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Hey, It’s Just a Career

David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

It’s hard to think of another woman who has had as bizarre a stage career as that of Jessica Lange. Primarily known for her film work, Lange has had precisely two stage roles in her 25-year career as an established actress. But both are indisputably major--maybe the biggest, meatiest female roles in all of 20th century American drama.

Three years ago, Lange wowed audiences and critics here with her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” after playing the part with less success in an earlier Broadway production. Now Lange is the talk of London’s West End again, having received ecstatic notices for playing Mary Tyrone, the doomed, morphine-addicted anti-heroine of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Most London-based reviewers approved of this new production, directed by Robin Phillips, but they were unanimous in acclaiming Lange. Variety critic Matt Wolf heaped extravagant praise on her. “Hollywood for much of the last two decades has been hiding a great theater actress in Jessica Lange, and it has taken London’s West End to allow her stage gifts to fully shine,” he wrote, adding that the production was “borne aloft by a performance one will remember for all time.”

On a bleak, rainy night, an hour before going onstage for her 3 1/2-hour role, Lange sat in her dressing room at the Lyric Theatre, smoking while musing over her sporadic, late-blossoming stage career.

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“Blanche and Mary had been in my mind for some time,” she said. “I’d wanted to play Blanche since I was young, and Mary for at least 10 years now. If ever anyone asked me what roles I’d want to do onstage, I’d have said these two. So I didn’t look for anything else. When the chance to play these roles came along, I put things in motion.”

To prepare for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Lange read up on O’Neill; Mary Tyrone is partly based on his mother. “With a play like this, you are jumping into an American classic,” she said, noting that such acting legends as Fredric March, Laurence Olivier and Constance Cummings had appeared in landmark productions of it. “You enter into a house of ghosts with this play. But I did love working on it, even though at first I felt overwhelmed by it.

“When I was learning the part,” she recalled, “I don’t remember the line, but I suddenly felt this tremendous love for this character. You read criticism about the play and this word ‘victim’ keeps popping up. But she’s a scrapper. She gives back as much as she gets. She goes down fighting.

“Everything in Mary’s life fluctuates between love and hate. That makes her interesting to play, though I’m glad I’m not like that in real life. She has a love and hate for the members of her family, her husband and boys. And she has that same relationship to morphine. She says she lost her soul to it, but it also kills her pain, it’s balm for her.”

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One can only speculate what it says about Lange that she should be drawn to two such angst-ridden figures as Mary and Blanche, in performances that encouraged Wolf to dub her “the high priestess of pain.”

“Oh, I don’t think we want to go there,” said Lange, laughing heartily.

But she did concede that playing Mary--a wife and mother confined to a fog-bound house and constantly doped up to inure herself to her overwhelming sense of loss and guilt--is a grueling endeavor. “I find if I can pace myself during the week, I can get through it. But it’s such a big emotional journey this character takes every night. It’s tiring.” She paused, then added playfully: “Well, can’t you tell--I mean, look at me.”

In fact, despite possible traces of fatigue around her eyes, she looked fine, dressed simply in a plain black T-shirt and jeans. The 51-year-old actress wore not a trace of makeup, a fact that only served to accentuate her dramatic facial bone structure.

“I thought to myself, I should try and fix myself up for this interview,” she said wryly. “But I didn’t have the energy. And I thought, well, he’ll understand, he’ll know it’s right before the performance.”

This candid, outspoken, easy-come, easy-go attitude exemplifies Lange’s current attitude toward her career. She has long felt herself to be an outsider in Hollywood terms, and lives well away from major urban centers in Minnesota, her native state. There she shares a home with playwright Sam Shepard, their two teenage children, and her 19-year-old daughter by Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great Russian dancer.

She agreed that she largely feels removed from the mainstream: “Sometimes I miss city life. I’d love to be back in New York City at some point. But I made a decision not to raise my children in a city. I wanted them to have a freedom I don’t think city kids have. There are times when I wish I were more in a setting where there was art, theater, whatever. But I don’t miss it that much. I’m glad to be out in the country. I could never live in Los Angeles. I couldn’t live in an industry town. It’s reductive, I find it deadly.”

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Lange has that same skeptical view toward the film industry. She is rightly regarded as one of America’s most distinguished and luminous film actresses, and she has the Oscars to prove it: best supporting actress for “Tootsie” (1982) and best actress for “Blue Sky” (1994), as well as huge acclaim for films as varied as “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Frances” and “The Music Box.”

But her film work has dwindled in recent years, and Lange has become associated with movies that sounded promising and classy on paper, but failed to strike a chord with the public--"A Thousand Acres,” “Cousin Bette” and “Titus” among them.

“I was disappointed by ‘A Thousand Acres,’ because I had such high hopes,” she said. “With Michelle [Pfeiffer] and I cast as the sisters, it should have been wonderful. But it wasn’t--and not because of us, to be absolutely blunt. The director [Jocelyn Moorhouse] wasn’t up to it. She just couldn’t pull it together. I felt very let down by it.

“As for ‘Titus,’ I really wanted to work with Anthony Hopkins. As it happened, I only had a couple of scenes with him. I did like playing that character [Tamora] and [director] Julie Taymor created a wonderful visual fantasy. But no one went to see it.” She shrugged. “I can’t judge things anymore. I certainly don’t have my finger on the pulse anymore, I know that.”

But this isn’t something that makes her despair; Lange is scathing about the scarcity of substantial, character-driven dramas in film.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the films that were done 10, 15 years ago by studios will not be made now,” she said. “Why limit the audience’s imagination to such an extent? I can’t figure it out. Not since ‘Titus’ have I come across a part I really wanted to play. Some people could argue, well, you’re 50 years old. But I look at the parts the 30-year-old actresses are doing, and I wouldn’t want those, either.”

She is equally dismissive about many independent American films: “Sam was talking about it. We’d been to see one of those movies with a hip, offbeat new director. And he said, ‘You know the problem with these movies? There are no real characters.’ And it’s true. There’s no real character development, or any sense of a dramatic arc. The characters just fit a slot. They’re hip, funny, cool or whatever. And that’s about it.”

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Listening to Lange talk about her latest film experience could lead one to surmise she feels terminally estranged from the industry. She had a role in the upcoming movie “Prozac Nation,” (adapted from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s account of her teenage depression and dependency on Prozac) as the mother of the central character, played by Christina Ricci: “That was a stretch,” she noted, arching one eyebrow sardonically. “I don’t know if people are going to buy that.

“I saw nothing of it while I was shooting. I don’t go to dailies anymore. I have no idea what it looks like, how it plays, I literally had 12 days of shooting. I did my work and went home,” she said. “But I had no connection with the film other than the scenes I was playing.”

She observed that her success had occurred “almost always despite the prevailing trends. Even when I won the Oscar for ‘Blue Sky,’ how many people actually saw that movie in a theater?” she wondered out loud with a laugh. “Maybe 3,000? It’s a different ballgame for me from people who are in big hit movies all the time. But I have no regrets. It was how I wanted to do it.

“I’ve made bad choices, but that’s human error. And now I’m at a point where it’s not that important for me to get a part, to be offered this or that, or to make sure I do a movie next year. I really don’t care. If it happens, fine, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That way, you’re not disappointed, frustrated, or figuring out if you’re working and someone else isn’t. Whatever ambition I had in that area has just faded away.”

None of which means Lange has given up on movies--as long as she can participate on her own terms. In the 1980s, she optioned Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel “Machine Dreams,” about successive generations of an American family affected by wars. She let her rights to the book lapse, but recently re-optioned it and has written a screen adaptation, with a view to directing.

“Originally, I would have played the central character, Jean, but now I’m way too old. I’d prefer not to act at all in it, but I would if my presence helped raise money. Now I could play Jean’s mother, Gracie, who dies early on. That’s only about a week’s acting work.”

Lange has also been developing “Cheri,” by the French novelist Colette, a story of a scandalous romance between a young man and a middle-aged courtesan. But neither project is likely to start soon; no financing is in place, and besides, there are domestic considerations: “A film like ‘Machine Dreams’ means five months away from home. With this play, I’m 17 weeks in London. So I’ll have to wait now until I can afford to take that time away from the family.”

Given the London success of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (a Broadway transfer is under discussion), it may be that Lange reappears on stage before she embarks upon another movie. But in the wake of Blanche DuBois and Mary Tyrone, she might find it hard to find a sufficiently substantial role.

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It seems curious that her longtime partner, one of America’s leading playwrights, has never written a role for her. “I’d love to do something on stage with Sam,” admitted Lange. “But as you know, his plays are very male-dominated. Brothers, fathers.” She grinned. “A lot of guys.”

Shepard has suggested to Lange that she attempt the Samuel Beckett play “Happy Days,” a two-hander in which the main character spends all her time on stage imprisoned up to her waist in a mound of earth. “But that would be such a departure for me,” Lange mused. “So who knows?”

If she does return to the stage again, it’s likely to be in London: “I love working here. There’s a real theater community. London audiences don’t have the crazy enthusiasm of New York audiences, but they’re very attentive. They listen to the language, they appreciate drama of this magnitude.” A pause. “They’ve certainly treated me well.”


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