LOS ANGELES – A few bottles of wine could be drained in debating which Minnesotan — Bob Dylan or Prince — contributed more to popular music. But any discussion of the state’s most important thespian should be over in a shot.
Jessica Lange is our greatest screen performer. Ever.
The case could be settled simply by counting the hardware that the Cloquet, Minn., native has taken home: two Oscars, three Emmys, five Golden Globes, a 2016 Tony for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
But the clincher is “Feud: Bette and Joan,” a new FX miniseries. Lange portrays Joan Crawford as she goes to war with Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis during the filming of the 1962 movie thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
While Faye Dunaway used the Crawford persona to pitch camp in the film “Mommie Dearest” — a choice that earned her a Razzie Award as 1981’s worst actress — Lange ventures into deeper waters, shaping a tragic figure who, through a combination of limited talent and the movie industry’s embedded sexism, fell woefully short of her self-imposed expectations.
The role brings an odd coincidence to mind: In a 2012 story about Lange’s stellar work on “American Horror Story,” I happened to note how Davis and Crawford were forced to transition from glamour girls to off-the-rail monsters.
“Lange, on the other hand, is doing some of the finest, most delicate work of her career,” I wrote, “bringing to life damaged characters whom you feel sympathy for, even as they’re stealing neighbors’ babies or delivering electroshock treatment to innocent reporters.”
Lange’s latest follows suit.
In an early scene from the eight-part series, debuting Sunday, Davis takes her rival out for martinis, hoping to shoehorn her daughter into the cast. Crawford sees through the ruse and decides to shake up her usually unflappable co-star with an anecdote about how she welcomed the sexual advances of her stepfather, casually drawling out the details through a fog of cigarette smoke.
But Lange, as always, has something more in mind than channeling Cruella de Vil. In a later scene, Crawford is plotting to sabotage the Academy Awards, and a longtime friend urges her to dial it back.
“Joanie, you’re better than this,” he pleads.
Lange turns away from the dressing-room mirror and walks toward him in what seems to be slow motion.
“No,” she croaks, stroking his cheek. “I’m not.”
“There is this great artifice to her,” Lange said of Crawford. “Joan was taught to speak by the studios with this kind of upper-class, mid-Atlantic accent, but Joan was an alcoholic, and there are moments where everything falls away and there’s this kind of ugliness and brutality to her.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that has made Lange, now 67, one of the screen’s most valuable performers, an achievement that’s all the more remarkable considering her background.
Growing up in Cloquet, “we didn’t even have a movie theater,” Lange said, “so it was really about watching these old films on TV. That was my whole encounter with acting in the beginning. When I went for my first screen test at MGM, I remember driving through those gates and walking the Andy Hardy streets. Esther Williams’ swimming pool was still there. I was in awe.”
It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts.
As a model with no previous acting experience, Lange was hyped as a huge new star in the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” playing a model-turned-actress who inflames the gigantic gorilla’s libido.
John Goodman, who stars in the new “Kong: Skull Island,” opening Friday, said: “God bless Jessica and Jeff [Bridges, her co-star], but that thing almost killed Jessica,” a reference to the ape’s temperamental mechanical hands, which occasionally roughed up Lange. The movie also bruised “her career, because what she was playing, everybody thought that was her!” Goodman said. “But then [in subsequent roles], she was just too good.”
That’s an understatement. Six years later, Lange scored double Oscar nominations. She won for a supporting role as Dustin Hoffman’s most coveted accessory in “Tootsie.” But it was her other performance, as the bipolar Hollywood star Frances Farmer in “Frances,” that would end up being more indicative of the path she would forge — digging beneath the surface of troubled characters.
That tack landed her in critically lauded showcases — “Sweet Dreams,” “Country,” “Crimes of the Heart” — but seldom box-office smashes. Her second Oscar was for 1994’s “Blue Sky,” a movie that grossed only $3.3 million, playing a glamorous but manic military wife who doesn’t exactly snap to attention. It didn’t help that she took time off to raise her children, largely in Stillwater with then-partner Sam Shepard, and in a cabin she continues to maintain near Duluth.
Hollywood didn’t seem to miss her. In the 1990s, she appeared in only seven feature films, mostly small parts in titles that would tax even Leonard Maltin’s memory. I remember sitting next to her on a flight during that period, amazed that she was traveling alone and without airs, unapproached by a single fan from boarding to baggage claim.
Television would reignite her career, specifically her role as the delusional Big Edie in 2009’s “Grey Gardens” on HBO.
“It’s the most difficult role I’ve had in a long time,” she said then. “As an actor, if you don’t flex your muscles, you get flaccid and lazy. And I’ve been very lazy as of late. Part of doing this is asking myself, ‘How much would I risk?’ And I decided I would risk it all, because what do I have to lose at this point in my career?”
FX soon became her home base and Ryan Murphy her most vital champion. In addition to creating the “American Horror Story” anthology series, which featured her in four roles, Murphy is the creative force behind “Feud” and was an executive producer for the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” that won Lange her Tony.
“If it hadn’t been for him, I think these would be lean times,” Lange said. “I wasn’t being offered the kinds of roles I was 20 years ago, and, actually, I don’t think they are out there. Really, in the last 10 years, what parts done by women would I have died to do? I can’t come up with one.”
Let the art-house elite downplay her accomplishments on the small screen. The rest of us, particularly Minnesotans, know the truth. A legend walks in our midst.
Staff writer Colin Covert contributed to this report.