How F*cking Brilliant is Jessica Lange?
I don’t know why I’m going to relate this anecdote because it’s not a particularly good one, and it’s too gossipy and tawdry even for someone as louche as I. But I suppose, on reflection, the whole reason it was told to me in the first place, back when I was a young entertainment hack journalist, was so that I would write it one day. The fact that I’ve waited a couple of decades just goes to show how big a rush I was in to get it out of my system.
I was down in North Carolina, of all places, researching a piece I was writing on producer Martha Schumacher for the magazine I both edited and wrote too much of, but we had very little budget for freelancers, which put a serious dent in the quality of my writing. At the time, Martha was still legendary movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis’ girlfriend as well as his producing partner (she later married him). We were the American version of an Italian magazine, Dino De Laurentiis was Italian… you can see the angle here.
The reason I was in North Carolina was Dino had just built what was considered by the film business to be a folly in Wilmington: a group of soundstages with a small back lot, then known as the De Laurentiis Group Studios, now called EUE/Screen Gems. This was meant to be the foundation of a new Hollywood East, and while the project didn’t quite live up to the potential of its dream of moving a sizable chunk of production away from Los Angeles, it was a pioneer in the movement towards rethinking traditional production models in the States.
I was there at Martha’s invitation. I had zero aspiration to write and edit women’s glossies the rest of my career, and every intention of becoming a filmmaker, and this was my first visit to an American production facility, which wasn’t that different from Cinecittà in Rome, where I grew up, except it was because it was in America and therefore more important than ancient Rome.
While waiting for Martha to wrap up a meeting, I was introduced to a veteran screenwriter, who had worked with Dino on a number of projects, I forget which. Like many writers, he was overly voluble, and like many film people a-brim with gossip about other film people.
Barely a minute after we’d shaken hands and he understood that I was writing a piece about Martha and perhaps Dino—but it was a women’s magazine, so the focus was more Martha—he launched into a story about how Jessica Lange was discovered, or more accurately uncovered.
Now, the fog of decades of dissolute living may have smudged some of the details, but this is how I remember what the chatty scribbler told me:
Dino had acquired the rights to King Kong and set John Guillermin to direct it. The most important casting of any remake of the classic black-and-white original was the blonde who would replace the iconic Fay Wray. Do you remember that both Adrien Brody and Jack Black are in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, or do you just remember Naomi Watts? Thought so. The male lead is really the massive gorilla many men have thumping away inside them.
Guillermin was insistent they cast his girlfriend, the unknown Jessica Lange. Dino was reluctant—after all, the budget was $24 million, a hefty amount in the mid-70s—not just because Lange was unknown, but because she wasn’t buxom enough. Either that, or Lange herself felt her boobs were too small—that’s one of the details I’m hazy about. Whatever: In the end, Dino agreed to cast her and paid for breast augmentation. (Now that I’m fully conversant with the finer details of film production, I would love to know what line item of the budget that went under.)
It came time to shoot the second-most-important scene in the film—the first most important being the scaling the towers and swatting at planes sequence—when Lange as Dwan, the archetypal blonde all apes fall for, takes a shower under a waterfall while sitting in the palm of King Kong’s hand. It was then that Italy’s most legendary producer suddenly got a frantic call from the set in Hawaii.
“Dino, Dino!” one of his minions cried into the phone. “Jessica is refusing to take her tits out for the scene!”
“Whaddaya mean her tits?” Dino screamed back in his heavily accented English. “They’re my tits! I paid for them! Tell her to take them out!”
I warned you: The story wasn’t that good.
However, I have thought about Dino’s Tits from time to time while watching American Horror Story, the drama on FX that is steadily exhausting everything else out there—even Breaking Bad and Homeland—with the sheer power of performance, inventiveness, writing, sets, cinematography… the whole film/TV-making shebang, really. In the second season, Lange as the super-fucked-up asylum chief Sister Jude has a penchant for wearing sexy red lingerie under her habit. And I have to say that Dino’s Tits have held up very well over the past forty years—a blue-chip investment if there ever was one.
Lange is now credited as a producer on AHS, and while I’m not in the least conversant with the dynamics of how that show is put together, I wouldn’t be surprised if that credit isn’t more than an honorific her agent has negotiated with the network. She could well have some creative input beyond just performing. AHS’ creator, Ryan Murphy, is unequivocal when he talks about how much Lange has contributed to the show and her roles. If she blew the lid off season one, as Eric Baker pointed out, season two belongs to her.
It is two monologues this season (and one at the end of the last), which leave you almost breathless. After you’ve taken that initial sharp intake of air that ends the almost breathlessness, you should be amazed you’ve been watching television and not a superb stage performance, specifically Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role Lange made her own on Broadway and the West End in the early 90s, when she moved away from film in favor of the stage. (Murphy also credits having seen Lange perform that role on Broadway with how they have written AHS; indeed, I feel that if they were honest, Tennessee Williams should be given an executive producer title.)
The first breath-removing monologue this season is from an episode called Nor’easter, when Lange as Sister Jude gives a drunken speech about fear to the terrified asylum inmates. Sister Jude is a reformed alcoholic, see, but after literally being tempted by the devil manages to hit the communion wine before hosting a screening of one of her favorite films, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, during one of the worst nor’easter storms on record.
The dark comedy is set up right there, and if you listen to the introductory words carefully—i.e., when she says, “… unlike Charles Laughton, whom I understand is an enormous whoopsie…”—you’d think you’re in for belly laughs along the lines of the diarrhea-in-the-bridal-shop scene from Bridesmaids. But you’re not. With lighting flashing and thunder crashing around her, Lange walks up the aisle of the makeshift asylum theater amidst the quivering wretches, just like a heroine out of a Biblical film, speaking the lyrics of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel:
No, no, no! Come on. None of that, none of that! Chin up high! Don’t be afraid of the dark! At the end of a storm is a golden sky and the bright silver song of a lark. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain. Though your dreams may be tossed and blown, walk on. Walk on with hope in your heart. And you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone…”
As Ryan Murphy says of Lange’s delivery of this monologue, “It is master-class acting.” I would love to have been present on the set when they wrapped the scene; I’ll bet the entire crew erupted in applause. If I’d been a junior actor huddled there playing an inmate watching her do this take after take, I would have gone back to my trailer, thrown up and flagellated myself all night in fear of never getting to that point with my skills.
It’s appropriate that many of the words in that Nor’easter monologue are song lyrics because Lange has arrived at such a point with her craft that, combined with the powerful writing, she is no longer speaking, she’s singing in a gorgeously timbered contralto voice. From her, that isn’t just a monologue from an early twenty-first-century TV show; it has been transformed into a tragic-comic, show-stopping aria from a nineteenth-century hit French opera, I’m thinking by Bizet.
If watching Lange sing-speak these occasional aria-soliloquies weren’t such orgasmic joy, you would think it overkill that Murphy & Co. have her deliver another as good as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” only two episodes later, in what is now known to AHS conoscenti as the “Baby Squirrel Monologue,” which a friend of mine screened three times back to back and cried each time. Writing in Rolling Stone, Halle Kiefer said, “If I ever have to audition for anything, I’m going to give Sister Jude’s baby squirrel monologue.”
Feeling she is utterly defeated by her nemesis, the fugitive Nazi, Dr. Arthur Arden, Lange as Sister Jude gives the entire speech while sitting on her bed as the camera pushes in from wide shot to close up in a single take. She dismays that God didn’t answer her prayers to revive a pet baby squirrel that she accidentally let die of starvation when she was a little girl. At the end of a monologue perfectly accented with despairing hand gestures and hopeless shrugs, Lange wipes away a tear and says, “God always answers our prayers… It’s just rarely the answer we’re looking for.”
And. You. Are. Devastated. Not to mention completely taken by surprise that you’ve had such a quality experience watching a horror show on TV. As my aforementioned friend said, “The writing on this show is as good as classic Twilight Zone.” This same friend also complained that he’s spent seventy dollars going to two movies over the past few weeks—he does like to dip into the concession stand, like, one of everything, please, with butter—but that he would rather give the producers of AHS that money for entertaining him more fully than those dissatisfying big-screen experiences. He’s even started re-watching season one. It is that good.
It’s fair to say I grew up with Jessica Lange, and that makes her performances these days, particularly these aria-soliloquies, seem like I’m recollecting my own memories: a few are fond, most are disturbed, and some even frightening.
Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ve always been vaguely frightened of Jessica Lange, as any person with a sense of self-preservation who has been around a performer that visceral, that authentic, that possessed should be. From her Oscar-nominated role as the insane Frances Farmer in 1982 to her asylum warden Sister Jude thirty years later, and every Blanche DuBois feral fucked-up woman in between that she’s played, this is an actress you want to treat with as much caution as you do respect.
Yep, Jessie’s come a long way from the palm of that giant ape, baby. And every time Sister Jude is feeling a little unhinged in that wide-grimacing Lange-ish way and is inclined to don some wicked red lingerie and go out for a booze-and-sex bender, it’s always good to see that Dino’s Tits still haven’t let her down.