Jessica Lange is back, if only for a moment

The Baltimore Sun

Jessica Lange recently became an empty-nester. She insists she is not handling it well.

"It's not a relief at all," says the 58-year-old actress, who lives in New York with her longtime partner, playwright Sam Shepard, but not with their two children, who are both now on their own. "In fact, I'm totally lost. It has not been an easy transition for me."

But could what is bad for Lange prove good news for film fans? Now that she doesn't have a family to raise anymore, will the two-time Oscar-winning actress accelerate the one-film-a-year pace she's been maintaining for much of the past two decades?

Probably not. "I've never worked more than that, even in the early days," says Lange, who made her movie debut in the 1976 remake of King Kong (then didn't make another movie for three years) and won Oscars for 1982's Tootsie and 1994's Blue Sky.

"When my children were younger, it had to do with not wanting to work that much. As I got older, a lot of it had to do with not finding the kind of material that I really felt was worth doing, and not wanting to go away from home, and not wanting to travel - all those 'not-wanting-to's.'"

Too bad. Looks like audiences will have to make do with the occasional projects that get Lange's creative juices flowing. These include Bonneville, which opened Friday in limited release. Lange plays the recently widowed Arvilla, forced to deliver her late husband's ashes to his spiteful daughter. Reluctantly, she and two good friends (Kathy Bates and Joan Allen) take to the road in his vintage Bonneville on a cross-country journey that involves lots of tears, self-discovery and even a few unexpected smiles.

"There were a few things about this story that really interested me," Lange says. "One was just the genre of the film, doing a road movie. I hadn't done one of those before. And then, just the nature of the story and the character. It lent itself to something that I was very interested in investigating, the idea of grieving."

Besides affording her the chance to work with a pair of actresses "I've always admired," Lange says, Bonneville gave her the chance to play a character with a lot of blanks to fill in, one she could make as unique as her acting skills would allow.

"With grief," she says, "it is very specific to each person. There are certain things that everybody talks about experiencing, but then, it has to be about how you relate to that, how you go from one given moment to another. ... I tried to make [the performance] very specific to this character, so that it wasn't just, 'This woman's lost her husband, and now she is alone and mourning her loss.'"

Thankfully, one shouldn't equate Lange's reluctance to commit to more films with any drop in her enthusiasm for acting as a craft. She says she still enjoys acting, especially when a role comes around that "brings out the best" in her.

That first happened, she says, with 1982's Frances, in which her ferocious characterization of free-spirited actress Frances Farmer, who ended up institutionalized and, at least in the movie, lobotomized, brought Lange her first Best Actress Oscar nomination (she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, for Tootsie, and won).

"That, to me, was an explosion for me, to be able to do that part," she says. "There have been a handful of parts like that, that I really felt I met head-on."

Those sorts of roles are still turning up, Lange says, even as her career enters its fourth decade. She recently completed filming Grey Gardens, based on the life of Edith Bouvier Beale, the eccentric and reclusive aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy. Making that film, she says, proved quite the rush.

"I had that sense about that one," Lange says, "about that character in that film. Something exploded in me that had been lying dormant for a while.

"That why I love acting," she explains. "It's still thrilling to me."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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