Jessica Lange is why they invented love at second sight.
The first sight is misleading, especially if you've got images of the cuddly blond, all warm curves and soft curls, from "Tootsie," still dancing in your head.
The actress, who walks into the suite at the Regent Hotel, in striped pants and a baggy sweater vest, is all angles and her light brown hair hangs down straight as a curtain. Her gawky gait is that of the self-conscious teen-ager, crossing the prom floor by herself and knowing inside that everyone's staring at her feet. Her milk-white complexion is flawless, but she wears no makeup and her fine-boned features don't register right away on so much whiteness. A worldly 35, she could pass for an untutored 25.
Almost with a kerplunk, she plops down in a beige armchair, stretches out her legs, crosses them, folds them under herself, promptly unfolds them, kicks them vigorously, entwines them around each other and then starts the whole process all over again. By this time, you've begun to think, despite the assurances of a hovering press agent, that this isn't Jessica Lange at all, but some country cousin with the terminal fidgets.
"This side of my life makes me feel basically uncomfortable," says the Oscar-winning movie star, who has just pulled into town for a 24-hour promotion blitz for "Country," her latest film, and seems not to relish the prospect one whit.
"These are the last words out of my mouth. Forever," she says, rearranging her legs. "People don't seem to believe me when I say that. But it's true. Because of 'Frances' and 'Tootsie' and now 'Country,' I really feel I've done more than my share of interviews. I remember when 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' was showing at Cannes. I was complaining to Bob Rafelson, the director, about all the interviews they'd scheduled for us, and he said, 'It's easy. All you have to do is change your story every time.' And he would. In one I read, he said he'd been a Jesuit priest! But I can't go that route. And I really feel I've exhausted the subject of my life. I'm beginning to bore myself."
She throws her head back and giggles into her hands. "I had to do a phone interview once with someone who had me describe in detail what I was wearing so he could make it sound like he was in the same room with me. Boy, that really made me feel like a fool. I guess it's gotten a little better over the years. At least people ask me about my work now. But when I first started out with 'King Kong,' all they could do was ask me all about my personal life. It was excruciating."
If Lange is willing to risk similar feelings of discomfiture, it is not just because she stars in "Country," as a plucky Iowa farmwife, struggling to hold farm and family together against the fury of nature and the bureaucratic idiocy of the FmHA. She also coproduced the film and feels strongly about the values it endorses. A budget of $10.5 million is at stake. Since "Country" is not on the homespun surface of things a guaranteed attention-getter, Lange, who is, is once again suffering questions from the media.
She answers them gamely, albeit with a certain nervous hesitancy. As long, that is, as they don't concern her six-year affair with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, who fathered her 3-year-old daughter, Shura; or pry into her current live-in relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Sam Shepard, who costars with her in "Country." Then she clams up. Her autobiography ought to be a pip, if ever she chooses to write it. But for now, Lange guards her privacy as zealously as some cinema queens do their age. When she is not making a movie, she repairs to her 120-acre farm in her hometown of Cloquet, Minn., where she is regarded, apparently, as plain old Jessica.
"The people there are very straightforward," she says. "They're not into being overwhelmed. I still call up my girlfriends and we visit the way we did 10, 15 years ago. I see my relatives. I'm very comfortable living in my log cabin. People don't bother me on the streets. And that's great."
And when Cloquet (pop. 9,013) gets too confining, there's always the ranch in New Mexico where she can "feed the horses, get the garden in or just be alone with Sam and Shura." Lange prides herself on her country roots and her connection with The Land.
"Oh, I'm not saying I'm that much of a country girl that it could be my whole life," she admits. "I love the process of acting. It gave me a direction in life I never had before. But my grandparents were farmers. Although my parents weren't, we always lived in farm communities, where there were an awful lot of poor people. My father did a series of odd jobs, everything from salesman to high school teacher to railroad worker. My mother was, well, a mother. I guess we were what you'd call lower-middle class, but my father was a real champion of the underdog, and he always made it clear that we were affiliated with the common people. I don't have a great desire for wealth or power, prestige or fame. In my heart, I really don't."
Lange's father, it appears, doesn't even have much interest in his daughter's career. Too busy getting in the wood for the winter to attend the premiere of "Country," he told her he'd catch the film when it came on TV.
Lange assiduously avoids the slick, social swirl in Hollywood, squirms visibly at premieres and mingles awkwardly with the adoring throngs. Overseeing the final editing of "Country," she chose to live with a family friend in a suburban house in Venice, when she could have commanded L.A.'s poshest digs. She got around town in a pickup truck. The suite she, her mother and Shura are occupying at the Regent leaves her awestruck. "It's so cavernous," she marvels. "My mother couldn't even find her bedroom. I mean, we were just wandering around for hours." Lange has gotten lost in the hotel corridors twice.
Still, she is an actress. And actresses, like chameleons, are known to take on the coloration of their latest role. After immersing herself in the emotionally chaotic life of Frances Farmer in "Frances," Lange discovered she couldn't shake the part for a year afterwards. "Yeah, Frances really stuck with me for a long time," Lange says. "Months after I'd finished playing her, I'd suddenly find myself on the verge of tears, overcome with sadness about her. Roles are baggage that you carry around."
So it could be argued, without necessarily impugning Lange's sincerity, that she is still partly under the thrall of Jewell Ivy -- the heroine of "Country" and, as one critic noted, earth mother for the 1980s -- when she takes up the defense of the imperiled independent farmers of America. "I really think," she says, "that if something drastic isn't done in the next couple of years, we are going to lose this vital element of America. Every time I go back to Cloquet, I see these people in rural communities, and you just know they're in trouble. And it seems to me nobody's paying much attention to them.
"I spent a lot of time studying the Depression, the phenomenon of people being forced off the land and what it does to them. The father ceases to be the head of the household and the family structure falls apart. These days, people don't even have what people in the Depression had -- the chance to migrate west. Now there's no place to go when you're driven off the land. It's a tragedy.
"I guess I've been thinking about these things for a long time. Then one day, I picked up a newspaper that had the picture of a farm family -- a husband, the wife and the wife's mother -- during the foreclosure sale of their farm, outside London, Ohio. And I was struck by the emotional impact of that photo. The two women are chanting 'No Sale,' and you get this incredible sense of their rage. On the other hand, the man in the picture is totally bewildered. It looks as though he doesn't understand what's happening to him. He seems to have lost already. That photo was so powerful it opened up all these dramatic possibilities. I thought, 'This could be a modern-day version of 'The Grapes of Wrath.' "
Since Lange has been a very hot actress the last few years -- and since Hollywood reveres temperature, if not always a good idea -- Lange was respectfully listened to when she proposed "Country" to West Coast executives. Last week, the film opened the prestigious New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center to warm response and scattered murmurings that the story could be construed, in this pre-election season, as being anti-Reagan. Lange stoutly denies it. "It's a dramatic film about what happens to one family in a crisis. These farm policies have been going on for 20 or 30 years. You can't say one man is the culprit by any means."
She does confess, however, to the "odd sensation" she experienced when she and her coworkers were introduced to the audience from the stage at Lincoln Center. "I suddenly thought to myself that only a year and a half ago, I happened to pick up this paper and look at this picture and wanted to make a film about it. And, of course, the very next morning, I woke up, thinking it was a real dumb idea! Nobody was going to be interested. But somebody was interested, and then somebody else. And then a studio was going to give me half a million to develop the idea. Then somebody was going to give me $10 million to make the movie. It's like this series of mounting amazements all springing from a tiny seed. And all of a sudden you're standing on the stage of Lincoln Center, looking out at 2,700 people in tuxedos, and there you are with your little farm movie. You feel all this . . . er . . . responsibility.
"I'm not sure I fulfilled the traditional role of the producer, you know, sitting in a big office making decisions about the teamsters. But I was involved in the creative process from the inception to the release, and the film is close to what I wanted. A lot of care and love was put into it. I think it was done for the right reasons and it was done honestly."
She tugs at her hair and winds her legs into a corkscrew.
Lange now looks back on her rural childhood with affectionate nostalgia, but also remembers growing up with "this painful thing of loneliness," even though she had two sisters, a brother and countless cousins nearby.
"Even during periods when I was really happy," she says, "I felt cut off somehow, that I wasn't quite inside things. It was real hard. I couldn't wait to get out. I remember sitting on the front porch on summer evenings, filled with such yearnings I thought I would explode."
Becoming an actress, however, was furthest from her mind, when she went off to the University of Minnesota on an art scholarship. There she met and eventually married Paco Grande, a Spanish photographer. Together they seem to have pursued the peripatetic, slightly discombobulated life of 1970s hippies, until their paths split in 1975. (In 1982, Grande, by then legally blind and living in the Bowery on a monthly Social Security check, sued her for divorce.)
Lange recalls the past this way: "I became involved with some underground filmmakers and ended up traveling around Europe with them, making these bizarre, esoteric little films. Then I came back and lived in SoHo for a while, but I didn't have this emotional commitment to painting that I saw all around me. I don't think I was ever that good. Oh, I pretended to be. I did very abstract stuff, these awful minimal sculptures -- formica boxes in primary colors. I don't know where any of them are now. The last thing somebody told me was that they had found one of my formica boxes, which I considered my greatest work of art, and had used it for a while as a coffee table, and then thrown it out when it got dirty. That's an appropriate demise for my art career."
She gravitated into underground theater circles in New York, dabbled in dance and mime. Then learning about Etienne Decroux, the celebrated French pantomimist and guru, she decided to move to Paris to study with him. It was Decroux, she now believes, who activated the actress in her, although Decroux himself preached the purity of art for art's sake.
"He absolutely belittled any dreams of performing," says Lange. "Even in his own career, he had a disdain for public performance, a disdain for the audience, because he felt that people could never understand the meaning of his technique. So we ended up never getting out of his little studio in Boulogne. All my desires of performing onstage in mime, recording some of his famous pieces on film, were shot down." Frustrated, Lange returned to New York and started studying acting, waited on tables, modeled for extra cash and hoped for the big break.
It came when she was cast as a latter-day Fay Wray in Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake of "King Kong." The role was silly, but writhing in the paw of a big, goo-goo-eyed ape, she retained a semblance of dignity. The film itself was ridiculed. "That role was an albatross around my neck for a while," she says. "I can't deny there was a backlash from it. Actually, my own notices were favorable, not that anyone remembers."
She laughs. "Not that it makes any difference."
What is remarkable about Lange's subsequent movie career is that she succeeded with a series of spectacularly varied performances to shake free of the platimum bimbo image entirely. So different was the voracious wife, say, in "Postman" from doe-like TV actress in the 1982 film "Tootsie," for which she won an Academy Award, that few people recognize Lange on the street, even today. Next week in Tennessee, she will force open the spectrum several more degrees, when she begins filming "Sweet Dreams," the story of Patsy Cline. (Lange will act the legendary country-western singer; Cline's voice will be used for the songs.)
"I guess I've been lucky," Lange says. "I don't go out of my way to look for a role I've never played before. But I do try to keep the parts interesting. One way is by not working all that steadily. I make a film once a year, once every two years. It used to be each time I'd finish a movie, I'd think, 'That's it. I'll never get another job.' But now, I don't feel that pressure. Maybe it's age. Maybe it's other commitments -- like my child, my family.
"I don't mean this to sound metaphysical or esoteric. But I think it has to do with lessons you are meant to learn in life. When you want something really badly, it's as if your human spirit will profit more by not getting it. When you learn not to want things so badly, life comes to you. At this point in my career, the stakes are no longer that high for me. I've learned a lot over the last 10 years about my strengths and weakness, about having power and being powerless, about being manipulated and being in control."
On her left hand is a 1920s diamond ring that she picked up in an Ohio antique shop. She twists it reflectively.
"Oh, I'm still tremendously vulnerable in areas of relationships," she says, softly. "But my daughter turned a lot of things around for me. More than anything else. She really did. She eliminated this emotion I've lived with all my life, this sense of being disconnected on the earth. I don't have it anymore. In the past, whenever I would go home to Minnesota, I would feel like I belonged -- to a clan, to the earth -- and I was able to take that feeling with me for a while. But then I'd go off on location and I'd be working 10 or 12 hours a day and coming home to an empty hotel room. And I'd wake up at night, not knowing where I was sometimes. Not even sure why I was there. But now with my daughter, I've found that thread of connection continuously. And it's wonderful. If the bottom fell out of my career tomorrow, I would find something else to do."
As she is talking, the fidgets diminish perceptibly, and then give way to stillness. Her face grows luminous. All the inevitable trappings and associations of movie stardom fall away. For a moment, Jessica Lange seems to exist on her own terms in a pale fragility out of time and place.
You weren't certain who she was an hour ago. And now you can't take your eyes off her.