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Jessica Lange: Woman Behind the Ape

"It was just a year ago at this time," Jessica Lange remembered. "The screen tests were on Dec. 17 and 19, and then I went home for Christmas. And I said to my folks, I've got some news for you that you're not going to believe. I'm, ah, I'm going to star in 'King Kong'..."

She lit a cigarette and said she didn't mind being photographed while smoking because, after all think of Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. And she said the last year has been the most hectic of her life.

"We started shooting the film before they'd even come up with a working model of King Kong," she said. "It wasn't unusual for the wardrobe to be decided on the day before a scene was going to be shot - usually those things are worked out months in advance. We had a veteran crew, and our cameraman, Harold Wellman, had actually worked on the original 'King Kong' in 1933. It was my first movie, of course, and people would take me aside and tell me that no matter how many more movies I made, I'd never make another one like this."

Before Dino De Laurentiis, the producer, stepped into her life and decided she was the only person to play the role Fay Wray made famous, Jessica Lange was a New York model. And she looks it: long-legged, sexy and composed. She'd studied acting for a year, taken some dancing classes, no plans along those lines in particular ... and then Dino decided he needed an unknown for the female lead in his $24-million epic. His representatives descended on agents in California and New York, looked at thousands of photographs, conducted dozens of interviews and lots of screen tests and Jessica Lange it had to be.

"The moment I was signed," she said, "things started happening. Dino was in a race with Universal at that time to see who could make 'King Kong' first. I was so busy I didn't even have time to be apprehensive, to wonder how well I could act. And there were times, I think, although nobody would admit it, when we all had our doubts that the movie would ever actually be completed."

Some of those doubts came, she said, while she was suspended 40 feet over a studio floor in the grasp of King Kong's gigantic hydraulic hand. "Once he was supposed to crush me, and he almost did. Once he was supposed to pat me on the head, and he almost knocked me out. I got bruises and pinches and pokes, and I looked scared to death half the time, which was fine, because I was supposed to be projecting fear. What I was fearful of was that we'd have to shoot the scene again, and I'm afraid of heights, and I'd look down at that concrete floor and all I could think about was Ann-Margret in Las Vegas." The Dino version isn't a remake of the 1933 classic, but a new story based on the same elements. One major difference is that Kong is portrayed more sympathetically.

"He doesn't go around stomping on natives," she said. "It's not a terribly violent film. It's more like a romantic adventure. At the beginning, I feel absolute terror, of course, but then I begin to realize that Kong has affection for me. He listens to my voice, and maybe he understands something. I feel a rapport with him, a certain empathy ... he tries in his own way to be amorous and playful."

She liked being in "King Kong," and she's under contract to De Laurentiis to do another picture. Something, um, maybe a little more realistic. Maybe a role in "Ragtime."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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