There have been three iterations now of American Horror Story, and Jessica Lange has slain them all. I honestly believe that this miniseries would have collapsed into a supergay, supergray pile of smoldering pop culture ashes - trademark Ryan Murphy Mediocrity – had Lange not taken the helm of those three ships.
They are the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria of horror in the 2010s. And AHS both reinvigorates and redefines the genre for television, thanks to the stewardship of one of the most complex and beautiful actresses we’ll know this lifetime. Now that I have time to catch my breath after the mid-season finale, I think it’s high time that we talk about Lange’s work on the show: her old-school approach, her centralized embodiment of AHS‘s changing sexual and psychological themes, and the way she both resists and embraces The Age of GIF.
Way back when, AHS: Murder House featured Lange as Constance, a potent but underused side character who provided a certain regal Southern spice to the LA-ness of the season. This first AHS hinged mostly on a teenage love story and the deep, soaking sense of disquiet that one feels in both a haunted mansion and a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family. It was a campy debut. The season worked pretty well as kind of a Dark Shadows homage – the main family unit was eclipsed by a much more vibrant and intriguing cast of sidekicks, drifting in an out of episodes through a Revolving Door of Bitchery.
Constance was a good character, if not great: steely, mean, witty, miserable. Lange worked hard to nuance her despite her limited screen time, and by the end of the season it became clear that she was a fan favorite. The majority of viewers were 13-24, and had never heard of her before. After Murder House, Jessica Lange the former box office star was a sensation again for the first time since the late ’80s, and even more surprisingly, television served as the pile of ashes from whence her phoenix arose.
Much of Constance’s storyline on Murder House revolved around her self-delusion, her armor-building in the face of her decaying youth and beauty. Think flashbacks. A lot of flashbacks. Lange is pretty amazing at playing these emotions as an elegant but aging former sex symbol; perhaps this is why her turn on the next season, AHS: Asylum delved into this theme so heavily. Asylum was, of course, the coming-out party for one of the most sensational, powerful, and disturbed women I’ve seen on a TV screen: Sister Jude.
It’s hard not to celebrate that kunty Lange-tongue, but that right there is TERRIBLE writing. Even so, Lange managed to twist every clumsy feminist zinger into a deadly barb, every over-the-top freakout into a very human implosion. Sister Jude is the protagonist of Asylum, more than any of its younger, more “attractive” cast. This character developed in such a stunning way over the course of the season. Jude’s storyline was one of moral redemption, female strength, time’s slow attack on beauty, and sexuality disfigured by guilt and social pressure. And let me tell you, Murphy and Co. only know how to write that stuff in broad strokes. That’s all they know how to give an older actress to do. This performance was all Lange, all blunt honesty disguised as acting.
It was hands-down the most terrifying season. It was a true achievement of horror, especially when it came to the visual effects. Lange was often photographed with monstrously detailed lighting. But the strength in her eyes and body made Sister Jude fearsome, not grotesque. Age was slowly overtaking her physical beauty, but Jude’s raw open heart gave the character a certain incandescence that was at once so painful and so sexy.
On the occasions we saw Sister Jude out of her nun’s habit, I was often struck by Lange’s allure. She played a kind of smoky-throated classiness that flirted with vulgarity, an unattainable kind of Old Hollywood confidence. Honestly, I’d never seen anyone be so sexy past age 60. It was a golden, electrifying, sobbing sort of sexiness. The thing is, Lange’s performance in Asylum is one that many of her peers could not have delivered. This actress’s eyes were wide open as she fell down fame’s gaping maw; now that she’s back on TV, you can feel a certain sad wisdom radiating from her, a really angry hurt. Sister Jude makes me regret how easily I disregard the spirituality and sexuality of non-Millenial women. There is nothing old about Lange, just old-school. Just real. Sister Jude is a great embodiment of aged female power in an moment of fickle young women too confused to take control of their bodies and lives. This character wonderfully illustrates that time does not degrade a woman, but the people around her surely do.
Of course, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t toss in a video of the cast performing “The Name Game.” Asylum may have been the scariest season, but it also has its fun moments and occasionally recalls the delectable camp of Murder House. Let’s play a game:
Which brings us to the current season, AHS: Coven. This isn’t a bad season, per se, but I think the showrunners got a little spooked by the mature-skewing extreme darkness of Asylum and were not sure they could keep the momentum going for the Tumblr generation. Thus Coven was born: a superficial, exciting, bright teenage supernova of witchy little bitchies whose post-modern malaise bleeds through every captioned GIF. Coven is no world for a classy faded starlet. But still, Lange uses her character, Fiona Goode, to excavate that generational divide and bring the youthful exploits of the titular coven full-circle. Fiona is another meditation on feminine power, on sex, and on heartache, nursed over long decades.
I can’t stop watching Jessica Lange cry, honestly. Like the two Lange AHS femme fatales before her, Fiona is a failure and an egomaniac, a tragic creature who seesaws between self-loathing and self-worship. She is constantly at war, and so tired of disappointing herself and everyone around her. The party’s long over and she doesn’t know how to deal. And Lange makes it so real and so sad. When her eyes brim over, there’s a twingey reminder that Fiona’s story is pretty universal for the bad bitches of the world who have been passed over by their friends, their lovers, and their admirers.
Coven takes this theme to an obvious place, pitting Fiona (the Supreme witch) against a pack of skinny blondies whose rising power threatens to eclipse her own. Fiona feels her mortality quite acutely, as she not only has a rapidly metastasizing gut cancer, but also an addiction to glamour. She lived fast, but refuses to die young. Or to die at all. Ever. This leads her to murder the seductive little whore Emma Roberts, in a bid to preserve her waning beauty and stop the young girl from draining her supernatural hotness. Of course, we all know where that girl-on-girl crime leads…to the biggest TV meme of the year.:
Now, Coven is campy, but it’s not the trope-saturated, inky-dark kind of camp of Murder House. This is a very distinctly 2013 camp, aka boring camp, where ladies just snipe at each other and claw for the alpha position. It would seem that R-Murph is starting to devolve and do what he does, where he writes for some weird gay stereotype audience that watches All About Eve once a week. And even though Fiona suffers along with the rest of characters, whose writing grows more anti-feminist and pedantic with each passing episode, Jessica Lange continues to do Her Thing.
Her impulsive, highly sensual relationship with serial killer The Axeman makes Fiona into a self-immolating stick of hot dynamite. One moment, we’re watching her decrepit cancer-ridden body crumble, her hair fall out and her papery lips tremble; the next, we’re seeing a grown tiger spread her limbs across black satin and purr with desire. Lang is still playing with the image of the mature woman, accepting of physical death but not nearly as amenable to the sexual death, the death of the soul.
I guess I’m just awed by the fact that Jessica Lange still has so much in her, and that she is able to give it so generously when most of her scripted lines are a commentary on her own changed appearance and relevance to her audience. As an actress, she’s able to use the exhaustion and the exploitation and the violence of fame in such an interesting and multi-faceted way to inform her performance. Thank goodness someone cast her in such an incendiary project, in something that required grounding and grit to make it a true success. Horror is a tough genre: it requires the players to vibrate on an extra-human level, with the volume turned up on the joy and the pain and the sexy. This is what makes the frightful moments so delicious. Horror is feelings, universal truths, turned upon us in the most terrifying way possible. Lange innately understands this. She’s the most beautiful walking wound I’ve ever seen.
So, AHS fans, tell me: which was your fave season? Which Jessica Lange creation resonated most with you? And what should happen to Fiona when Coven resumes this January?