Author takes on Jessica Lange story
Account highlights actor’s ascension to world stage
December 8, 2023
When Anthony Uzarowski set out to write a biography about Cloquet native and world-famous actress Jessica Lange, he planned to visit Minnesota, retrace her steps and meet the sources for the book when he could.
Instead, the Covid-19 pandemic struck while Uzarowski and his boyfriend were isolated in a tiny village along coastal France.
“I ended up doing all of the research from my office,” Uzarowski told the Pine Knot, this time in a Zoom interview last week from Thailand, where he was vacationing. “It was a bit different than I imagined.”
The result, “Jessica Lange: An Adventurer’s Heart,” was published in June by the University Press of Kentucky and joins its extensive line of film studies books, Screen Classics.
Scholarly in detail, the book puts Uzarowski’s admiration for Lange on full display.
“She always lived her life according to her intuition, without fear,” he wrote on page 60 of the book.
Interspersing her screen highlights with details from her closely guarded personal life, Uzarowski manages to coalesce a rich narrative of the actor’s life. It’s a lifetime of contrasts — profound loneliness and rich love, a teenage desire to escape from Cloquet and the solace she found in her lifetime of returns to her log cabin in Carlton County.
Using letters written by the late actor and playwright Sam Shepard during their 30-year romance, and interviews with folks such as photographer Francisco “Paco” Grande, Lange’s former husband, the author tracks Lange’s early life moving around Minnesota with her family, to France, where she studied mime, and into New York and Hollywood with her casting in “King Kong.” The 1976 remake by Dino De Laurentiis introduced Lange to movie audiences in what would amount to one of her corniest roles in a career filled with uncompromising, artistic choices.
Famously anti-war, Lange knew all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics by heart, tracing a similar path as the folk singer from small-town Minnesota to the world stage, never forgoing the bohemian roots that made her as likely to be found wearing leather sandals as high heels.
“The thing I loved about writing this book was really getting to know and understand that generation,” Uzarowski said. “Back then it was about being instinctive and spontaneous and having experiences that didn’t have to be on Instagram.”
Uzarowski spent a year writing, “really in a zone,” he said, watching Lange’s films along the way. He’d watch one and then contemplate it for a day. Of 1982’s “Tootsie” with Dustin Hoffman, Uzarowski wrote: “ ... she lit up the screen with … beauty and intelligence.”
“I wanted to get inside and really understand and evoke what her life and her work has been like,” Uzarowski said.
The title of the book owes to a commencement speech Lange gave at a college graduation for one of her daughters. Given freedom by the publisher, Uzarowski chose the title and the image, taken from the 1982 film “Frances,” that appears on the cover.
The book pivots on an early chapter about “Frances,” which portrays the tragedy of another uncompromising Hollywood figure, Frances Farmer. As a fledgling actor, Lange performed a scene from a book about Farmer, igniting a fire for a woman who compared favorably to Lange, both in their resemblance to one another and their choices. Both would split from the studios that had pinned them down early in their careers. Farmer ends up institutionalized at points in her life, and the film found Lange on set raging inside an actual mental hospital of the sort that has been outlawed in many places.
“It’s really a difficult film to watch,” Uzarowski said. “I love it, but … I have to kind of prepare myself emotionally and mentally because I know it’s going to affect me even though I’ve seen it many times.”
Uzarowski’s book leaves ample room for Cloquet, and not always in flattering fashion, describing it as a stolid place that tended to fail to celebrate its native star.
“Some in Cloquet felt proud that Jessica was representing their close-knit community on the world stage, but the general attitude seemed indifference,” Uzarowski wrote on page 85.
The book outlines how Lange’s Cloquet stage debut during her senior year in “Rebel Without a Cause,” never came to be, as horror struck with a murder in the high school on the same day the play was set to open.
In another passage of the book, Cloquet earns an unlikely sentence comparing it to Hollywood.
“(Lange) would later reflect that living in LA was not much different than living in Cloquet: everyone knew everyone else’s job,” it says on page 51.
Still, Cloquet is often redeemed by Lange herself.
In the answer to an acting class question, “Who are you?” Lange responded, “I’m a kid from Minnesota.”
Prior to writing about Lange, Uzarowski published a book about Ava Gardner, and is currently working on a book about Lauren Bacall.
“I’ve always had a fascination with actresses since I was very little,” Uzarowski said.
He talked about Lange’s reception of his book, at least what he knows of it. When he first approached her people, the reception was hostile. But as word filtered back to Lange about Uzarowski’s approach, she even green-lit some of the interviews used in the book, though she never gave one herself.
“She always said in her interviews she would never write a book for herself, so that was what kind of gave me an idea,” he said. “Her story really is interesting. … I’d been thinking about it for a very long time before I did it. It was kind of a long-term passion project.”
Five Lange films
My spouse and I watched five Jessica Lange movies while reading the book.
Here they are:
• “King Kong” (1976): Lange, Jeff Daniels and the former World Trade Center in New York City redeem a poorly written dud.
• “Frances” (1982): Upsetting tale in which a mother betrays her actress daughter, while Shepard and Lange heat up the screen.
• “Tootsie” (1982): Lange’s biggest box office success simply is a joy to watch.
• “Blue Sky” (1994): My favorite performance of hers and that’s saying a lot. She’s sublime here.
• “Grey Gardens” (2009): Riveting portrayal of a mother and daughter trapped in their own amber. Brady Slater