Also Credited As:Jessica Phyllis Lange
|Jessica Phyllis Lange on April 20, 1949 in Cloquet, Minnesota, USA|
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Born the daughter of a salesman on April 20, 1949, Lange was raised in a series of small towns in Minnesota. Like many young girls, she dreamed of escaping her small town life, finally getting the chance during her one semester spent studying art at the University of Minneapolis when she promptly met and married a European photographer. Following tours through South America and Europe, she settled down for two years in Paris where Lange studied mime under famed performer Etienne Decroux. In New York, the young bohemian painted, danced and joined a small theatre company while earning money as a model with the prestigious Wilhelmina agency. She made her screen debut as the screaming object of desire for giant ape "King Kong" in Dino De Laurentiis' corny 1976 remake, but the box office smash did little to establish Lange as a legitimate talent. In fact, she was derided as a bit of a vapid blonde with questionable acting skills after her dizzy portrayal of Kong's lust object. Undeterred, she returned to New York and resumed acting classes. In 1979, Bob Fosse cast her as the Angel of Death in his screen adaptation of "All That Jazz" (1979), though another critical drubbing for that role threatened to end her career before it had even started. Few would have guessed taking on a role first made famous by "Sweater Girl" Lana Turner would turn perceptions around, following Lange's believable turn as a sultry femme fatale opposite Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981).
After an acknowledged rocky start, Lange shot directly to star status and a double dose of critical acclaim in 1982; first, for her intelligent and haunting portrayal of troubled 1930s actress Frances Farmer in the biopic "Frances." The beloved blockbuster comedy "Tootsie" followed, in which Lange gave a charming but subtly melancholy performance as a soap opera co-star of Dustin Hoffman, an actor masquerading as a woman but with an impossible crush on the luminous blonde. After critics had dismissed her as a celluloid bimbo only six years prior, Lange had the last laugh when she was nominated for two Academy Awards for her work that year. She would go on to win the Best Supporting Actress statue for "Tootsie" and receive a nomination for Best Actress for "Frances." Oscar and Golden Globe nominations were again forthcoming in 1984 for Lange's starring role as a stalwart farm wife braving a difficult season opposite playwright-actor Sam Shepard in "Country" (1984), which she also co-produced. Lange and Shepard had met and fallen in love on the set of "Frances" after Lange ended a longtime relationship with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had a daughter, Alexandra.
Now considered A-list pedigree, Lange essayed Tennessee Williams heroine Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (Showtime, 1984) on the small screen and wowed critics with her portrayal of gutsy, vibrant country music legend Patsy Cline in the biopic "Sweet Dreams" (1985), for which she earned another Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Teaming up with two more of Hollywood's most respected leading ladies, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton, Lange portrayed one of a trio of eccentric Southern sisters in the odd comedy "Crimes of the Heart" (1986), which met with overall positive reviews and snagged a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical. Lange's live-in love Shepard next directed her as a professional woman who returns to her childhood home in Minnesota to visit her cantankerous father in the domestic drama "Far North" (1988). Lange impressively spanned the evolution of a 22-year-old Southern beauty queen with a crush on a football star (Dennis Quaid) into the 47-year-old wife of that same has-been player in Taylor Hackford's "Everybody's All American" (1988). Her searching, intelligent performance as the unsuspecting daughter of an alleged war criminal in Costa-Gavras' "Music Box" (1989) was recognized with both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Following that stellar achievement, she starred in "Men Don't Leave" (1990) as a widowed working class mother of two who is emotionally adrift following the accidental death of her husband.
Pairing up onscreen with Robert De Niro in two high profile noir remakes in the early 1990s, Lange appeared as the target of De Niro's psychopathic stalking in Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" (1991) and an accomplice to his shady numbers runner in Irwin Winkler's "Night and the City" (1992). In 1992, she made her Broadway debut in the celebrated role of Blanche DuBois opposite Alec Baldwin's Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." She deftly handled another American literary great, Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" small screen adaptation (CBS, 1992) and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her starring role as an emotionally restrained Midwestern woman left to run the family farm during hard times. Lange was widely acclaimed and received Oscar and Golden Globe wins for her performance in Tony Richardson's "Blue Sky" (1994), where she played the sensuous but manic-depressive woman-child wife of a military nuclear engineer, whose behavior leads to domestic and professional complications for her family. The following year, she reprised her role as Blanche Dubois in a CBS television version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," again teaming with Alec Baldwin and earning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries or a Made-for-Television Movie.
In 1995, Lange enjoyed two more successes with "Losing Isaiah" (1995), in which she played a weary social worker moved to adopt an infant abandoned by a drug addicted mother (Halle Berry), and "Rob Roy" (1995) where she was ideally cast as the great love of the 18th-century Scottish freedom fighter (Liam Neeson). Lange reprised Blanche Dubois for the London stage, returning to movie theaters in "A Thousand Acres" (1997), co-starring with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a modern King Lear allegory. She bedeviled unwanted daughter-in-law Gwyneth Paltrow in a rare thriller offering, "Hush" (1998), and sought to recoup that misstep by playing the lonely spinster seamstress who slowly destroys the lives of those who have scorned her in an adaptation of novelist Honoré de Balzac's "Cousin Bette" (1998). Enjoying a continued run of roles in literary classics, Lange made for a truly ferocious Tamora in "Titus" (1999), Julie Taymor's mind-bending, ultra-violent adaptation of Titus Andronicus, and returned to the London stage to star as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
While Lange was miscast as a neurotic Jewish mother in the troubled screen adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzell's "Prozac Nation" (2001), she was far more effective in the HBO telepic "Normal" (2003), playing a wife whose husband of 25 years (Tom Wilkinson) reveals that he wants a sex change operation. She was recognized with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her performance and was next tapped by director Tim Burton for the role of the older Sandra Bloom, whose husband is given to fanciful self-mythologizing in "Big Fish" (2003). With roles for over-50 actresses becoming few and far between, Lange appeared in more independent films in the new century, including Jim Jarmusch's subtly comic "Broken Flowers" (2005), where she gave a spot-on performance as a onetime aspiring lawyer-turned-new age animal therapist tracked down by an ex-boyfriend (Bill Murray). She returned to the New York stage that same year to star in another Tennessee Williams' classic, playing wistful former Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie," however the oddly interpretive production suffered from weak reviews.
After a long absence from collaborating with Shepard, Lange starred opposite the playwright in "Don't Come Knocking" (2005), portraying the woman he left behind years ago but never forgot in the indie film directed by Wim Wenders. She had a small supporting role in the direct-to-DVD fantastical British title "Neverwas" (2005) and remained below the radar with "Bonneville" (2008), a sadly overlooked road movie co-starring Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen as a trio of middle-aged friends on a quest to scatter the ashes of a departed husband. Lange essayed a psychiatrist treating a patient with multiple personality disorder in "Sybil" (CBS, 2008), a small screen adaptation of the classic non-fiction book from 1973. In another 1970s revival of sorts, Lange co-starred with Drew Barrymore in HBO's much ballyhooed dramatization of the Maysles brothers' 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens," which chronicled the lives of eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) - Big Edie and Little Edie - living in a tumbledown mansion on New York's Long Island. The biopic, which received the kind of publicity feature films usually warranted, required Lange as Big Edie to age decades, ending with her as the wrinkled old woman of the fabled documentary film. Lange earned a much deserved Emmy Award win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie in 2009. Later that year, she was poised for more wins when she received nominations for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award, pitting her against co-star Drew Barrymore at both ceremonies.
Lange returned to television two years later with her first-ever regular cast role on the appropriately named series "American Horror Story" (FX, 2011- ). A modern gothic tale about a dysfunctional family (Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga) whose new Los Angeles home is a nexus of supernatural evil, its over-the-top shock value proved popular with audiences hungry for the genre. As Constance Langdon, the family's sharp-tongued kleptomaniac neighbor with a pitch-black past, Lange chewed the scenery with relish, stealing virtually every scene she appeared in. For her work, she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series, Miniseries or Movie, and followed that with an Emmy Award win in 2012 in the same category.
By Susan Clarke