Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Jessica Lange was waitressing in New York when asked whether she'd like to audition for a role in "King Kong." "What the…?," she thought, and so flew out to Los Angeles, a place she'd never been. Producer Dino De Laurentis took one look at her '70s blonde 'fro and decided they shouldn't even test her, but an Assistant Director, noting she'd come such a distance, managed to put her before a camera. As she did her scene, the A.D., then others—and finally the legendary Italian—came in to watch. Over many actresses, Lange got her first film, a featured part as "Dwan," cast opposite Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin in John Guillermin’s remake of the 1933 classic.
"King Kong" sold tickets (it was the 7th highest grossing film of 1977), but it—and her performance—were panned by numerous critics. What would have been a career killer for many was not for Lange, whose powerful new fan, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, wrote, "The movie is sparked by Jessica Lange's fast yet dreamy comic style. She has the wide, high forehead and clear-eyed transparency of Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey," and one liners so dumb that the audience laughs and moans at the same time; yet they're in character, and when Lange says them she holds the eye and you like her, the way people liked Lombard."
Thirty-eight years later, Lange told this discovery story before an ardent crowd gathered at Santa Barbara's Bacara Resort. There to receive the Kirk Douglas Award for excellence in film, for which she was selected by the inimitable actor, she would be the first woman so honored. The award is bestowed annually at a black tie dinner benefiting the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, but, for the first time, Douglas, who turns 98 in December, was unable to attend the ceremony in person. A marvel of a man who this fall published another book ("Life Could Be a Verse - Reflections on Love, Loss and What Really Matters"), his moving, enthusiastic virtual appearance was received with a special warmth.
The night was studded with clips from many of the roles Jessica Lange created after "Kong." And it was a feast, as 41 characters have lived through her in films, television and the theater. Included were "the Angel of Death" in "All That Jazz" (1979), her second film role (which director and sometime partner Bob Fosse wrote for her), followed by Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake of the 1946 film noir, "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
When the clip of Jack Nicholson's "seduction" of Lange in the diner ran, a murmur spread through the dining room. The acting is excellent and very powerful, yes—but the term seduction isn't really accurate; this is a rape scene, and it's quite shocking. It was not something I remembered from my first viewing of the film: then I’d liked it a lot, but a rape? This left me wondering, in our era—with the topic raging and attitudes rightly changing—whether this film could even be (re)made again.
Between clips, Lange’s invited guests came to the podium. First was the fine actress Kathy Bates, herself a Best Actress Oscar winner for Rob Reiner’s darkly humorous “Misery” (1990), now Lange’s co-star on “American Horror Story,” in its 4th season on FX. Sparkling in her black tux, she spoke directly to Lange, seated out in the audience, confessing that when they first met, the admiration she’d long had for Lange’s talent (“much like Bette Davis”) brought on such feelings of intimidation she feared she wouldn’t measure up. But as her fright dropped away, acting together caused a real friendship to grow. Bates summed up beautifully: “Working with you, babe, is like riffing jazz with the lights down low and nobody else around.”
A clip of "Frances" showcased her next role which, in a sense, chose Lange. Graeme Clifford, the editor on "Postman," realized as he worked that he was looking at the lead for his first directing effort. The project would be based on the life of actress Frances Farmer, best known in the '40s, who’d had both success and major struggles in Hollywood, as well as a dysfunctional family history, leading to a disillusion culminating in tragedy. “Frances” offered a deep, tough part to Lange, who prepared harder than she ever had, delving into her own difficult family background to reach the emotional levels she wished to portray.
When principal photography ended, she was wiped out, yet wanted to quickly work again. Deciding to go for "something light," she accepted a supporting role alongside Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie" (1982). Who can possibly forget that sweet, smart, fall-over-laughing film of a desperate actor cross-dressing in order to actually act? And who can forget Lange as Julie, the actress whom Hoffman-as-woman must act opposite, as he-the-man falls blitheringly in love with her? Owen Roizman's camera swoons over Lange, especially up close, capturing that fragile, open, part-Scandinavian beauty, the kind that breaks hearts.
As 1982 reached its end, Jessica Lange would become the first performer in 40 years to be nominated for two Academy Awards in the same year: as Best Actress for "Frances," and as Best Supporting Actress for "Tootsie." She won the Oscar for "Tootsie," along with awards from the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, a Golden Globe, and others. More starring roles and more awards ensued, and then came "Sweet Dreams" (1985), Karel Reisz' biopic of country singer Patsy Cline. That was a role Meryl Streep admitted she “begged” for—but Reisz had always wanted Lange. She got it, playing opposite Ed Harris as her husband, and got another Best Actress nomination, too.
Allow me to add here that Jessica Lange has long been among my favorite actresses. Of the same generation, and growing up female amidst a sea change in our expected roles, she has often played characters I can see myself in, embodying that seesaw world of newfound independence, then its uncertainty, with which I identify too. When SBIFF Director Roger Durling announced her name and this event, I had to be there and had to write about her. But never, as a non-actor, did I suppose I could truly discuss her acting. For that I turned to an actor/director friend.
Darrell Larson first worked with Lange on “Frances,” discovering very quickly that “she would do anything to get the scene right. She’ll draw on anything, use anything she finds, if she thinks it will be useful. She has amazing concentration. She asked Kim Stanley, who’d retired, to play her mother in “Frances,” and those two together did some of the finest acting I’ve ever witnessed...Her work makes me think of Katherine Hepburn, although Hepburn’s power was based in her intellect, where Jessica’s is in the body...It’s sexual. She’s the Goddess Aphrodite. She’s always at the center of things. (It’s) unmistakable female power. She’s always had it, and couldn’t lose it if she wanted to.”
Throughout the '80s, other films beckoned, some of them ("Crimes of the Heart" (1986), "Everybody's All-American" (1988)) lower profile, while one, Costa-Gavras' "Music Box," (1989), with a script by Joe Ezsterhas,found her playing an American lawyer defending her Hungarian émigré father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) when he's charged with war crimes. Initially she can't believe it but, as the trial proceeds, details - and her father's behavior—begin to gnaw. While the film achieved scant box office success, the interplay between Lange and Mueller-Stahl was tremendous, with her performance garnering a fifth Academy Award nomination.
The ‘90s meant more work, notably in “Blue Skies” (1994), playing a ‘60s housewife, manic-depressive and stuck on a military base as her conservative officer husband, Tommy Lee Jones, very much a ‘60s man, concentrates on work. The last film of veteran British director Tony Richardson, it got caught up in the Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy and sadly shelved for 3 years, only getting a release—and critical praise—after Richardson’s death. Once again Lange was mesmerizing, and another Best Actress Oscar was her reward. There’s also “Rob Roy” (1995), Michael Caton-Jones’ 18th century swashbuckler set in the Scottish Highlands. The film looks gorgeous, with the surprise of a remarkably adult marriage (quite satisfying in its grown-up sexiness) portrayed by Liam Neeson and Lange, and a standout supporting cast including John Hurt, Brian Cox, and Tim Roth, whose fabulous performance as an aristocratic psychopath earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (He deserved to win, too.)
In this period Lange took on theater as well, making her Broadway debut as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1992), next doing “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (2000) at London’s West End, and “The Glass Menagerie” (2005) in its Broadway revival. With HBO’s “Grey Gardens” (2009), she turned in an astonishing performance as Big Edie, the unsteady and reclusive aunt of Jackie Kennedy. Nearly unrecognizable in the part, its excellence garnered her first Primetime Emmy.
Television producer Ryan Murphy is an emerging mogul whose multiple hit shows include “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” the HBO film “The Normal Heart,” and “American Horror Story.” Standing before the Santa Barbara Film Festival audience, resplendent in a burgundy velvet tuxedo, matching shoes and bow tie, he charmed everyone by noting he’d admired Jessica Lange the actress for a very long time. “What I love the most: she suffers no fools, she expects the best; she is a sassy and sexy lady. She is a great actress. Allure is a word I use to describe her, and even the gays are not immune.”
As the laughter subsided, he explained how, after seeing her Blanche twice in that 1992 Broadway production, he longed to work with her. The opportunity finally came in 2011 with “American Horror Story”—a phantasmagoric anthology series which switches out storylines every season. Hoping to expose her work to a new generation, he and co-creator Brad Falchuk offered Lange a supporting role within the excellent repertory cast. She had to be persuaded, then was so good that expanding her role the following year wasn’t even debatable. Her character quickly grew into the lead, drawing in further acclaim for the series and bringing her a second Primetime Emmy, a fifth Golden Globe, and her first Screen Actors’ Guild Award.
In introducing her, Murphy nearly sang it out: “We have worked together for 5 years. I was such a fan, and I wanted to work with her, and one of the great joys of my career is that young people LOVE that show. I am so glad that so many KNOW my Jessica Lange, OUR Jessica Lange.”
Jessica Lange accepted her award in a slightly more subdued manner, kissing Murphy, thanking everyone. Her speech - “a jumble of papers,” she called it - had impact, as she recognized her good fortune in finding acting, to have worked with such talented people, “that this is what my life became.” Commenting on the night’s abundant clips, she explained that many were from films she’d done back-to-back, sometimes shooting 2, even 3 in a year. But, “when I hit 50, the roles were slow in coming. It seems as though youth is directly attached to your talent...especially for women. It’s not true for actors. They keep working, whatever their age. But I don’t think it will ever change for women... And then you evolve into the ‘parental’ roles...”
Things changed for her again with “American Horror Story” and its success on television, where “really interesting roles for women are now happening...(Television) is actually cinematic. Maybe more cinematic than most films today.”
Then this fine and memorable actress, whom some of us have watched and appreciated all those thirty eight years, drew the evening to its close, saying, “I am so blessed to live and work in this immensely diverse, creative world. I feel a great love and connection to this business and to this art. I am thrilled and honored that Kirk Douglas would single me out for this award, and I thank you all for being here.”
Which brings us back to “American Horror Story.” What an actors’ romp this series surely is, while also being fabulously production-designed, costumed, shot, and edited. “Cinematic,” as Lange had said. What fun it must be to work on it. Surely there’s no better ending here than in this great night’s final clip: Jessica Lange as German expatriate Elsa Mars, the “Freak Show” carnival’s grande dame. The song is David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”
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