Monday, February 19, 2007

A Southern Belle Dreaming of Fidel: the Freewheelin' Jessica Lange

Two days after opening night, and Jessica Lange’s Midwestern drawl has turned into a weary croak. She is, she confesses, “a little worn out. My voice has taken quite a hit. It’s that thing after the opening, your whole body wants to relax, finally.”
The play is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Lange appeared on Broadway in a production that was mauled by American critics. London has been warmer, but Lange is unable to compare the productions, except to say that the new interpretation is more “precise”. She claims to have “no memory” of the New York performances. “It’s as though it’s been erased.”
And though she thinks the opening two nights have been good, she hasn’t read the reviews. “Maybe at some point down the road. I never read ’em the day after.”
Perhaps it’s the bleariness of the second morning after the night before, but she sounds more fragile than you might expect of a two-time Oscar winner. She admits to first-night nerves. “There’s this absolute dread that comes over me, and then it moves to this kind of self-defeating ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and ‘It’s never going to fly’. By the time you get to the theatre, actor’s adrenaline kicks in, and if you hit it on the right foot going out there, something takes over and you’re swept along. If you miss that, you’re behind. It’s like how they used to speak about Billie Holiday singing behind the beat, which was what made her so unique. But acting behind the beat does not have the same magical effect!”
In New York, reviewers suggested Lange was miscast, but she has her reasons for trying again. “For me the play is about mothering. All the positive, all the negative, all the insanity, all the joy.”
Watching her at work, playing a deluded Southern belle in yesteryear’s ballgown, it’s hard not conclude that until recently Lange would have identified with Tom, the character Williams based on himself. He is a free spirit, trapped in the suffocating embrace of his mother.
“It’s funny,” Lange says, “because when we did the play in New York, my friend Diane Keaton came backstage. Maybe it’s because we’ve hit an age in our lives, and we’re mothers, and we’re raising children… She said it was the first time she had seen the play from the mother’s point of view rather than Tom, and his desire to break away and be free. Maybe that’s it – it presents itself at a certain time in your life.”
Lange’s reflections on motherhood have been prompted by the fact that all three of her children – Shura (by Mikhail Baryshnikov), Hannah and Walker (by Sam Shepard) have left home.
“It hit me hard. Some people I know were joyous: now they could have freedom and do what they want, not be a slave to the school schedule. But,” she laughs, “that kind of gave meaning to my life. Now I’m not so sure what I’m supposed to be doing.”
She certainly doesn’t look like a grandmother of 57, even in her rehearsal clothes; a dark cardigan and jeans, and black lace-up shoes of the kind that might have been favoured by Miss Jean Brodie. Even in mufti, she exudes a sense of coiled magnetism. There is a blur of ink on her hand, a tattoo from her spent youth. I ask how she handled the transition from bohemia to responsible motherhood.
“By the time I had my first child I was already 31. I had really flown through the Sixties in my twenties, and had lived pretty much as hard and rough and crazy as I could sustain. It was time for me to slow down.
“Coming out of the Sixties, it was quite insane. It was completely peripatetic, never living anywhere – literally living on the road year after year. Moving to Spain, then to Paris, and then back to New York, and the whole underground arts scene. Not to mention the power of the drug culture.” She laughs. “There was a lot going on. The ones of us that are still alive, we’re lucky we made it through.”
Drugs, she says, were “just part of life”, and she is reluctant to specify how far her experiments went. “Not as far as a lot of people that I saw come to an end. By the time I hit my thirties I was really ready to have some responsibility. And to have that thing that connected me to life.”
Lange’s rootlessness wasn’t necessarily rooted in the counter-culture. Her childhood was a tour of small towns in northern Minnesota. “My dad was very restless, so we’d stay in some little nowhere place. [Bob] Dylan described Hibbing, which is where he’s from, as a town that was going nowhere. I lived in a lot of those places.
“I remember having a yearning that was so powerful that it was almost like a physical pain. This yearning to get out, to see something, to do something.”
She enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an art student, fell in with a group of photographers, and set out for Europe. In Spain, her group documented flamenco gypsies. In Amsterdam, they filmed the life of a street person. In New York, she burrowed deep in the underground. Then she moved to Paris to study mime under Etienne Decroux. “The first time I saw Paris – that sounds like a song, doesn’t it? – was in May of 1968, when we were coming up from Spain on our way to Amsterdam, and the streets were like, wow! It was most thrilling thing in the world to me.
“The whole city was under siege. It was as close to a revolution as anything I’ve ever seen. So I thought, ‘This is where I want to be!’”
In some descriptions, Lange’s father sounds like Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman. “He was a teacher, he sold cars, he was a travelling salesman. He worked on the railroad. He was really a brilliant man. Coming out of the depression and World War 2 just completely screwed him up.”
He always dreamed of owning his own ranch. “There’s some great old colour film from the Thirties, of him in Montana, and that’s where he wanted to be. He wanted to go back to Great Falls, Montana, in the wide open spaces.” By now, Lange’s voice has dropped to a whisper. “He never made it.”
She inherited her father’s temper. “The other thing I got from him, which I am extremely grateful for, was his sense of honesty. And cutting through things. You get a little good and you get a little bad.”
When Lange talks about her mother, who died eight years ago, her tone is mournful. “She was just the most beautiful, gentlest, loveliest woman in the world. Never an unkind word. She was amazing.” She clears her throat. “I should have inherited more from my mother.”
In the midst of her European travels, Lange married her photography professor Paco Grande. She didn’t take marriage seriously. “It’s never meant that much to me, the idea of marriage. I’m not married now, but Sam and I have been together for 24 years. So what does that mean?”
Lange met Shepard on the set of Frances, the 1982 biopic of Frances Farmer which earned her an Oscar nomination. She once said “no one compares to Sam in terms of maleness,” but bristles when reminded of the quote. “I hate talking superlatives. There’s obviously something. I’ve been with the man for 24 years. And I’m still crazy about him.”
Shepard’s plays use the West in the way Tennessee Williams used the South, but is less political than Lange, who considers America to be at “at a low ebb” because of the Bushes’ foreign policies.Yet she is no fan of Hillary Clinton. “I know she’s a good stateswoman and she’s incredibly smart. But I don’t think I could support a candidate who supported Bush’s drive to war.
“With Hillary I get the feeling that it’s all politics. I would love to see somebody who was passionate and who was not scared, not always deliberating: ‘Is this the right move?’ But who had some real sense of ethics and wasn’t afraid to go against the fucking focus groups. That’s what’s killing films, that’s what’s killing politics.”
Despite her Oscars - for Tootsie and Blue Sky – Lange’s Hollywood career has been understated.
“Oh, I think Hollywood just got rid of me!” she says with a laugh. “I was never big box office, so they didn’t have much use for me. At least in the Eighties, and for maybe half of the Nineties, you could still do a studio film that was a good movie. But that’s gone.
“Look, I had a chance to do a lot of really wonderful parts. But in 30 years, how many movies have I done? 25? For the most part, I like the work I did. I liked the experiences that I had. But if I could move on to something else, I probably would. I’m just not sure what else I can do.”
Recently, Lange has revived her interest in photography. She beams at the mention of Rene Burri’s photographs of Che Guevera, who she recently described as her hero. “This is the power of photography, isn’t it? The iconography of Che Guevara really has to do with those photographs. I’m in awe of the revolutionary spirit. And what an amazing journey that kid went on. I just always imagine those moments – can you imagine coming into Havana with Fidel? I mean, God! What a thrill! There’s nothing more thrilling than that. A revolution that works!”
Right now, here concerns are more prosaic. She is looking forward to a day off. “Hopefully I’ll get out a bit,” she says wistfully, and walk around. It’ll be nice to get through this week, because then you can start having a life. A little bit of one, at least.”
Before she goes, she pays tribute to the play’s director, Rupert Goold, and to the rest of the cast. “It’s been a pleasure,” she says. “It’s been very good for me, to get me out of my head.”
What, I ask, was wrong with her head? “You just don’t wanna spend too much time dwelling on things!” she says, laughing. “It’s like my father always said: ‘You’ve got too goddamn much time to think!’”

1 comment:

  1. Kudos on writing such a fantastic post! I've always counted Lange as one of my favorite actresses, and your interview really reveals her as an interesting thinker and creative mind overall.
    I'm crazy interested to see what she does with the Big Edie Bouvier role!

    ~ Mad Percolator