Award-winning actress, Jessica Lange, continues to surprise audiences with a string of complex roles, proving that, not only is there life after 40 in Hollywood, but it’s rich, rewarding, and full of shiny awards. As she approaches 70, she is the first to credit writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy with some of her recent successes. In his megahit TV series, American Horror Story, she has played everything from a freak-show ringmaster, for which she won a Golden Globe, to a switch-carrying nun in charge of an insane asylum.
“Sometimes I felt our story would jump the tracks,” Lange told Murphy in an Out interview, “but they were always amazing characters to play. And for me that’s the only thing that matters: Do I have a character I can sink deep into to find all the emotional turmoil? A character who’s just barely hanging on, always walking that line between madness and sanity? Those are the kind of parts I’ve always gravitated to.”
After AHS came a lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway, a script Murphy optioned for her. Lange won a Tony for her portrayal of morphine-addicted mother Mary Tyrone.
“She has a rare combination of fragility and strength,” says Night Director Johnathan Kent of Lange’s ability. “Mary Tyrone is like many addicts: a manipulator as well as a victim. Jessica was brilliant at conveying both ends of that spectrum.”
When Murphy began developing the first installment of FX’s acclaimed eight-part television series Feud: Bette and Joan, he thought of his go-to, Lange, once again. She plays Joan Crawford, alongside Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis. A movie star who struggles to stay relevant amongst younger actresses, Crawford stands in stark contrast to her portrayer, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and remains as relevant today as ever. And though it begins in the early 60s, both Lange and Murphy recognized the show’s timeliness.
“What I think we are doing is speaking about women in Hollywood and how women are disposable,” Lange told Vanity Fair. “How women have a sell-by date that men don’t. There’s no equity as far as longevity of career or amount of money that can be made… It’s interesting because those women were a good 10 years younger than Susan and I are now while making What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. I think what we’re really talking about is how nothing has changed…not in this industry, and certainly not on a larger scale, in this country.”
In the first episode, Crawford approaches Davis about co-starring with her in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.
“I know what parts you’ve been getting: Exactly none,” she tells Davis. “Because the same is true for me. They’re not making women’s pictures anymore—not the kind we used to make.”
“It’s all cyclical,” Davis replies. “They’ll come back in fashion.”
“But we won’t. If something’s going to happen, we have to make it happen. No one’s looking to cast women our age. But together, they wouldn’t dare say no.”
The “they” Crawford is referring to, of course, is Hollywood. But while Lange says quality roles for women continue to be an anomaly on the big screen, television can’t seem to get enough.
“I think what’s happened is that television has become the better medium for women, across the board of all ages,” she told Deadline. “The opportunity in television, especially with this kind of limited series that Ryan created, is giving actresses who might not have that same quality of part in films anymore… The caliber of this kind of TV has stepped into this void that film no longer provides.”
There was a time, though, that film did provide Lange with remarkable roles, though she’ll tell you that she fell into acting—a very free-spirited tale that starts with modern dance training in 1960s New York City and studying with a master mime in 1970s Paris. She decided to take acting classes simply because it was another way to express herself.
“I had never done acting before, and it was like, all of a sudden, something just opened up,” she told Interview magazine. “It was, ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I’m suited for.’ I like the movement of it, the words, the language, the emotion. …[C]oming out of the 60s and then living in Paris in the 70s, when it was still the last gasp of bohemia, I just never thought in terms of career or profession.”
But her first starring role was the start of her career, opposite the world’s most famous fictional gorilla in 1976’s King Kong, and it earned her a Golden Globe. Lange continued to choose smart roles and be awarded for them, including Oscars and Golden Globes for two very different characters: a soap opera star who falls for Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s Tootsie (also interestingly a story that addresses sexism in the entertainment industry) and a manic depressive housewife in 1994’s Blue Sky.
“In some ways [playing characters who are on the edge] allows you greater freedom, and I think it enables you to rely much more on your emotions and your imagination, which is the part of acting I like,” she told Interview. “I never had that kind of formal training. I’ve worked with some teachers and coaches over the years, but I didn’t really study theater or technique or voice or any of that stuff extensively. So, for me, acting was always a way to explore emotions—to dip into the well and really try to reach rock bottom down there. That was the most exciting part of it. I hadn’t found anything that really allowed me to do that until I came upon acting.”
Lange continued to act after Blue Sky, but a decade passed without those edgy leading roles audiences knew she was capable of. She was over 60 when Murphy cast her in American Horror Story, and he has provided her with nothing but characters on the edge ever since. His constant muse, Murphy tells Lange what he loves about her:
“When you first started, you were pigeonholed as an ingenue, and very quickly you were like, ‘Well, I’m not going to take that lying down,’” he said in Out. “And then you became an Oscar-winning actress. You conquered television. You conquered stage. I look at you as somebody no one could ever keep down, who has a huge reserve of passion. You just move forward in your life. Nothing stops Jessica Lange. It’s exciting that you’ve been able to inspire people.”
She responds, “The one thing I’ve always felt is that I’ve never allowed myself to be restricted. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, and no one could ever tell me there was something I couldn’t do.”
It’s a line we could easily hear any of Lange’s characters say as well. But don’t confuse ambition with a hunger for the spotlight, because unlike many of Lange’s characters—especially Crawford—she has managed to stay out of it. Until, of course, she pops up on our screens once again, delivers an unforgettable performance of an unforgettable character, and receives accolades from fans and critics alike. It’s the kind of Groundhog Day any actor would wish for.
“That idea of entering into something with no fear or deliberation, but just throwing yourself at it, is exciting,” Lange told Interview, “especially at this point in my acting because things can get stale when you’ve done it for so long.”
There is a scene in Feud where the director’s assistant on Baby Jane brings Crawford a script she wrote and wants to direct. Crawford, who she wants to play the lead, declines and gives her some advice: “Don’t grab for too much,” she warns, “you don’t want to appear ungrateful.” And while Lange is always the first to credit Murphy for breathing new life into her career, somehow we can’t see her ever worrying about wanting too much. Quite the contrary, Jessica Lange is still chipping away.