director Michael Caton-Jones of the decision to cast Lange: "The part needed an actress of a certain weight, and Jessica is the embodiment of the kind of strength I was after. The whole earthy, lusty side of this story is very important too, so it was crucial that there be chemistry between Liam and Jessica, and I knew the minute I met Jessica that the two of them would get on well. And they did--there's a very intelligent, grown-up chemistry between them. This is one of these horrible films where everything went well," Caton-Jones adds with a laugh. "We all loved each other and didn't want it to end."

Having worked without a break for two years, Lange plans to take some time off when "Streetcar" wraps next month. As to how she spends her time when she's not working, she says, "if there was anything I could study at this point in my life it would be Buddhism--I really feel drawn to it, and I'm hoping to find a teacher within the next couple of years.

"Mostly though, my schedule is pretty much dictated by my kids, although in the last few years I have managed to get back into photography, which is something I studied in art school, then let go for about 20 years. I don't have anything that could be called a style yet because I'm just starting again, but I suppose you'd call my pictures documentary photographs. I'd have to get a lot better before I'd want anybody to see them," says Lange, who owns works by Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Marion Post-Wolcott, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eudora Welty, among others.

Nor has she forgotten the screenplay adaptation of "Machine Dreams" that she completed in 1987 with plans to direct. Jayne Anne Phillips' novel, a dark chronicle of a middle-class family in a small West Virginia town, begins during the Depression and winds to a close with the Vietnam War. "I'd still love to do that, because I find it such a wonderful story. The only reason I haven't pursued directing yet is that I just haven't had the time."

Time is the final subject for today, and it's something that weighs heavily on American actresses in their 40s.

"Aging is a big deal for a woman, and nothing prepares you for it," Lange says. "Now that I'm in my mid-40s I've thought about this a lot, and I honestly don't know why it is that a 50-year-old woman is still seen as sexual and desirable in Europe but in America she's an invisible person.

"So sure, I've said to myself, 'OK, maybe a little face-lift,' but I think you just can't give in to that because if you do, you're buying into everything that's false and ultimately self-destructive. I prefer the attitude of Simone Signoret, who said, 'I want to age like a fishmonger's wife.' "

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction Earlier "Pioneers"--The year that Glenn Jordan and Jessica Lange worked together on a television adaptation of "O Pioneers!" was 1992, not 1993, as was reported last Sunday.
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