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Mum is definitely not the word

After two Oscars and a lot of fun playing women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Jessica Lange is of an age at which Hollywood expects her to play mother. But she has other ideas, writes Ian Parker

ONE morning a few weeks ago, Jessica Lange left her home in rural Minnesota and drove across a flat, snowy landscape into Saint Paul, a city seemingly laid out by a child with too few building blocks. She first went to the dentist, and when she arrived for lunch with me at the Saint Paul Grill - where a mild, Midwestern form of power-lunching takes place in a setting of dark woods - her mouth and nose were numb. "I feel like a stroke victim," she said as we were led to a booth, and she put her large hand to her mouth.

She was wearing jeans and an expensive-looking black cardigan held together with a single angular silver button, and looked like a movie star from the 1950s. "I may be drooling," she added. The Novocaine was keeping her face still; and, because her film face is usually busy with nervous, fluttering half-smiles (often in response to unfortunate events, like being held in the air by a large ape, or having her husband decide on surgery to become a woman) this disguised her, more than it might another actor. When she ordered lunch, she spoke like a ventriloquist.

Goldie Hawn once famously described the three stages of an actress's Hollywood career as "babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy ". Lange, who at 54 might be said to be nearing the end of her mid-career (and who raced through the babe stage in what looked like a disapproving hurry), has created a powerful variant: wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Living far from Hollywood (with her children and her long-term partner, Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor), and keeping clear of the emptiest Hollywood scripts, she found a career in intelligent distress.

Her Oscar-nominated role as the unhappy actress Frances Farmer, in Frances (1982), showed the way: she is now Hollywood's leading neurotic - keeping handsome vigil at deathbeds, and pacing in kitchens, smoking one cigarette after another.

According to a website that approvingly lists the films in which actresses are seen with cigarettes, Lange has smoked in 16 (or about half) of her films, putting her in an all-time top 30. "I hope I'm below Bette Davis," she said, as I passed her the list, and she then caught a glimpse of the phrase 'Lange, a chain-smoking, neurotically self-obsessed mother', and she cried out, "I am not neurotically self-obsessed and I am not a chain-smoker!" before realising that the phrase described her in a recent role, in the long-finished but unreleased film, Prozac Nation .

"I haven't played women who are absolutely mad. They teeter on the edge," Lange said, and she recalled "those benchmark moments in the play or script when you know you're going to have to just let it rip. I've always found that on those days when you're going to do those scenes, you come in thinking, 'Oh, I don't want to do this, I don't want to have this breakdown.' But then, once you get started, it's so much fun." She repeated this with feeling. "So. Much. Fun."

In Blue Sky , for example - a highlight in this career in near-hysteria, for which she won an Oscar - Lange was the foxy, restless wife of Tommy Lee Jones, driven by life on an Army base to extramarital sex and plate-throwing. She has also been seen, typically, as the distraught adoptive mother of a black child ( Losing Isaiah ), the barren wife of a pig-farmer ( A Thousand Acres ), and as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire on the London stage and American television.

Lange's new film is Big Fish , directed by Tim Burton. American critics have compared it with Forrest Gump , without much enthusiasm. Lange has a mid-sized part as the wife of Albert Finney, whose annoyingly tall tales have driven his son, played by Billy Crudup, all the way to France. Crudup learns that his father is dying and he flies home to Alabama, and the family stumbles towards reconciliation in a flood of flashbacks.

For once, "I didn't have togo crazy," Lange remembers. "I didn't have to have a breakdown!" In fact, her character is oddlyperipheral, as if only fathersand sons really matter ("Well,I'll just get the supper on," Lange says at one point); but amid the rather wearying twinkliness ofa Tim Burton production, her airof seriousness (or earnestness,even) is a relief; she is not

'The golden time of your so-called career, when you're getting every script that's around, whether you're right for it or not, happens to coincide with the time you're raising your family and having babies, and taking care of your elderly parents'

seen smoking, but you feel that she probably has a pack in the car.

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Over lunch, Lange said nothing against Big Fish - she called it "very charming" - but one guesses that any film that describes itself in its American advertising as "magical, mystical, whimsical and heartwarming" might leave her a little cold. And she admits that she recently made a casting decision: "No more mother roles. I don't mind what I play, but no more mothers. I mean, it's fine if that's part of the character, but if that's the only part of the character . . ."

Lange was not depressing company - she laughed as much as the dentistry allowed, and she was full of optimistic talk of trips she would soon make to Tibet and Cuba, and future films, including a Christopher Hampton adaptation of Colette's Cheri - but our conversation had a faint undercurrent of regretfulness. She said, "One thing, I really wouldn't want to be a bitter old woman. That I don't want to be," and she laughed, showing the slightly uneven teeth that, today, would never be allowed to remain inside the mouth of a young actress. "Every once in a while I feel a little bitterness creep in and I have to really work at it."

Something quieter than bitterness remains evident: a sense of life not having kept its promise, of opportunities somehow missed. This is in part political disappointment: Lange, who was recently appointed a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, has a distaste for the current US administration that is well known enough for her to be despised by foam-mouthed American conservatives. At the time we spoke, she and Ben Affleck were sharing the 'Liberal of the Week' spot on boycottliberalism.com; and on famousidiot.com she was listed at number 20 - below Susan Sarandon but above Ed Asner. The kinder comments here included, "Jessica, you dumb idiot, you're a communist and a stupid hippie, get out of America."

"That's an old one: the 'America: love it or leave it' crap; 'My country right or wrong'," Lange said. "I lived through that during the Vietnam era. I didn't buy into it then and I don't now." She went on, "I think we're in a really terrible place in this country now. I think it's as divided as it has ever been, and I think George Bush is to blame, for creating this incredibly divisive political atmosphere. I mean, there's been no common ground since he took office, and the thing that bothers me more than everything is the stupidity - I mean the rampant, widespread stupidity of the American public, and how they have bought into this political rhetoric, this mindless empty rhetoric, these bumper-sticker slogans that this man speaks in." She put on a good ol' boy accent: "'We're good, they're evil. They hate us because we love freedom.' I mean, it's just so mindless." She paused. "Anyhow, I don't see it getting any better. There was a time a year ago when I thought it would run its course, but now I don't."

There are also signs of professional regret: memories of good films not done - she turned down Gorillas in the Mist while she was pregnant - and films that might have been good but that let her down. While pleased to have had the classy collaborations (Tony Richardson, Costa-Gavras, Karel Reisz, Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Harris), she has not forgotten the disappointments. "I feel really cheated on A Thousand Acres , because it should have been a great little movie," she said. " I think the director [Jocelyn Moorhouse] just kind of buckled. She just didn't step up to the task at all."

A little later, Lange laughed and said, "Did you see Hush ?" (In Hush , Lange played a perversely wicked mother-in-law to Gwyneth Paltrow.) "I was hoping it would become What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ?, kind of freakish - I wanted to play a part like that. But it was terrible, embarrassing. It was a Gothic thriller, and then they chickened out half-way along. Nothing made sense in that movie, absolutely nothing."

There can't be many film stars who'd admit - as Lange does - that an acting career isn't very important to them, and they could easily imagine another kind of life. "The parts certainly do thin out at a certain point in your life," she said. "The golden time of your so-called career, when you're getting every script that's around, whether you're right for it or not, happens to coincide with the time you're raising your family and having babies, and taking care of your elderly parents. You're overwhelmed with everything at the same time. And suddenly your kids are leaving, your career has dwindled, your parents are dead, and now you've got all the time in the world for one of those things, if you had one of those things." She was laughing.

Lange has at times allowed herself to play women who are understood to be beautiful and not always chaste, but she has not produced what could be called a romantic body of work. If Cheri gets made - Colette's story of the relationship between an ageing courtesan and a very much younger man - it will be the closest she has come to starring in a love story. Like Jack Nicholson, Lange may be in the position of having led a more interesting love-life off the screen than on.

She was brought up in Minnesota, to parents of Polish and Finnish descent, and was always itching to leave. (When Lange's father wanted to teach her how to swim, he threw her in a lake; to show her how to ride, he put her on a horse, "then he slapped that horse on the ass so hard it bucked up and it ran as fast as it could back to the barn," Lange recalls, more amused than resentful. "And I just held on for dear life, weeping.")

She met her first husband, Paco Grande, a Spanish photographer, when she was 18, and briefly enrolled at the University of Minnesota. They left for European wanderings apparently scripted by Jean-Luc Godard: they were in Paris in 1968, they lived with gipsy flamenco dancers in Spain, they left a car burning in the middle of the street.

If she did not quite abandon herself to the experience, it's because of a lifelong habit of "constantly questioning or second-guessing - being my own worst enemy"; she was also feeling awkward about her family at home: "I had just walked away from everything here. I had dropped out of college; I didn't tell my parents I was leaving; my mother was sick.

"There was an awful lot of guilt and remorse."

SHE separated from Grande, and lived in New York, where she waited tables, and was on the books of a modelling agency. "I was having a great life, taking acting classes, it was all cool, getting stoned, whatever, living in the Village." Then her agency photograph was seen by Dino De Laurentiis, the film producer, who was casting the Fay Wray character in a remake of King Kong . Lange was flown to Los Angeles for an audition, and got the part: which is how movie careers begin in the movies. The film opened to stifled laughter. "I just don't think I was ready. I had imagined coming up a very different way, doing a little theatre off-Broadway - off-off-Broadway - not being thrown into the middle of this huge film. I was 25, I couldn't bear the attention, I hated seeing my name in the paper, I hated people talking about me, making comments, judgements, so I got extremely depressed, and then in a real stubborn way I decided I would prove them all wrong, that I was talented. It's all such a waste of time, when you look back on it, isn't it?"

She appeared in All That Jazz in 1979 (and had an affair with that film's writer and director, Bob Fosse), then hit her stride with The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tootsie - which she properly describes as "one of the best romantic comedies of all time" - and Frances , during the making of which she began an affair with her rugged, lassoing co-star, Sam Shepard (at a time when she was in a relationship with Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had had a daughter). In a way that seems odd today, she and Shepard - both spoken for - were left alone by the press: "Nobody talked about it, it wasn't on the front page, it wasn't on the cover of People magazine. The media wasn't as invasive as it is now. You could actually get away with affairs, and running off, without being followed. Now these kids can't do anything."

She and Shepard had two children, who are now 16 and 18; and as Lange's career moved into its mid-period, the family stayed together. Seven years ago, they moved from Virginia to Minnesota, "to be close to family - especially my mother who was getting very aged - and so that my kids could grow up in this kind of clan, where they had cousins and second cousins and aunts and uncles".

Lange never married Shepard, but she sometimes refers to him as her husband, "for simplicity's sake. It makes it so much easier than 'this man I've been living with for 20 years'. Actually, what's amazing about it is after 20 years . . . " she paused, "I don't think either of us really knows what's happening. Do you know what I mean? There's something very, very quixotic about the relationship, and it's nice. I've never stayed with anybody that long."

She went on, "I can't imagine that we won't be together for ever. It seems very secure and," she laughed, "inevitable. I don't mean that in a negative way. I said that to Sam the other day and he said, 'How grim', or something like that, and I said, 'Not at all!' You just know when you meet somebody that things have moved in that direction, and now you're there, and that's your destiny, in a way.

"I don't think I'm as gloomy as I used to be," Lange said. "It's good. I do have bouts, still, but I move in and out of them more quickly."

Then she said, "Oh, I'm finally beginning to feel my nose again." She looked at the time, and realised she had to drive home, to a house that in a few years she will leave behind. "I won't stay here; Sam and I won't stay here once the children are finished with school. Because there'll be no reason to be here. My mother died five years ago, my father had died before that, and the rest of the immediate family is beginning to disperse. I'll get a place in New York again, in the city. I've been in the provinces for a long time." © Daily Telegraph

Big Fish is in cinemas now


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