(the 9th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)
JESSICA LANGE IN COUNTRY (1964)
Sally Field in Places in the Heart
Judy Davis in A Passage to India
Vanessa Redgrave in The Bostonians
Sissy Spacek in The River
Three of the Best Actress-nominated films of 1984 featured eerily similar tales of women trying to save the family farm. At least Places in the Heart is a Southern period piece with a single mother and the KKK there to spice things up, though; Country and The River are uncannily identical. Both films are set in the contemporary American heartland, share a hardheaded & emasculated husband, an uncomfortable bank loan meeting, a natural disaster (tornado and flood, respectively), and a farm equipment auction that’s shut down in mass protest by the assembled farmers. Clearly, here was something on the minds of Hollywood about the state of American farmers in the midst of Reagan’s economic regime. While I do think that Country is the subtler and more thoughtful work all the way, it’s hard to evaluate one without the other.
Jessica’s character is more front-and-center than Sissy’s, and unfortunately she pulls off a slightly inconsistent job. In Country, she reaches less toward the hysterical and more toward the stoic, embracing the humble in her salt-of-the-earth farmer blessed with the cheekbones and hair of a Hollywood movie star. She resists the temptation to overplay her outrage and despair (I never thought she’d do less shouting and shed fewer tears in a role than Sissy). However, her basic technique is a little rough, mumbling through some lines and seeming unsure about what emotion to play in others. I did appreciate one scene in which she must attempt to talk a member of her own family down from the brink of suicide, tacking toward calm comfort instead of desperate pleading. Staying lower-key throughout most of the performance, she turns in a passable job, even if she’s again more the beneficiary of a meager field of competitors than her own achievement.
When I set out on this quest, I had seen Jessica’s winning turn for Supporting Actress in Tootsie, but none of her five Best Actress roles. Among the actresses with 5+ nominations, she was the blankest slate for me, and now I say goodbye to her as the one who made the least impression. I do not think that Jessica is a bad actress. Nor do I believe that she deserved to be in the thick of a caste of actresses who all got nominated over and over again in the 1980s (all but two of her competitors wound up as multiple-time nominees), going five rounds against the likes of Sissy Spacek, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Meryl Streep. She was certainly a lucky one! I’m giving this one to Vanessa Redgrave for The Bostonians and leaving Jessica’s Best Actress career behind once and for all.