In a jolting turnabout that finally has critics throwing kisses instead of hisses, Jessica Lange, 33, has hit Hollywood with a double-whammy the likes of which it hasn’t seen in years. While enchanting audiences in the madcap comedy Tootsie opposite Dustin Hoffman, she is unnerving them in Frances as the tormented heroine of the bio-flick about 1930s actress Frances Farmer. “Here is a performance so unfaltering, so tough, so intelligent and so humane that it seems as if Miss Lange is just now making her motion picture debut,” raves the usually more restrained New York Times of her harrowing work in Frances. “This stunningly beautiful woman emerges as a major film actress.”
The wonder is that the triumph took so long. Since playing second banana to a monkey’s uncle in 1976’s ignoble King Kong, her first film after a short-lived career as a model, Lange languished in former lover Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and in 1980’s How to Beat the High Cost of Living. Even her strong portrayal of the murderous, lusty Cora in 1981’s pretentious remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice didn’t quite deliver. Her performances this year should change that—and assure her an Oscar nomination. “I almost said ‘No’ to Tootsie because I just couldn’t imagine having the energy after Frances,” admits Jessica, who began the comedy only three weeks after finishing the tragedy. “I still don’t feel I’ve honestly recovered from Frances. What’s onscreen is only one-thousandth of what I actually expended.”
The year was exhausting in other ways too. She moved back and forth from New York to a newly rented L.A. home. After wrapping both films, she retreated to “a great handmade log cabin on beautiful land” in I her native Minnesota. And she finally divorced long-estranged photographer husband Paco Grande. “It wasn’t as bitter as the papers said,” notes Jessica of reports that Grande was penniless and nearly blind. “He was as shocked by the publicity as I was.”
Through it all she mothered Alexandra (known by the Russian diminutive “Shura”), her 21-month-old daughter by ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov. “The hardest part was being away from her all day,” says Jessica. “Now, with Misha in rehearsals, it’s just us girls. She’s so apple-cheeked she looks like a little gnome.” Lange and Shura’s father still have no marriage plans.
Nearly as hearth-bound and reclusive as Garbo, Jessica began her journey to Frances in 1974 when, working as a barmaid, she read Farmer’s autobiography. “Somehow I knew I’d play her one day—and that was before I’d ever made a film,” she recalls. The result is an eerie symbiosis. Says Lange of the movie whose heroine has renewed her life: “I won’t let Frances die.”