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Jessica Lange makes me nervous.
Tootsie turned out to be the best film I ever made.
Over 40 years of intense, edge-of-madness performances, she’s specialized in playing high-strung characters with dangerous dark sides. At 68, she’s still intimidatingly gorgeous, and as she moves across the backyard of a rented Beverly Hills mansion to meet me, I feel my palms dampen. But then she stops short.
“Look!” she exclaims. “A hammock and a daybed! My favorite things — places to nap.” She drops into the hammock, taking a blissful swing as a hummingbird buzzes overhead. It’s rare, and somewhat reassuring, to see Lange in laid-back mode. She’s known, after all, for roles such as the self-destructive actress in Frances (1982) and the hermit heiress in HBO’s Grey Gardens (2009). Lange portrayed another troubled star, Joan Crawford, in this year’s FX series Feud.
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As an actress, Lange has seldom chosen the easy path, or failed to persist. Propelled by a spirit of adventure, she voyaged from small-town Minnesota to the bohemian outposts of Paris and Manhattan, then to her first Hollywood screen test. Panned for her movie debut, as the damsel in distress in 1976’s King Kong, she kept honing her skills until she was ready for something better. After a slew of acclaimed films, she made her first Broadway foray at 43; when that production got poor reviews, she kept returning to the stage until she earned raves. She took on Shakespeare at 50 and plunged into series television at 62. Along the way she’s picked up two Oscars ( best supporting actress, Tootsie; best actress, Blue Sky), five Golden Globes, three Emmys and — in 2016 for her role in Long Day’s Journey Into Night — a Tony for best actress.
Lange has been just as bold off the set. She threw herself into long-term liaisons with larger-than-life men — dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who gave her a daughter, and playwright-actor Sam Shepard, with whom she had a son and a daughter before they separated in 2009. Fiercely protective of her family’s privacy, she raised her kids in rural hideaways but has never hesitated to venture forth when the cause is right: Since 2003, she has served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
Lange announced in 2013 that she was thinking of retiring, yet has shown no sign of slowing down. Her staying power isn’t just about the boom in meaty roles for older actresses on television. “It’s the desire to do something brave,” she says, “to be challenged.”
She reflects on a number of big times in her life.
The Meaning of Home Cloquet, Minnesota
My father was a traveling salesman and a teacher, and we moved around a lot. I went to eight different schools — I was always the new girl in town, the outsider looking in. I’ve felt that way my whole life, like I never belonged in one particular place. The imagination was my escape and my entertainment. That’s what acting still is for me.
Disastrous Movie, Gritty Response King Kong, 1976
Getting cast in the Fay Wray role was such a fluke. I was just back from Paris, and all skin and bones with a white Afro, and they took one look at me and said, “She’s not right.” But then they flew me out to MGM to put me on camera — what did they have to lose? And by the time I left, I had the part. I had no idea how big the movie was, or that coming out of it I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I went back to taking acting classes for a few years. When you’re young, you don’t see the connections, how one thing leads to the other.
The Truth About Jack The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981
Jack Nicholson and the director, Bob Rafelson, were incredibly kind and generous, trusting an unproven actress with a major dramatic role. I learned a lot from being around Jack — he’s one of the great film actors of all time. He understood the camera and what to do when. He showed me the power of gesture.
Mikhail Baryshnikov Partner from 1976 to 1982
When I first met Misha, there was something so familiar about him … physically, emotionally, everything.
A Simpler Time First Academy Award, 1983