Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jessica Lange in Country

Jessica Lange received her third Oscar nomination for playing Jewell Ivy, a woman who's determined to keep her farm in the controversial movie Country. Jessica was one of the three farm girls in the 1984 Best Actress line-up and since this was a (kind of) open field after Peggy Aschcroft dropped down to supporting, it's very difficult to speculate about the way the voting went. I suppose the contemporary subject and the passion project factor helped a lot to Jessica who was third and didn't get the Oscar because she most certainly lost the Republican vote, especially after President Reagan's comments on the film. Had the movie been less controversial, I think she would have had a better chance to win the Oscar (especially that some might have felt awkward that she won supporting two years before instead of leading).

Being able to finally see Country was such a triumph for me that I really didn't care about its quality (very much like the case of Anna). It seemed such an impossible thing a couple of months ago but I suppose the fact that I never gave up on it must have helped a lot. And actually, I was sort of impressed by it. Although the lines are often incredibly cheesy, the movie itself is thought-provoking and even moving. It has incredibly strong scenes, especially the one with the thunder and some of Jessica's moments, which are, quite simply, unforgettable. Sam Shepard gives a strong performance and his character is much more multi-dimensional than we would expect. 

Jessica, Jessica, Jessica... Really, I'm not going to deny my love for Jessica Lange who has gradually become on of my favorite actresses of all time (thanks to her amazing weekly performances on American Horror Story, for which she will win the Emmy in September). I used to think that Jessica got a limited range of roles and could never really show her talent. However, nowadays I can see that she shows incredible range even within her parts. Her performances are mostly subtle and she rarely goes over the top (I suppose that's one of the reasons why her work in Blue Sky is so outrageously underrated). 

Country is obviously a passion project for Jessica and she's seemingly dedicated to the film, in which she 100% believes. Just like Great Glenn in Albert Nobbs or Nicole in Rabbit Hole, Jessica takes the difficult way and she doesn't use this project to provide herself with showy Oscar scenes and meaty dialogues. Her acting is so unselfish and generous here and her aim was obviously to make the picture more believable and thought-provoking. This type is generosity is what I admire most about these "passion project performances" and it arguably why the Academy loves to reward these efforts with nominations (too bad that louder, showier performances steal the hype from them). 

To imagine Jewell, you just have to think about what Julie Nichols from Tootsie would have turned out to be if she had stayed at the farm with her father. Jewell is a simple woman who may not have had lots of education but she's wise, intelligent and really sensible. Actually, if it wasn't for her, that whole farm would stop working. Her personality has a certain amount of earthiness in it and it was great to see that Jessica Lange knows the different between earthy and hammy (that's something that Sally Field cannot always say). Jewell is a reserved, simple woman as I said but to me it was amazing how Jessica fulfilled her with lots of layers despite the fact that the she seems to be a really one-dimensional character at first sight. 

Although Jessica could be criticised for not making Jewell more vivid, colorful and layered and I'd say that criticism has some merit, I'd rather "blame" it on the fact that Jessica was never desperate to steal the spotlight from the movie. Yes, she often steps back and leaves opportunities for the others, but I just cannot deny the fact how fantastic she is in this movie. Plain and simple, Jessica is wonderful as Jewell. Excuse the stupid pun, but this performance of hers is indeed a jewel. Jessica shines in this part, showing so much dignity and determintation that she sometimes reminded me of her fellow nominee's performance in Norma Rae (except for the showiness). Strength is rare portrayed as subtly as Jessica does in Country. 

I also loved how much intensive emotion Jessica was able to concentrate in some of the scenes, which makes them unforgettable and so heartbreaking. The most intense moment is probably when Jewell tries to convince one of her friends not to commit suicide. She delivers those simple arguments so effectively and her timing is so excellent that it's, in my opinion, one of the best moments that Jessica has ever had on the screen.  She was able to create so much tension and suspense that the outcome would have been difficult to take anyway. In a way, it's a scene where she drew all her principles and her desire to survive when everybody else around her gave it up. 

I doubt that I'll ever see such a subtly tragic heroine as Jewell. I know it's unfair to compare the fellow nominees inside a review so let me just say that Jessica gave the sort of performance that I expected from Sally Field in Places in the Heart. Although the two characters are astonishingly alike and the actresses even had the same approach to them, Jessica stands out so much more as she was able to turn this simple woman into a grand, heroic lady. It's funny how sentimental I can get about her when she's everything but sentimental. I just felt that in the interpretation of Jessica Lange, Jewell Ivy became a true American hero (sometimes I even heard the national anthem of the USA while she was talking) and all of this in the most positive way. 

However, Jessica is also able to nail all the tenderly emotional scenes as well. Jewell's interactions with her husband are terrificly played by both Jessica and Sam Shepard. Their chemistry (as always) is just brilliant (my goodness, why did they have to split?) and they form a perfect couple with Jewell being the calmer, more sensible and less of a drama queen in the relationship. In the beginning, when they lie on the bed, about to make love is such a wonderful and intimate moment despite the fact that they make it more playful. But their last scene together is the one that's really heartwrenching, especially with the lack of dialogues. 

Jessica portrays  Jewell as a mother just as amazingly as she does with every other aspects. Her speech to her children about their father's anger is just brilliant. Again, she has quite cheesy lines to work with and yet she's able to make us forget that, thanks to her wonderful talent and confidence on the screen. 

All in all, I can do nothing but praise Jessica Lange's performance in Country. It may not be her strongest work, but she's able to play with my heartstrings even with a limited screenplay and cheesy lines, thanks to her emotional intelligence and enormous talent. She's able to make a scene unforgettable with only one look or a few tears. She's able to make a lasting impression without huge breakdowns and screaming and her dedication for the film is indeed admirable. 

What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

I have not seen here but I am looking forward to see how Spacek stacks up to her.

Oscargrouching said...

Republicans vote for Oscars ?

dinasztie said...

There are many Republicans in the Academy, especially back then, I think. All the older actors. :)

Fritz said...

A really nice review! :-) The first time I saw her I did not think so much of her but I plan to watch her again before I do 1984, maybe my opinion will change... :-)