The Highs and Lows of Being Blanche

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since she was a teen-ager, Jessica Lange has been transfixed by Blanche DuBois, Tennesee Williams' tragic heroine from his landmark 1947 play "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"There has never been a part that has ever fascinated me like Blanche," says Lange, who first discovered the character while in high school in Minnesota. "I think maybe for a man it's 'Hamlet'--an actor feels this need , this desire , this incredible compulsion to play 'Hamlet.' I am sure most actresses feel that way about Blanche. I know I surely did."

In 1992, she fulfilled her long desire to explore the character when she played Blanche opposite Alec Baldwin on Broadway. Now the two have reunited for Sunday's "CBS Playhouse 90s" presentation of "Streetcar."

The three-hour drama marks the first time the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been filmed intact. The classic 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando was modified because of censorship constraints of the era. A pivotal rape scene near the end and references to Blanche's young husband's homosexuality were watered down and the ending was altered. Because ABC's 1984 movie starring Ann-Margret and Treat Williams was based on the 1951 screenplay, it, too, did not reflect Williams' original writing.

Lange's Blanche is a fragile, unstable woman who comes to New Orleans' French Quarter to stay with her younger sister Stella (played by Diane Lane) and her brute of a husband Stanley Kowalski (Baldwin) after she loses the family home in Mississippi. Stella loves and wants to protect Blanche, who, as do many of Williams' heroines, lives in a dream world.

Stanley, however, perceives Blanche as a liar and troublemaker and resents that she lost the family home. Blanche's only gentleman caller is Mitch (John Goodman), Stanley's naive poker buddy, who lives with his ailing mother.

The original production took Broadway by storm and so did its stars. Another famous Jessica--Jessica Tandy--received the Tony Award for her portrayal of Blanche. A 23-year-old Brando became an overnight sensation as Stanley; Kim Hunter played Stella and Karl Malden was Mitch. The 1951 version garnered Oscars for Leigh's Blanche, as well as for Hunter and Malden. Though Brando received an Oscar nomination, he lost out to Humphrey Bogart for "The African Queen."

While doing the play on Broadway three years ago, Lange says there were discussions about filming the production. "For one reason or another it just never came together," she says. "I was so glad that it didn't happen because that time away from it, you know, kind of let everything settle in. Do you know what I mean? It was like everything settled down and gave us enough time to come back to it and still know it, know it deep down in your bones. But you could approach it in a way that was completely fresh."

The 46-year-old mother of three is sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. She's just finished a pasta lunch with her publicist and is eager to talk about her "Streetcar." For the next 30 minutes, Lange speaks passionately and fervently about the project. Of course, there are a few interruptions. One woman, the sister of the choreographer of "Blue Sky," the movie that won Lange best actress Oscar this year, stops by and introduces herself. A fan sitting at the next table tells an appreciative Lange how much she admires her work.

Lange, who won a best supporting Oscar for playing the object of Dustin Hoffman's affection in 1982's "Tootsie," received mixed reviews on Broadway for "Streetcar." In the CBS version, though, she inhabits the heart and soul of Blanche.

"To tell you the truth, to be able to do it on film was really a thrill," Lange says with a smile. "I like working in front of the camera. It gives me much more to do. I am sure that there are stage actors who vehemently disagree with me, but I find it much more liberating to work in front of a camera because it's so intimate and personal. The work feels more natural."

Lange says she didn't change her approach to Blanche, but rather honed her performance. "Because of the intimacy of doing it on film, I was able to do a lot more than I did on stage," she explains. Although she did much of that on stage, "it just doesn't come across on stage," she says/

She was overjoyed that Glenn Jordan, who directed her in the Emmy-nominated "O, Pioneers!" directed the CBS prodution.

"He was just the perfect person to do it with. He understood the play very well. He had done it before on stage long ago,"she says with enthusiasm.

There were certain things in the stage production, directed by Gregory Mosher, that bothered her. "Some of the staging, some of the music. Some things were never done properly. After you do it for a while, those things, rather than let it go and forget it, bother you."

This time around, Lange has no complaints. She loved Jordan's concept. She loved the set. She loved the costumes. Though she was sorry that Amy Madigan, who played Stella on Broadway, didn't repeat her role, she thinks Lane did a "beautiful" job. "And John Goodman was perfect. To do it with Alec again, we were both much easier with it. So we kind of enjoyed it. On stage, you have to sustain that energy for months and months--that horrible conflict and tension."

Jordan expresses amazement at the depth of Lange's performance. "Isn't she extraordinary? It was wonderful because we seemed to be on the exact same wave length of the character, I think," says the director, who rehearsed his cast for three weeks before filming began. "Jessica reminds me of what someone once said of Jack Lemmon. Whatever emotion or whatever small nuance you want, she is like a supermarket. Her shelves are stocked full and it's all accessible to her. Jessica, at the moment, is absolutely at the top of her form as an actress."

Says Goodman, who co-starred with Lange in 1988's "Everybody's All-American": "She would do stuff and I would be in the middle of a take and I would just sort of drop my jaw and pop my eyes out--cartoon-style. She just amazed me."

Lane agrees. "I had to fight being distracted," she confesses. "Being off camera and watching Jessica and Alec, it was great. It was almost distracting. I would have to close my mouth and remember I had a line coming." (Alec Baldwin declined to be interviewed by The Times about the project).

Lange is no stranger to playing complex women. She received her first best-actress nomination for her remarkable turn as the psychologically troubled '30s film star Frances Farmer in 1982's "Frances." And she received the best actress Oscar for her mesmerizing portrayal of the manic-depressive military wife Carly in "Blue Sky." But in those cases she didn't have to repeat the same scenes eight times a week for several months as she did with Blanche.

"It does get to you," she says of playing the emotionally taxing Blanche on stage. "It certainly got to me after a while. Maybe right from the beginning. It's a very haunting character to play. The fact that you put your heart and soul and physical body and mind through that experience relentlessly ... The fact is, your body doesn't understand it's make-believe. Do you know what I mean? Emotions take the biggest toll on our body."

She says if it weren't for her children and family to ground her, she wouldn't have gotten through the Broadway engagement. In fact, Lange doesn't think she ever wants to work that hard again.

"It was a great experience and a great learning experience. This is what actors do this for: to play these kind of parts. But I don't think I could sustain it. I don't think I would want to sustain it again, that kind of emotional intensity for that length of time. You walk on stage at the brink of a nervous breakdown and then it goes downhill from there. I don't think there is anything more emotional and physically exhausting than this part for a woman."

It wasn't as exhausting doing it on film. Lange knew that after performing a "really devastating emotional scene," she was finished with it. "The thing on stage is that you would relive it every time, completely," she says. "The only way I have been ever able to work is to really throw myself into it. I can't indicate it and I can't perform it. If it is not real ..." She shakes her head.

"I don't know," she says. "Had I been a more experienced stage actor maybe I could have had a few more defense mechanisms in place, a way to protect yourself a little bit more."

Blanche, she says, has been beaten at every turn in her life. Her young husband, whom she discovers is gay, commits suicide. One by one, every relative dies. And then finally, she loses the beloved family house, Belle Reve.

"When you get down to the core of her being, her essence, what the Actors Studio used to call the 'spine' of the character, it is this horrible aloneness," Lange says. "That is your departure point every time you do it. This devastating, terrible aloneness that she suffers. That thing about her being haunted by these deaths. She says the Grim Reaper set up his tent at our doorstep. She talks about the opposite of death being desire. You just read it and you think, 'God.' I mean Williams must have just been touched by the gods when he wrote that piece. It's so perfect--the language."

Lange says "it's rare to do something where you actually have words to say." In fact, she adds, "most film scripts you get, they are practically illiterate. You have to figure out a way ... just to make it sound human-like. You spend half your energy doing that. So when you are presented a script like 'Streetcar,' it's a gift. It is this great gift. You have these words. You don't have to invent anything."

The play, she says, still holds up after 48 years because it is so "dense ... it has so much texture, so many layers. It's the kind of thing you can never, as an actor or even as a viewer, completely exhaust. The fact is that any piece of literature should hold up through the ages because human conditions never change. I mean, what he's talking about is exactly what we are dealing with now. This fear of death and this thing of aloneness and this desperation to belong somewhere and to someone. To be connected. To be safe. That never changes."

"A Streetcar Named Desire" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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