Class Act

 

INTERVIEW:Movies that feature strong women are "as rare as hen's teeth right now", according to Jessica Lange, but that hasn't stopped the two-time Oscar winner from picking out the interesting, rewarding parts, writes Michael Dwyer

CHOSEN AS the closing presentation of Galway Film Fleadh last week, Bonneville features three middle-aged American women in a car, the old convertible that gives the movie its title, going on a cross-country trip that takes them through handsomely photographed landscapes from Utah to California.

In the long-standing tradition of US road movies, this proves to be a journey of self-discovery for all three. As they encounter diverse characters along the way, there are echoes of Thelma & Louise, not least when they give a lift to a young male hitch-hiker.

For all the familiarity and inevitability of its storyline, Bonneville has the ace card of three formidable talents in the central roles - Jessica Lange, Joan Allen and Kathy Bates - and it benefits significantly from the evident rapport between them.

"We had great fun doing it and really enjoyed each other's company," says Lange, beaming as she curls up in a leather armchair at her Galway hotel. "It was nice because we all approach the work from a similar place and we all have been doing it for so long that we're comfortable with who we are and what we're doing."

It's unusual these days for a film to feature women in all the principal roles - although there the Sex and the City movie, and Mamma Mia! have several juicy roles for women. "Those two films are exceptions," Lange says.

"The book of Sex and the City was a best-seller and the TV series was a phenomenon, so there was already a huge audience for it, and I guess you could say the same about Mamma Mia! It has an enormous following after all these years on stage.

"But it's great any time you have a movie that features women so strongly, no matter what it is. I'm all for it because those movies are as rare as hens' teeth right now, especially what the studios are doing. It's very different from the 1980s, which was the apex of really good roles for women as protagonists in interesting stories. You had Norma Rae and Sophie's Choice, Coal Miner's Daughter and for me, Frances.

"They were great parts and there were enough to go around. You had this whole generation of actresses of my age and we were all working in wonderful movies for great directors. And it wasn't limited to one or two movies a year. That's all changed. So many movies now seem geared towards post-pubescent males."

Lange found herself in the right place at the right time when her career took off in the early 1980s. Now 59, she was born and raised in Minnesota and studied drama in Paris and New York, but she seemed more likely to succeed as a model. Then she landed her first movie role when veteran producer Dino Di Laurentiis cast her as the heroine in the 1976 remake of King Kong.

"I just went out to Los Angeles and auditioned for it, and I found out right away that I had the part," she says. "I didn't know any better, so I was very naive about acting, about film-making, about the business. I just showed up and did it. I was such a neophyte that I wasn't worried if the film would be successful or what the reviews would be like.

"I was having a good time. It was a lark. I had been living on absolutely nothing. I was completely broke in New York and working as a waitress most of the time. Then, suddenly I was making the most expensive motion picture.

"I didn't even think about how weird it was to be working in a big hydraulic, mechanical hand. I just did it."

But her prospects of overnight stardom faded rapidly when King Kong opened to withering reviews, and it was three years before she got her next movie, Bob Fosse's musical drama All That Jazz.

"I just went back to my own life," Lange says. "That whole year on King Kong was such an interruption and so unanticipated. I went back to New York and to my acting classes. People didn't really take me seriously as an actor then. People didn't know what to make of King Kong, or of me."

She had a supporting role in All That Jazz as Angelique, the angel of death, but she seized the opportunity to show she was capable of much more than screaming in a giant gorilla's paw. "Fosse was a genius," she says. "His influence is everywhere."

And her performance convinced Bob Rafelson to cast her as Cora, the adulterous waitress getting involved in passionate table-top sex with the drifter played by Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). "I got so lucky to be working with Nicholson and Rafelson," Lange says. "They were such old pals who had been working together for years, and they took such good care of me. Nicholson was so generous and had such humour.

"He's one of those people who is great to be around. I was enchanted by him and he was so very kind to me.

"That was the first real part that I had. King Kong was exaggerated and all very tongue-in-cheek. In All That Jazz, my character was a metaphor. But Cora was the first real person that I played, and from that I got Frances. The editor on Postman was Graeme Clifford, who directed Frances afterwards."

Lange vividly portrayed Frances Farmer, a rising star in 1930s movies whose fame was short-lived. Sent to a mental institution, she was subjected to terrible cruelty and a lobotomy.

"It was so sad that she never got to do what she was capable of doing," Lange says. "I think she was probably a great dramatic actress. She had some good parts, but the downhill slide happened so quickly and so soon in her life."

Lange immersed herself with such driven intensity in her early roles of Cora, Frances and singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, that it must have been hard to switch off at the end of a day's shooting.

"I've gotten better at that and now I can," she says. "Those characters are always lingering back there in your subconscious. Frances was a really haunting character and she hung around a lot longer than I ever thought she would.

"But when you have a family, you have a real life to go back into. Especially when my children were very young, there was no time to brood about the character I was playing. I had to step in the door and be Mom."

To Lange's surprise, she was nominated for two Oscars in 1982, as best actress for Frances and best supporting actress for Tootsie. She was even more surprised when she won the award for the light comedy section.

"I was stunned," she says. "It took Sydney Pollack a long time to get me to do Tootsie. I asked myself if I wanted to play some frothy, ditzy character after I had just done Frances. Obviously, I'm thrilled that I did. Of all the films I've made, it's the one that's become a classic."

Despite all its wit and charm, Tootsie was shot in a fractious atmosphere, undergoing a succession of script revisions by any number of screenwriters and its hands-on star, Dustin Hoffman.

"It was pretty insane," Lange says. "Dustin and Sydney did not agree, and I'm not talking out of school when I say that, because it's legendary now that there were tremendous fights. I just stuck to myself which was in keeping with my character - to float along and not let too much bother her. I just hoped it would get by. Who knew it would ever turn into this classic film?"

Lange then went on to receive three more Oscar nominations as best actress - for Country (1984), Sweet Dreams (1985) and Music Box (1989) - before winning the Oscar for Blue Sky (1994), another movie with a troubled history.

Featuring Lange and Tommy Lee Jones as an exceptionally volatile couple, it was the last film directed by Tony Richardson, who had contracted Aids and died in 1991.

"That was one of those classic Hollywood cases where you make a film when one regime is running a studio," Lange says. "Then, when it's released, it's turned over to other hands and they have no investment in it, emotionally or financially. Blue Sky ended up sitting on a shelf in a bank vault for a couple of years before finally they released it and, even then, in a very limited way.

"I was thrilled it eventually came out. Tony Richardson was very ill when he made the film. I knew Tommy Lee's work was good and that my work was good. It's a fascinating portrait of an extremely dysfunctional marriage, even though they were crazy about each other."

Lange herself got married when she was 21 and it ended in divorce. She became involved with dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had a daughter, Alexandra, in 1981.

Lange met actor, playwright and director Sam Shepard when they co-starred in Frances. They have been together ever since, and have two children, Hannah (23) and Walker (21).

The couple acted in three more films together - Crimes of the Heart, Country, Don't Come Knocking - and he directed her in Far North. But they have no immediate plans to collaborate on another.

"He's so busy with his writing that we haven't talked about doing anything in particular," she says, "and nothing has come up that would present that opportunity."

She came to Dublin last year when Shepard directed his play Kicking a Dead Horse at the Abbey. "I was in Dublin for the second opening, not the one at the Peacock, but when it went on the main stage at the Abbey. Stephen Rea was amazing in it. A one-man show is a big undertaking for an actor."

Rea and Sean McGinley will feature in Shepard's new play Ages of the Moon opening at the Abbey next March. "He won't direct that, although he loved working at the Abbey and with Stephen," she says.

Lange made her Broadway debut in 1992, as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and has starred in two other American classics, as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, on Broadway and in London's West End.

Mary Tyrone is a great stage role but I suggest to Lange that for an actor, it must be the equivalent of running a marathon every night.

"The brilliance of the play sweeps you along," she says with a serene smile. "It's much harder when you're working against the material, when the writing isn't there and you're trying to make something out of nothing.

"With O'Neill or Williams or Shakespeare, it's such a joy to be actually saying those words and playing those characters.

"I'd love to play Mary Tyrone again. It's one of my favourite parts and it's probably the best work I've ever done. Sometimes, it's very interesting to revisit a role. I found that after I played Blanche on Broadway. I played her again in a TV film and then in the West End production. Each time, you're bringing this past with you, this history, and you're adding to it. It's an interesting process."

At Galway Film Fleadh, Lange gave a masterclass on acting. What advice would she give aspirant actors today?

"I would tell people to really be motivated instinctively and not to make decisions based on counsel as to what would be good for your career, or any of that stuff.

"You have to stay really true to what you want to do and what kind of actor you want to be, even if you aren't the most successful or the best-paid or the most recognised. And when it's not fun anymore, find something else to do."