My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1985: Jessica Lange in "Sweet Dreams"

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.

Apparently, this is one of the few parts (maybe even the only part) that Meryl Streep desperately wanted and didn’t get. And while Meryl Streep certainly would have given a great performance, too, Jessica Lange leaves a distinctive mark on this role and her ability to play characters with much more freedom and spontaneity, her talent to live in the moment instead of preparing the moment like Meryl Streep does, helps her to be incredibly effective in the one characteristic that seems to be important for every country singer – a sassy and lively charm, a free spirit, a woman who enjoys every moment of live even when it offers her nothing but sorrow and pain. This may make Patsy an appealing and somewhat stereotypical character but Jessica Lange also shows a vulnerability beneath Patsy’s strong exterior that shows how much she was able to build a character without simply trying to imitate another artist. Jessica Lange also succeeds in showing both sides of Patsy Cline’s music – the rousing, fast and entertaining melodies and the heart-breaking and poignant ballads. When she sings ‘Sweet Dreams’ at the end on a stage, she shows that Patsy completely lives in her work, her hands moving without a direction, completely overwhelmed by her own dedication to her craft. Again, the lip-synching is very obvious but as mentioned before, Jessica Lange creates something beyond the pure imitation and is able to create a fascinating on-stage performance to a fascinating off-stage voice – both may not blend together but they exist fascinatingly next to each other.

The biggest challenge in playing a famous artist is the fact that the audience only knows the public side of this artist – the private, more personal sides have to be investigated with more care by the actor or actress because they demand to keep the well-known spirit alive but also add more layers and dimensions to the character that work in perfect harmony with the well-known images of the artist. Jessica Lange succeeded in this area by simply investing both the public and the private Patsy with that recognizable sassy charm and lively spirit – this way she maybe reduces some aspects of the character too much but she is able to find a constant in Patsy Cline that connects the public and private sides believable. She shows that Patsy Cline is a born artist but not in an obsessive way – she has the talent and the charisma to dominate a stage but she does this because she loves it and she loves it because it fulfills her. Patsy Cline knows what she can but also that she has to work for fame – her success isn’t a surprise to her but the result of dedication and hard work. But still, Jessica Lange doesn’t let Patsy Cline the artist dominate Patsy Cline the woman and she shows that there is always more to Patsy than the performer on the stage.

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


Anonymous said...

I love this performance. There's so much rich characterization invested by Jessica.

Louis Morgan said...

Good review, I found it very interesting since you compared it to another Oscar nominated performance that is very similair, which worked very well for your review.

Fritz said...

@Sage: I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this year but Geraldine will win, of course!

Louis: Thanks! Since I am watching more and more of the nominated performances, it becomes more easy to compare.

Anonymous said...

Funnily enough, she was actually runner-up for Best Actress at the NSFC that year! I know a lot of people who fucking LOVE this performance...I really need to watch it. Such a good review, Fritz!

Dempsey Sanders said...

Great comparisons. Her performance is definately respectful even if I wasn't too keen on the actual movie but thats just me being a grump.
Amazing review yet again Fritz

Fritz said...

@Deanie: Thanks a lot and also thanks for the info on the NSFC. Oh, and please drop the f-word in the future. I don't want to be stingy but I prefer no swearing in the comments.

@Patrick: I agree that the actual movie isn't that great but Jessica makes it work. And thanks for the compliment! :-)

dinasztie said...

I love Lange. I really can't wait for your thoughts about Whoopi. I love that performance (and that woman)!

Armil@broadway shows in new york city said...

I think I would agree that she is really a good actress. I want to see her movie scene that make her popular.