Friday, January 27, 2012

Jessica Lange in Frances

Jessica Lange received her first Best Actress nomination for playing the tragic actress, Frances Farmer in the movie Frances. There are years when there are two such fantastic performances that it feels like a shame not to reward them both. 1982 is the definition of that year. Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange were basically going head to head but when award season began, Meryl started to win all the awards. However, the critics came up with a great idea: why not to reward Jessica in the supporting category for her turn in Tootsie? The Academy followed that and they gave her the supporting award. Teri Garr, her fellow nominee, said that Jessica deserved ly won for Frances (I think she deservedly won for Tootsie as well). For that reason, some might have even felt not voting for Jessica at all in the lead category thogh that idea is kind of silly considering what an acclaimed and hailed performance it was. 

Frances is a pretty terrific and harrowing take on Frances Farmer's life. It's highly fictionalized, of course, but that doesn't take anything away from its great effect. Graeme Clifford's direction is passionate and he really found the right way to tell Frances' story. The acting and writing part of the movie is also very strong: I would particularly like to underline Sam Shephard's performance, which was somehow quite memorable for me. Kim Stanley, though many disagree, was not that great. Sure, she has her moments but she's far from being fantastic. 

Over the last couple of months, Jessica Lange has become one of my absolute favorite actresses and I have become a huge, huge fan of hers, mostly thanks to her recent television appearances on American Horror Story. The main reason I was doing this year was to rediscover the performance that's said to be her absolute best, the one that I loved the most as well. I was also full of doubts if I would like her as much for a second time and if she would impress me just as much. It's a hailed performance for sure. At the time, one of the critics' called it the biggest triumph by an actress since Sophia Loren's Cesira in Two Women. True, the careers of these actresses are similar in many ways: both of them started out as sex symbols without any appreciation for their wonderful acting talents and thanks to huge, showy dramatic turns as tortured women they got the recognition both of them deserved. 

When somebody gets naked on the screen, they have to get rid of every sense of shame and pride and show themselves the way they are: vulnerable, natural, scared or sensual and sexy. Jessica Lange gets more and more naked in each and every frame of Frances, figuratively and literally, too. She gets rid of her vanity, her shame and her glamorous, beautiful looks. 

The thing that impresses me most about this performance is Jessica's transformation and the changes that she shows in the character of Frances. She starts off as a naive, a bit shy young girl with a weak voice and very teenage looks, then becomes the most beautiful person you can imagine and eventually ends up being broken down, disgusting, shocking and terrifying. She's on the verge of crazy, wild overacting but somehow she always manages to get back. By all means, her presence is turbulent. She dives deeper and deeper into the madness of Frances that you actually feel that even her, Jessica Lange, the actress suffers a nervous breakdown. 

The scenes where she's shown at the asylum are the most brutal ones that you can imagine. If you thought Olivia de Havilland was shocking in The Snake Pit, just try watching Jessica in Frances. Watching her provides you with the most perverted joy: you can see a woman suffering a brutal breakdown. In the end, she becomes this unrecognisable, wild animal screaming and raging. The most amazing thing about these scenes is the fact that while they are showing total chaos, Jessica somehow was able to control her character. Jack Lemmon said that it's important not to let the character completely take over the actor and that's why it was difficult for him to play his character in Save the Tiger. However, in Jessica's case, I felt that Jessica conquered Frances Farmer and that lead to the greatest results. 

However, I must admit that it's not the final scenes of the movie that I'm the most enthralled by. I was even more impressed by the period when we see Frances starting out in Hollywood and then when she's in decline. Although the scenes of Frances' complete breakdown are surely terrifying, it's the process that leads up to that point that was the more interesting part for me. She cleary feels like a fish out of water at the studio and Jessica showed the character's embarassment brilliantly. Frances just dares to ask why and say the truth without any pretence. 

Jessica uses all her gifts in this part and her beautiful looks and original sexiness do wonders in the scenes where we can see Frances with the men in her life, who constantly let her down. Jessica's chemistry with Sam Shephard is just brilliant, it's no wonder they fell in love with each other on set (how sad that they split). The sexual tension between them almost sets the screen on fire. But Jessica works equally well with the actor playing Clifford Odets. Her tears and breakdown after their break-up is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film. 

Once Frances loses her idealism and is let down by everyone around her, Jessica's acting becomes incredibly dynamic. Her scene at the courtroom shows brilliantly how Jessica was able to keep the balance with this character. She doesn't overdo the raging and screaming and yet she shows how desperate and broken down this woman is. 

The highlights of her whole performance are (and I have to narrow it down to two scenes) her dialogues with her psychiatrist. She portrays so many emotions and so perfectly and in such a thirlling way that I was completely speechless. Her fear, her defiance, her desire to live again is so uplifting and heartwrenching at the same time. And yet, the most disturbing aspect of this performance is that Jessica doesn't give away if Frances was indeed mentally ill: did the series of disasters in her life cause these multiple meltdowns or was or were they caused by her mental state. This (sort of) vicious circle leaves me dazzled and confused ultimately, but also in awe of Jessica's talent and skill to create such a complex character that makes you wonder about it way after the end credits roll.

Although Clint Eastwood might have dissed Jessica as too actressy and theatrical in this part with these huge meltdowns and tears, that just proved how much he (and others thinking about this) didn't understand the whole concept of the film. I suppose some may not like to be so confused by such a moody performance. And I'm especially applauding Lange here since being so over-the-top is clearly out of her comfort zone. She's by nature a very subtle actress who likes to internalize the emotions of the characters and she's someone who often tends to avoid the possibility. She very much has to be pushed over the edge, which sometimes pays off (like here) and sometimes leads to mixed results (like the frequently criticised Blue Sky, which I personally loved the last time I saw it). But mostly she has to get comfortable with such characters (just see how brilliantly she developed in the course of the second season of American Horror Story from too much to brilliant over-the-top acting). Whenever Jessica pulls off great over-the-top acting, she's simply astonishing and gives a performance for the ages like she did in Frances.

All in all, Jessica Lange is simply brilliant as Frances Farmer. Everything about her is just sheer perfection: her turbulent presence, her very emotional and passionate acting and her ability to keep control of her character. I'm not willing to say yet that this is her best work (I need to see more), but it's definitely a front-runner for that prize. Chilling, marvelous, terrifying, brutally amazing job from a great, great actress.

What do you think? . 


Fritz said...

She's truly terrific. I often think about switching my winner for 1982...

mrripley said...

I know it is accepted that meryl is the best this year and one for the ages but i always give jessica my 82 actress win and stanley the supporting trophy,i love the monster mom roles,meryl always wins in 79,83 and 95.

dinasztie said...

She's indeed terrific. :) I love her so much.

Phillip Oliver said...

My favorite contemporary actress (I have a website on her as well which I'm currently updating). I love the scene when she is on the staircase talking to her parents. She is a brilliant actress.

So great to discover this blog and so much to catch up on!