Critic's Picks: Jessica Lange's 10 Best Performances

4:10 PM 5/3/2016

by Leslie Felperin

With the actress drawing strong reviews for her star turn in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' on Broadway, THR film critic Leslie Felperin ranks Lange's 10 best film (and TV) performances.

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  1. 10
    10

    Music Box

    (1989)

    Photofest

    Putting in a subtly modulated performance as her character learns more and more about her family’s past, Lange anchors Costa-Gavras’ courtroom drama playing a lawyer who defends her father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) when he’s accused of war crimes.

  2. 9
    10

    Sweet Dreams

    (1985)

    Photofest

    Often unjustly compared with Coal Miner’s Daughter, this music-themed biopic earned Lange a best actress Oscar nomination for her turn as country chanteuse Patsy Cline. The actress captures the singer’s distinctive performance style, fragility and strength, and Ed Harris stars opposite as Cline’s good-for-nuttin’ husband.

  3. 8
    10

    Grey Gardens

    (2009)

    Photofest

    HBO’s feature adaptation of the Maysles brothers' immortal documentary finds Lange having fun camping it up a bit as eccentric one-time society lady Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale opposite Drew Barrymore as her daughter, Little Edie. She nails the accent and the woman's innate grandeur.

  4. 7
    10

    King Kong

    (1976)

    Photofest

    Lange, at the time a fashion model, reportedly beat Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn to win the lead role in this remake of the 1933 classic. Although the movie itself is not a patch on the original, Lange brings sensuality, empathy and comic timing to her film debut, and won praise from the critic Pauline Kael (who compared her to Carole Lombard).

  5. 6
    10

    Cape Fear

    (1991)

    Photofest

    There’s an air of vulnerability about Lange that seems to draw filmmakers to cast her as a victim — and few were quite so victimized as her character here, a long-suffering wife to Nick Nolte’s unfaithful lawyer who has to endure a terrible ordeal at the hands of Robert De Niro’s psychotic convict. Through it all, she maintains a leonine dignity, even when soaking wet.

  6. 5
    10

    Blue Sky

    (1994)

    Photofest

    Like a prima ballerina, Lange is often at her very best when locked in a pas de deux with a great co-star. Here, working with Tony Richardson on his last film, she reaches electrifying heights as the floozy wife of Tommy Lee Jones' army officer. It's a densely layered performance that won Lange the best actress Oscar.

  7. 4
    10

    Tootsie

    (1982)

    Photofest

    Dustin Hoffman got all the kudos for playing a man impersonating a woman to get work as an actor on a soap opera, but Lange’s sweetness as the ingénue he falls in love with on set is a key component in the film’s charm.

  8. 3
    10

    The Postman Always Rings Twice

    (1981)

    Photofest
  9. 2
    10

    American Horror Story

    2011 - Present

    Photofest

    Like so many other female actors of her generation, Lange has found there’s much richer pickings on the stage and in television than in film. Here, she’s the doyenne of an already outstanding repertory troupe that’s convened so far for five very different storylines and seasons of scares and melodrama. The material is often trashy and ridiculous, and Lange seems both in on the joke and fully committed.

  10. 1
    10

    Frances

    (1982)

    Photofest

    This tragic biopic about the 1930s film star Frances Farmer offers an extraordinary showcase for Lange’s range, volcanic power and intelligence. Clearly she felt a special empathy for Farmer, a smart, idealistic and unconventional performer who bridled against the glamour girl image imposed on her by the studio. Lange plays opposite Sam Shepard, and the two became a couple soon after, a relationship that lasted until 2009.

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