The Transformation Of Jessica Lange From 18 To 72 Years Old

The transformation of Jessica Lange arguably began the second she chose to drop out of art college, and into a life of Bohemian adventure in the 1960s. The veteran actor told Rolling Stone that "there were some young men" in her photography class that she was "very interested in" and it led to some exciting developments. "We ran off to Europe; I ended up marrying the best friend of one of them [her ex-husband Paco Grande]," she said, explaining that their life led to her enjoying her first dabbles with film and photography. Subsequently, "It all kind of starts there."

Describing these formative years to Interview as "a very haphazard way of living" wherein she enjoyed having "no plans" and "no goals," Lange arguably discovered her artistic core. And by all accounts, it appeared to be one based purely on instincts rather than discipline. The actor admitted to the magazine that she never had any formal acting training, which instead gave her the freedom to pull performances from the gut. "For me, acting was always a way to explore emotions," she said, "to dip into the well and really try to reach rock bottom down there."

As a result, Lange has long been a performer with little interest in the celebrity aspects of her career. She's an artist, first and foremost, who more often than not lets her work speak for her. As Lange's transformation proves, though the actor has grown, she's never lost sight of these roots.

An American mime in Paris

As Jessica Lange's former husband Paco Grande recalled to Artful Living, the two had been married for only a year when the young star-in-the-making decided to head to Paris to study mime with renowned master of the form, Étienne Decroux. The couple's marriage was already on shaky territory, and they were to have an on-and-off relationship for much of the early 70s, according to the magazine.

The young star, however, was thriving in the city of love and was soon discovered by legendary fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. "He's discovered so many blondes," Lange told Interview, "he suggested to me that maybe I should try modeling, just to make some money. So he introduced me to some people and I did it."

Lange subsequently signed on with the Wilhelmina modelling agency in New York with one keen agenda. "My goal was always to be an actress," she explained to The New York Times, stating that her heart wasn't truly into the career of a model, "But I kept doing it because I saw the trend ... where models like Lauren Hutton ... and Cybill Shepherd had made the transition to films and I wanted to do that, too." It would take her a few years, but she'd land herself a role that would give her a giant gorilla-sized foot in the door of Hollywood.

Breaking into film

At 27 years-old, Jessica Lange found fame depicting a scantily clad damsel in John Guillermin's remake of "King Kong." It wasn't exactly Oscar-material, but it gave the young actor her much needed start, and it happened fast. As she explained to Roger Ebert, Lange did screen tests on the 17th and 19th of December and was able to tell her parents she'd landed the iconic role when she "went home for Christmas."

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film's legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis "called in every model he could" in pursuit of finding the right star for the role. His friend, producer Robert Evans explained, "He tested her ... and Dino said, 'She is the girl who has the part.' He didn't even know her name, but he had that good eye." Lange further recounted to The New York Times that Guillermin said her screen test captured the "vulnerability and humor" he wanted in the role, but that they also had concerns she was "skin and bones." The 5 foot 8 inches actor subsequently gained 25 pounds for the role — a weight that would presumably fit a little more comfortably in King Kong's hulking palm.

"King Kong" may have been a campy rehash of a beloved classic, but it nonetheless scored Lange her first major recognition as an actor. In 1977, she received a Best Acting Debut award at the Golden Globes for the film (via IMDb). It was the first of many. 

Learning from the greats

Jessica Lange's acting career started to accumulate some serious kudos as the actor approached her thirties. In 1979, she worked with yet another legend when the hugely influential choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse cast her as the Angel of Death in his celebrated semi-autobiographical film, "All That Jazz." While in conversation with Interview, the actor described herself as having "learned a lot" from the "supportive" director, as she was "dealing with absolute precision all the time" in the film. 

But her learning curve wouldn't stop there. In 1981, she starred in the erotic neo-noir "The Postman Always Rings Twice" opposite Jack Nicholson and the star seemed to gain a great deal of experience from working with such a well-tread co-star. "I learned a lot from being around Jack," she told AARP, "he's one of the great film actors of all time. He understood the camera and what to do when. He showed me the power of gesture."

As a woman working hard to establish herself as an actor worthy of great respect and esteem, it isn't surprising that Lange's sartorial style at this time rejected feminine convention in favor of more masculine tailoring. She may have once been a model, and still had the looks of one, but she dressed in favor of styles which downplayed her beauty, and which expressed her fully as an artistic professional to be taken seriously. 

The Academy takes notice

That respect she wanted? Jessica Lange earned it with her performances in the rom-com "Tootsie," and "Frances," the biopic of troubled Hollywood star Frances Farmer. The actor received Academy Award nominations for both performances, making her the first performer in 40 years to do so, according to Vulture. Though she lost out on winning Best Actress for "Frances" to Meryl Streep (for "Sophie's Choice"), she scooped the Best Supporting Actress statue for "Tootsie."

Calling the comedy "the best film I ever made," while in conversation with AARP in 2017, Lange reasoned that winning the award was "thrilling, not terrifying, the way it might be today" due to how laid back the Oscar ceremony was back in the early eighties. "The awards were more casual then. You did your own hair; you did your own makeup," she explained, "It wasn't the fashion event of the season."

This casual approach to fashion and beauty is something which Lange maintained in her style up until the mid 00's, with only a few exceptions. Maybe it was her bohemian background or perhaps her passion for her craft gave her an innate desire to rebel against celebrity convention, but for a long time Lange showcased some of the most nonchalant styles in the industry. It was perhaps this shared sense of defiance which drew her to depicting Farmer, who she described as being "a rebel in that studio structure" while in conversation with Andy Warhol for Interview

Walkin' after midnight

Jessica Lange's first Oscar win was only the start for the actor. For the latter half of the eighties, Lange would continually deliver one critically acclaimed performance after another, sweeping up two more Golden Globe nominations and three more Academy Award nominations (via IMDb). Chief among these roles was her electrifying performance as country singer Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams," which rightfully earned rave reviews and plaudits. 

It also proved to be another notch in the seemingly fresh rivalry between Lange and Meryl Streep, the latter of which apparently revealed in many interviews that Cline was the role "she most coveted" according to Backstage. The magazine reported Streep as being a fan of Lange's performance, saying, "I couldn't imagine doing it as well or even coming close to what Jessica did, because she was so amazing in it."

Depicting Cline's tumultuous relationship with her husband in the film seemed fitting for a period in which Lange was likewise enjoying the start of a passionate, if torrid, romance with playwright and actor Sam Shepard. According to E! the two met while filming "Frances" together and fell in love. However, she was already involved with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov — to whom she had a daughter. Regardless, Lange ended the 80s with two children to Shepard, who reflected on the nature of his relationship with Lange to The Guardian in 2010, "We're definitely an incredible match. But ... not without fireworks." 

Haunted by Blanche DuBois

In 1992, Lange made her Broadway debut as Blanche DuBois in a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." If it was a new challenge she was after, she got it — and for the first time since "King Kong" she didn't receive rave reviews. The New York Times, for instance, stated that Lange "deserves credit for courageously making her Broadway debut in the most demanding of roles," but criticized her "lack of stage technique."

Lange was devastated. "I hate not getting performances right," she told AARP decades later, "I didn't understand stage the way I did film." Regardless, the actor continued the role on the London stage and in a miniseries adaptation on CBS. As she told New York Magazine, DuBois' character "gets under your skin" and as a result, she couldn't just give up on her, "She is so haunting in a way that it physically takes its toll on you" she said.

Despite the "Streetcar" setback, Jessica Lange won her second Oscar in 1995 for depicting a capricious wife in "Blue Sky." Intriguingly, her outfits at the event seem to perfectly represent both sides of the highly private performer. At a pre-show event, Lange looked almost like she was undercover, dressed in a casual suit paired with circular sunglasses. But at the after-show party she was wrapped in lace — her hair curled and as buoyant as her smile — and the performer looked every inch the star. But was she getting bored of Hollywood?

A temporary acting crisis

The latter half of the '90s weren't much kinder to Jessica Lange's career. It was hardly surprising given the star was close to turning fifty and as Lange once told AARP, "Ageism is pervasive in this industry ... you do whatever you can because you want to keep working." By all accounts, Lange appeared to have done whatever she could — and a lot of it was poorly received.

Roger Ebert, for instance, called her 1997 drama "A Thousand Acres" "a half-baked retread of 'King Lear,'" while Variety cruelly slammed the actor's performance in the historical drama "Cousin Bette" as being "a little too obviously evil ... at a near-hysterical level."  Even Lange had something to say about the poorly reviewed 1998 thriller "Hush" which she openly trashed during an interview with New York Magazine, "I've never been able to keep my mouth shut," she said, "So if somebody asks me how I feel about 'Hush,' I'll say it's a piece of sh*t."

Luckily, by 1999 someone had the good grace to cast Lange in a role worthy of her talents, when she depicted sensual goth dynamo Tamora in "Titus," a critically acclaimed film adaptation of William Shakespeare's beloved revenge tragedy "Titus Andronicus." The role seemingly infused her fashion sense, with the star wearing murkier, dramatic pieces, such as the long beaded dress she wore to an AFI tribute to Dustin Hoffman (above) — the long trail gathering dark against the ground.

Jessica Lange proved she was fearless

And just like that, Jessica Lange got her groove back. In an interview with New York Magazine, the actor reflected on people's assumptions that she depicts "tortured, crazy women" and countered that her characters are instead, "survivors, who have some tenuous hold" on their reality. Lange continued to be in the business of "vulnerability" and "frailty," and with her next role as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," business was very good indeed.

In their review of the London West End production, Variety suggested Lange's performance was one that people "will remember for all time" and that the demanding role confirmed her as being a cultural "high priestess of pain." Unsurprisingly, the actor received a nomination for London theater's highly prestigious Olivier Award — not an easy achievement for any American actor to get from the British (via Los Angeles Times). 

While Lange slipped back into supporting (and often mom-centric) roles in films like "Prozac Nation," "Big Fish," and "Broken Flowers," the actor rocked a variety of extremely slick little black dresses on the red carpet. — and usually, in the aloof manner of pairing them with a confident set of shades. The statement look made her resemble a woman who, quite honestly, couldn't give a damn about impressing anybody else but herself. Sartorially and within her acting performances, this attitude gave the star a unique, fearless edge. 

A focus on photography

By the latter half of the 00's, Jessica Lange's life appeared to hit a transitional phase. In 2009, she would separate from her partner, Sam Shepard — a relationship which didn't always sound the easiest, even if they were madly in love. "I wouldn't call Sammy easygoing and funny," she once said to AARP, "but everybody has their dark side, and he always does it with a sense of humor." 

On the upside, Lange was finally gaining recognition for her photography work with her first collection being published in 2008, and an exhibition following in 2009 (via Los Angeles Times). Speaking to The Guardian, Lange once confessed she feels at ease behind a camera because it offers her "a kind of anonymity" and she, ironically for an actor, doesn't "like being observed much." At a time of such romantic division, when she may have craved even greater anonymity, it makes sense that she'd perhaps push her photography work as a safety shield to pause behind. 

Indeed, her style during this period was simple and without fuss — Lange certainly wasn't rocking ensembles that demanded attention, but which allowed her to be comfortably and peacefully present before a camera. But nobody was forgetting the actor anytime soon — particularly not when her performance as Big Edie in the HBO film, "Grey Gardens" earned her more rave reviews in 2009. Big things were awaiting the star. 

An American horror muse

In 2010, Jessica Lange's role in "Grey Gardens" earned the actor her very first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress — beating out co-star Drew Barrymore for the honor (via Television Academy Emmys). The accolade also seemed to be a prescient indicator of the next phase of Lange's career as a TV maven, when she joined the cast of the FX show, "American Horror Story." According to NPR, showrunner Ryan Murphy wanted a new generation to witness and enjoy Lange's talent, and so he subsequently wrote her "Murder House" role just for her. 

During an interview with Rolling Stone, Lange suggested that working with the "AHS" creator helped to end an era where she "was making bad choices" in her career. Doing "Grey Gardens" reminded her of "the thrill" of acting. "Then Ryan came into my life, and these parts were like gifts he was handing me: the nun, the witch, Joan Crawford." Certainly, Murphy seemed to understand which roles were perfectly within Lange's wheelhouse — and "AHS," with it's rotating cast of often complex, flawed, grotesque, and outrageous characters all existed within boards that the actor loved to tread.

During this career resurgence, Lange's sense of style blossomed. She stepped out in cuts and shapes which felt like declarations of pure exuberance and assertion, every outfit licked with bold colors rarely glimpsed throughout her career. There was little doubt — she was still Hollywood's Supreme. 

Stepping out of comfort zones

With great joy, Jessica Lange continued her sartorial celebration of life in more power-outfits that saw the star brimming in fresh color palettes and looking like she owned every red carpet she walked on. Maybe the shy performer had discovered a way to enjoy the limelight? Certainly, her new young and adoring "AHS" fan-base likely helped.

Having joined the cast of "AHS: Freak Show," the fourth season of the show in 2014 — and having helped come up with that season's theme according to an Entertainment Weekly interview with the star — by 2015, Lange had chose not to return for the show's fifth season. "I'm done. We've had a great run here," she said while speaking at PaleyFest, before reassuring fans how much she loved the characters, writers, and working with Ryan Murphy (via Digital Spy). Lange had never been one to get too comfortable in her career — when it's time for change, she leaps to it. 

That being said, in 2016 she returned to Broadway and into the familiar territory of a revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which was also produced by Murphy, and for which Lange once again received heaps of acclaim. The actor told Rolling Stone that Mary Tyrone is a character she could return to her entire life. "It's bottomless, that part," she said, "You could play her every day for the rest of your life and never come to the end of it."

Mommie dearest

By 2017, Jessica Lange would continue her reign as Ryan Murphy's premier muse by starring as classic Hollywood star Joan Crawford in "Feud." Featuring Susan Sarandon as Crawford's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" co-star Bette Davis, the show explored the bitter rivalry between the two ageing actors, and the tragic realities behind their gossip-column personas. Naturally, Lange ate well in the role, expressing to The Hollywood Reporter that she "loved playing that character."

The actor dug deep into Crawford's rich life and history in order to understand the full complexity of the late actor, and it paid off. "I ... feel like it was one of the biggest, most complete characters I've played in a long, long, long time," she told the publication. Delving into golden era Hollywood and the high drama that accompanied it worked wonders for Lange whose style demonstrated cheeky winks to both. For the Emmys, her velvet black gown looked as somber as it did thrilling, a sartorial melancholy offset by the luminescence of vivid gold flowers (above). It was like looking at many of Lange's dramatic character studies, in dress-form. 

Sadly, 2017 would also come with heartbreak. In July, Variety reported that Lange's former partner Sam Shepard had died following complications from Lou Gehrig's disease. 

Shifting gears

Still shook by the death of Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange added a dedication to her former partner in her third photography book, "Highway 61" released in 2019. She told Rolling Stone, "I miss him every single day of my life." It proved to be the start of another transitional year for Lange who starred in Ryan Murphy's Netflix comedy, "The Politician."

As she told Entertainment Weekly, she was drawn to the role because she hadn't done "many comedies" — and damn, does the lady love a challenge. "I thought ... it'll be good to shift gears and try something completely different," she said, "The character was so outrageous and so monstrous ... it just appealed to me." In classic Lange fashion, that same year she also suggested to The Hollywood Reporter that she may be done with television, "I might have come to the end of it," she reasoned, "It would take something very, very different and special to jump back into [series television]." 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, however, Murphy stated he was working with Lange on a project "about Marlene Dietrich in Vegas in the early '60s." As of 2021, the project is listed on IMDb as being a TV miniseries in pre-production for Netflix. There's a strong chance Murphy will always have something "different and special" in store to tempt the actor back to television. And as Lange's glossy navy suit (above) quietly declared at the premiere of "The Politician," she certainly doesn't deserve anything less.