Surprisingly, Jessica Lange didn’t receive any other awards attention for her performance as ill-fated, legendary country singer Patsy Cline than a nomination at the Academy Awards – not even a nod from the Golden Globes which have an extra category for performances like hers. But the Oscars continued their love affair with Jessica Lange and gave her her fourth nomination in four years.
I am completely unfamiliar with American country music and all that I know about it has been taught to me by a movie that will forever be seen as the superior version of the two biographies about the two first ladies of Country Music – Coal Miner’s Daughter which features Sissy Spacek’s acclaimed and award-winning role as country singer Loretta Lynn. And this means that Patsy Cline has already come alive again for me by Beverly D’Angelo’s celebrated but sadly unnominated supporting performance. The fact that Beverly D’Angelo did her own singing while Jessica Lange, like so many actors and actresses in biographies about singers, lip-synched Patsy Cline’s famous voice and that hers is a showy and scene-stealing turn made it hard for Jessica Lange to follow her footsteps. But even though Sweet Dreams does tend to be rather forgotten compared to Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange gives a wonderful and passionate performance in a character that she both copies and creates herself.
Right at the beginning, the fact that Jessica Lange doesn’t sing the songs herself becomes painfully obvious – the difference between Jessica’s speaking voice and Patsy Cline’s incredibly distinctive vocals is too big and sometimes Jessica Lange also lacks credibility in her singing scenes. But these impressions begin to slim down very quickly – it seems that Jessica Lange became more relaxed in the later scenes and improved the lip-synching until Jessica and Patsy really seemed to have become one. Playing a real-life character can be done in various ways – by copying the looks and mannerisms of the person or by creating the character by oneself, focusing more on the inner characteristics than the outside. In Sweet Dreams, Jessica Lange did the latter – she may not really look like Patsy Cline or make the viewer forget for one second that this is Jessica Lange on the screen, but she fills her part with an inner fire, a playfulness of a fun-loving girl combined with the seriousness and determination of a true artist to create her own version of Patsy Cline which still makes a believable and captivating performance. That’s why the lip-synching becomes less obvious after a while – Jessica Lange may not be Patsy Cline but she does create something on the stage that shows a true and living artist, a fascinating performer who can stand on its own without being reduced to a pale comparison to the original.
In these ‘private’ scenes, it’s Patsy Cline’s relationship with her husband Charlie, played by Ed Harris, that receives the most attention. This relationship is both captivating and confusing. The ups and downs of their marriage that go from romantic tenderness to domestic violence, their constant fights, the love and hate between them never reaches the level of Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter or, ironically, Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, mainly because Ed Harris fails to show why Patsy is so fascinated by this man. Jessica Lange does her best to carry the scenes of their relationship to a higher level but in Ed Harris she has a screen partner who focused too much on being unpleasant and dislikable without any redeeming feature that would give their scenes together the edge needed. This is another point where Coal Miner’s Daughter wins again against Sweet Dreams as Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, who both portray a quite similar couple, know exactly how to make their relationship believable. Here, it’s hard to understand why Patsy would remain with this man after she has already left another husband before – the screenplay doesn’t hint at any reason, a self-destructive behavior or passionate obsession. Jessica Lange’s strong characterization and the screenplay’s actions sometimes seem to drift too far apart and she and Ed Harris simply lack the chemistry needed to really make these parts of the movie work. That way, the lyrics of ‘Sweet Dreams’, telling of a woman who should hate a man but keeps loving him, don’t really connect with Patsy Cline’s life as presented in Sweet Dreams because it’s simply too hard to understand.
In the end, Jessica Lange’s star qualities provide the movie with the spark needed to raise it above mediocrity but one can’t help but feel that she would ultimately have been helped by a better movie – because she obviously would have been able to carry it. Her best scenes are with Ann Wedgeworth who plays her supportive mother since both actresses create a comfortable aura and a believable mother-daughter-relationship that more than once provides the movie’s most interesting moments.
Jessica Lange may not really become Patsy Cline but she creates an image of a well-known artist and brings it to a captivating life and that way is able to expand the fascination of the real Patsy Cline – she doesn’t completely satisfy the viewer but she awakes an interest about the true Patsy Cline, her life and her work which results in a performance that seems to be more a tribute than a biography but she achieves this goal on a high level. This fascination is only caused by Jessica Lange’s performance since she gives the movie a spirit and live that it wouldn’t have without her.
It’s not a perfect performance but still a devoted and respectful tribute to a great artist that gets