Whenever I am finished watching a nominated performance for this blog, I write down my most important thoughts and also start to write a little bit of the review in my head. And after watching Frances and Sophie’s Choice, I realized that in my imaginary reviews I constantly compared these two performances because they are so alike and yet so different in so many aspects. And so I decided that it would be the most logical solution to simply write one review about these two shattering, hunting and emotionally exhausting pieces of work.
Before they faced each other at the Academy Awards 1982, Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange had a rather different background. Meryl Streep seemed to begin to collect awards and critical praise the moment she left acting school. She debuted opposite Jane Fonda in the award-winning Julia, she won an Emmy for her performance in the TV-Series Holocaust, she won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer and many more awards for her other performances in The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It was clear right from the start that Meryl Streep would be a force to reckon with but nothing seemed to have prepared critics and audiences for her turn as Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowska who suffers from the memories of the unimaginable tragedies that she had to endure during the times of the Nazi terror.
Jessica Lange didn’t have quite such a good start. It might have seemed like royal treatment when famous producer Dino de Laurentiis cast her as the blond woman in the remake of King Kong, but not even her Golden Globe for best new female star could change the devastating reviews – Jessica Lange’s debut turned into a disaster that kept her off the screen for another 3 years. Things didn’t seem to improve when she was cast as Angelique in All that Jazz but finally critics began to notice her unpredictable, wild and emotional acting style opposite Jack Nicholson in the remake of The Postman always rings twice. Editor Graeme Clifford later remembered Jessica Lange and cast her in the part of the rebellious and beautiful actress Frances Farmer whose unconventional behaviour and rebellious spirit led to her committal into a mental institution in the movie Frances. And suddenly, Jessica Lange became one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood.
If there is a dictionary entry for 'bad timing', a picture of Jessica Lange should be next to it. In countless other years, her work in Frances would have been the perfect candidate for an awards sweep but in 1982, Meryl Streep’s display of accents, tears and subtle suffering turned into a legend immediately and took home every award under the sun. The only consolation Jessica Lange had was the fact that the New York critics gave her the supporting award for her role in the comedy Tootsie – and other critics, the Golden Globes and ultimately the Oscars followed. It seemed that everyone agreed that Jessica Lange’s work in Frances was too outstanding to let her go empty-handed this season – even if it meant awarding her for another movie (if Jessica Lange was actually worthy of her supporting awards isn’t the topic here).
So, two actresses with two utmost difficult roles and two utmost outstanding results. But what makes the comparison between Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep so interesting at this point in their respective careers? For one, it’s rather fascinating that both actresses achieved the peak of their career in 1982 – even though they were both still relatively new to the business and would continue to deliver impressive performances. But in 1982, everything that is so fascinating about Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange came together like it never had before and would never again.
Meryl Streep is an actress that may constantly show the wheels turning in her head as she always seems to work from the outside where her performances turn into little miracles of technical brilliance. She knows how to speak her lines, how to move her hands, even how to drop a tear, all at the right moment in the right way. This could be terribly distracting in a performance but Meryl Streep never forgets to develops a true inner life for her characters – she works from the outside to create the inside and it allows her to constantly change her screen appearance and impression on the audience. It allows her to become an Australian murder suspect, an English actress, an Italian housewife – or a Polish Auschwitz survivor. A lot of actresses might work this way but Meryl Streep is one of the few who has the talent to turn her instincts and thoughts into reality. She seems to disappear in her work and in her characters while always being in full control over them. It’s a technique that could lose its authenticity and honesty with a little false step but Meryl Streep knows how to avoid every possible damage in her own work and constantly crafts characters that feel as genuine as they are captivating.
Jessica Lange’s performances seem to come from the different end of the acting spectrum. Everything she does, her constant nervousness, her body that moves all the time, her head tilted to one side when she speaks, her threatening eyes that indicate the emotional explosions that will follow – it all seems to come from the inside and fights its way outside. Her works feels very intuitive and ‘in-the-moment’, as if her characters take over her existence for the time of shooting and never let her go again until the final ‘Cut!’. She appears to live for the screen as if there is nothing else for her and she always seems to use her own personality and presence as the basis for her characters. Jessica Lange’s acting often doesn’t allow her to disappear in her characters the way Meryl Streep does – Jessica Lange almost always remains Jessica Lange but at the same time, she, too, possesses the rare gift to constantly create something different, something new or something unexpected.
And it’s their performances in Frances and Sophie’s Choice that shows that both these women could do anything in 1982 – both went further than almost any other actress before or after them to find the emotional and physical devastations that hunted the lives of Frances Farmer and Sophie Zawistowska.
Both Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange play women who become victims for different reasons and play parts that go far beyond the usual level of difficulty. Frances Farmer’s character and personality doesn’t fit into the time she lives and works in while Sophie Zawistowska lives in a time that basically denies her the right to live at all. Because of the tragic turns their lives take it’s very easy to sympathize with both the characters and the actresses portraying them but neither Jessica Lange nor Meryl Streep actively tried to gain any sympathy or pity. Jessica Lange’s portrayal is made of an disturbing quality and she never tries to let Frances Farmer appear as an unfortunate soul but constantly tries to explore her darker sides. Her performance is certainly among the most exhausting ever captured on the screen – for the actress and the viewer. Constantly moving her body, always playing with her hands, showing a nervous spirit inside Frances Farmer that is always ready to snap at any moment. She’s a true volcano, exploding with emotions and outbursts from any moment to the other. On the other hand, few performances have reached a status that is as untouchable as that of Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice – and the most shocking thing: this status is highly deserved. Sophie is not the most complex character that Meryl Streep has ever played nor the most complex character that has ever won an Oscar and probably not even the most complex one in this line-up – but Meryl Streep understood how extremely careful she must be to construct this woman without purely wallowing in her own misery. She clearly isn’t out to evoke the audience’s pity for this woman since she seems to know that the plot and the tragedy speak for themselves. Instead, she worked very hard to add the depth and dimension to the character that the script denied her, she is more interested in the inner life of Sophie, in the consequences the time in Auschwitz had on her life and on her character. This way she brings complexity to a woman who seems mostly designed to create a story around the central, deciding and most remembered moment of the story – Sophie’s choice.
Another astonishing aspect of these two performances is that both never seem to find a moment of ‘rest’. Apart from her climatic scene, Meryl Streep doesn’t really have any showy scenes in the traditional sense but she creates a stringent flow of tension and emotional torture. Even though Sophie appears mostly calm, often even happy, there is a constant state of unspoken horror that lingers above her and fills every frame of Sophie’s Choice. She shows a tormented soul that hopes to find salvation but for whom every day is another struggle to overcome her past. Both Sophie and Meryl Streep are caught in this never-ending cycle of desolation and can’t find an escape. Jessica Lange, too, doesn’t find any silent moments which would allow her to get a break from the tight grip of Frances Farmer – instead, she constantly remains on the edge of her own emotions and demonstrates a continuous nervousness and restlessness, anger and impatience. Frances Farmer and Sophie Zawistowska hold these two actresses and the viewers in their claws from start to finish.
Meryl Streep never really surprises with her portrayal of Sophie – she doesn’t take her in any direction that doesn’t closely follow the script but what she does is surprise with her own talent that allowed her to create this character. The level of difficulty and the accuracy of Meryl Streep’s performance both rank among the most challenging that has ever been portrayed. And it’s thanks to Meryl Streep’s deep understanding that her performance never feels like a demonstration of talent but becomes a truly devastating piece of work that will haunt the viewer forever. Her inability to stand up from a chair and her little breakdown, her hopeless delivery of the line ‘I think I’m going to die’, her constant attempt to escape her past while allowing her memories to torture her is – it’s a performance that is much more than the choice scene and Meryl Streep’s transcendent portrayal will leave the viewer almost feeling empty inside as if every possible feeling had been felt, every tear had been cried.
It is easy to see why Jessica Lange’s own tour-de-force couldn’t compete with Meryl Streep’s performance – Meryl Streep seemed like a revelation while Jessica Lange appeared rather like an arrival. But actually it is much more – it’s a performance for the ages that, just like Sophie, should be remembered as one of the great tour-de-forces of the 20th century. Both women make it impossible not to be amazed by their ability to create all these images, these emotions and live with them day after day. A lot of actress have an inner fire – if that is the case, then Jessica Lange hides a magna chamber inside her body that can always erupt at any moment. She very often likes to go larger-than-life in her work, explodes with emotions that not only seem to drown herself but everyone around her, too. In her Oscar-winning role in Blue Sky she went further with her acting than anywhere else in her work since Frances but her tendency to go overboard does not mean that she is an expert at it. In Blue Sky she is too aware for her own good, it’s a calculating performance in which she always tries to hold her tight grip on the character. The results in an unfortunately strangely over-the-top and uncomfortable performance which never comes even close to reach the devastating effect of her work in Frances. It seemed that the fact that she was still relatively new to the business prevented her from thinking too much – it is a very intelligent piece of work, no question, but she thankfully used her intuitive and spontaneous acting-style and let it dominate her performance. From her years as a teenage girl to her interview on television, Jessica Lange gives one of the most devastating, exhausting, hunting, daring and memorable tour-de-forces ever captured on the screen. In her hands, Frances Farmer is a restless soul, a woman who never seems to be able to find any peace – in and around herself. Jessica Lange seems to drop her own character completely to slip into the skin of this woman and creates scenes that not only shake the viewer up but might even put them into a state of depression. A little girl and a grown-up woman are fighting each other in Frances’s head – and they also have to fight against their environment. Jessica Lange reaches deeper and deeper back into the mind and soul of her character until she reaches a place where it seems that nobody can help her anymore. She is such an overpowering presence in a whole spectrum of human emotions that she empties the viewer’s heart and mind. She never turns Frances into a crazy woman, or, what would even be worse, stupid – instead, she understandably tells about her own indecisiveness that too often overpowers her life. She’s a woman who seems to know exactly what she wants to do but at the same time she mostly ends up doing things she doesn’t care for. She’s emotionally devastating and keeps pushing the boundaries of what is bearable for her and the viewer. Like an animal surrounded by hunters, she constantly fights for her own life and freedom but faces a system and a mother that don’t allow her either of those. In her scenes opposite the director of the hospital, she is able to constantly be off-putting and appealing, teasing him, threatening him, begging him. Her delivery of the line ‘Who do you think you are? God?’ is one for the ages – anger and panic have never been expressed more shockingly. She shows the hopeless situation when everything you say or do is wrong, when you are not able to turn anywhere and the anger and frustration inside yourself overcomes your judgement. The sequence that always cuts back and forth between Frances talking to a committee that will decide about her future in the asylum and her mockery of the same situation with all the other locked-up woman is a thrilling moment and Jessica Lange again never holds anything back. But even though she is constantly asked to push herself and Frances further and further into depression and loud desperation, Jessica Lange doesn’t rest on the scenes. She is also overwhelmingly perfect in her more quiet scenes even though she never looses the tension of the story. The look on her face when she gets out of a car to walk to her domineering mother, a combination of love and hate, regret, despair and most of all, tiredness is simply one of the great moments in her career – or any career. So many scenes could have felt overdone, over-the-top or unbelievable – not only by other actresses even by Jessica Lange herself if she hadn’t found the perfect balance of completely letting go of herself and keeping an intellectual approach in this movie and this character. Her greatest achievement may be the fact that she didn’t really invite the viewer to share her suffering. Meryl Streep’s Sophie created a connection to the viewers from the first moment but Jessica Lange somehow keeps a distance to the viewer and, despite all the grand emotions, makes hers just as much an intellectual as an emotional journey. She lets the viewer keep a distance to the story until this distance isn’t possible anymore and collapses under the devastation of Frances Farmer’s life. When she is carried into the asylum again, raped by soldiers or simply enjoying a dance at a little bar, she has taken the viewer on such an exhausting journey that at one moment one can’t help but drop the distance and feel as exhausted as Frances Farmer herself. It’s a performance that somehow doesn’t really draw attention to itself but still turns out to be a true miracle in physical and emotional perfection.
Just like Meryl Streep’s Sophie lives with a character that seems to love her as much as he hates her, Jessica Lange’s Frances also her own ghost – Jessica Lange and Kim Stanley create one of the most fascinating, bizarre and disturbing on-screen chemistry between a mother and a daughter that can be found in a motion picture. Both determined to get their way, both different in their approaches.
What’s also interesting about Meryl Streep’s and Jessica Lange’s towering performances is that they both come from movies that don’t deserve them. Neither Frances nor Sophie’s Choice is recommendable for anything else than the leading ladies.
At the end, how can one compare the scenes of Jessica Lange fighting with a cop at the side of the road, screaming naked in her bathroom or telling a police officer her ‘profession’ with scenes of Meryl Streep talking about her father and her husband, trying to find a book in the library or dealing with Nathan’s mood swings? Both women have such an unique beauty that so completely seems to fit the 40s – Jessica Lange’s movie star personality and Meryl Streep’s simple yet remarkable features. How can one compare Jessica Lange’s demonstration of a constantly drifting mind with Meryl Streep’s display of a tortured existence? A double-feature of Frances and Sophie’s Choice would require a lot of drinks and cigarettes to get over it…
It’s certainly wonderful to have two performances like this that raise the quality of the whole Best Actress line-up that year but at the same time it’s one of the most unfortunate incidents in Oscar history that these two performances had to face each other in competition. Overall, it’s the strongest two-punch this category has ever seen and both actresses naturally receive