It required encouragement from the romantic Russian who fathered her baby; it required cheers from the industry that used to scoff; and it required time—four years, including one “spent just hiding out.” But at 32, Jessica Lange is finally done with gorilla warfare. The 1976 version of King Kong in which she made her debut might have driven a lesser actress into oblivion, yet Lange chose to persevere professionally, even if it meant doing it way off-Broadway. Jessica was acting in an obscure stage comedy, Angel on My Shoulder, in Charlotte, N.C. when director Bob Rafaelson tracked her down and proffered a screen test, which she passed, for his recent remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film fizzled, but her high-voltage performance prompted exceptional notices, including this rave from co-star Jack Nicholson: “Jesse has that huge female appeal—there are few men who do not want to fall at her feet.”
Of course, that floor space is already occupied by the world’s premier dancer and American Ballet Theatre director Mikhail Baryshnikov, 33, who met the long-separated Lange in 1977 and soon displaced director Bob Fosse as the main man in her life. But because the two kept separate Park Avenue apartments during their romance, rarely appeared together in public and pursued oft-conflicting schedules, they seemed more like paparazzi fodder than a committed couple. Yet when she bore Misha’s child last March, he instantly jetted home from an ABT engagement in Buffalo to check on eight-pound Alexandra Lange and mom. And shortly thereafter, Jessica moved 28 blocks uptown to Baryshnikov’s pad.
Alexandra wasn’t planned, but Lange has no regrets. In fact, she now sees her daughter as a hedge against self-inflation: “I didn’t want to make my life exclusively this career. I wanted some kind of balance, which was why I decided to have the baby. And I take such joy from her. I’m getting into some heavy bonding that never existed before in my life.”
Jessica, daughter of a sometime salesman and teacher, describes her childhood in Minnesota as “pretty good, though it wasn’t Father Knows Best.” While studying fine arts at the University of Minnesota, she met (and later married) Spanish-born photographer Paco Grande, four years her senior. They soon left on an odyssey that crisscrossed the U.S. and South America. Then it was on to New York, where she fell into experimental theater, and later to France—sans Paco—to train in mime. “When I moved to Paris, $300 lasted me six months,” recalls Lange. “Everybody was living like that. There was a community of travelers who had no base. I think it’s good to have had this background of absolutely no security, because now my life doesn’t begin or end with how much money I make. I’m not so altruistic that it isn’t important, but I wouldn’t jump out the window if tomorrow it were gone.”
Finally returning to New York in 1974, Jessica waitressed, tried (and hated) modeling, and then went West, where she was Kong-fued. She subsequently appeared in Fosse’s All That Jazz and The High Cost of Living before the Postman rang. Because her stereotype-shattering performance in it was the talk of the prerelease screening circuit, Jessica landed a part sought by such actresses as Fonda, Keaton, Hawn, Spacek and best pal Tuesday Weld for the title role of Frances. This bioflick about ’30s actress Frances Farmer, a tragic victim of both the Hollywood and the psychiatric establishments, is set to roll this summer, barring a directors’ strike.
Lange is preparing in earnest. Though still nursing Alexandra, she’s hired a nanny to free her to work with an acting coach 10 hours each week and spends five hours in a gym trimming off post-natal weight. Jessica has also rented a house and found another nanny in Los Angeles, where the movie will be shot. However, she expects the baby to be a fixture on the set: “This child is not going to have an orthodox upbringing. I don’t want to leave her for 14 hours, because the most important thing is that she’s around people who love her. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a movie set or in a vine-covered cottage.”
Alexandra will eventually enjoy both worlds. Jessica owns a Wisconsin lake-front spread financed with her Kong salary and is currently having a comfortable log cabin built on 120 acres of virgin Minnesota forestland. In addition, she and Baryshnikov weekend at a rambling Tudor-style stone house built in the 1920s on 90 wooded acres in western Connecticut. Jessica refinished the kitchen cabinets and paneling herself, and furnished the manse with rustic antiques. It is here that they indulge in such pastimes as skeet shooting (on their own range), trout fishing and long walks with their poodle, Masha.
As domestic as they seem, Jessica and Misha have no plans to wed. Her divorce from Paco is not yet final, nor does Lange feel pressure from home: “My family doesn’t think marriage is all that important, and the neighbors aren’t boycotting the house or anything.” Concludes Jessica, “It’s taken me awhile to arrive at what I want, and I must say there’s been a lot of suffering along the way because of misjudgments. But I’ve got the baby, work I enjoy—and Misha. Yes, life is pretty good.”