Out of the Shadow: Ranking all 37 Jessica Lange film performances

In light of Sharon Stone’s not-so-earth-shattering yet still apparently incendiary declaration that there are other actresses that exist outside of Meryl Streep, I felt there was no better time for a friendly reminder of the prodigious career turned in by Jessica Lange, one of Streep’s contemporaries who, despite her enormous talent (and two Oscars), was always caught in Streep’s long shadow. While they rarely went up for the same parts (with one hugely notable exception), Streep and Lange were unavoidably compared to one another, being the same age and both known for their dramatic chops, but it was Streep who emerged as the darling of the critical community and was anointed as the premiere actress of her generation, relegating formidable contemporaries such as Lange, Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close, Sissy Spacek and Sally Field to the second tier, fighting it out for the Streep scraps. (Some perspective: those five actresses cumulatively have 26 Oscar nominations between them, while Streep alone has 21.)

While each of those actresses deserves their own kudos, I would like to pay tribute specifically to the illustrious—and still thriving—career of Jessica Lange. Following is a ranking, from least to best, of all 37 of her film performances, not including her episodic television work or her stage adaptations. It might surprise those of you who only know her from American Horror Story.

37. The Vow (2012)

Director: Michael Sucsy

It’s a nothing role for Lange, playing the rich mother of a woman who loses her memory in a car accident, and her performance doesn’t amount to much more than hand-wringing. I imagine she may have done this one as a favor to director Sucsy, who had directed her in her previous project, Grey Gardens for HBO, a project Lange obviously enjoyed, which also brought her first Emmy. Sadly, this Channing Tatum/Rachel McAdams tear-jerker, not much more than a Hallmark movie with a varsity cast, was as far from Grey Gardens—and awards—as you can imagine.

36. Bonneville (2006)

Director: Christopher N. Rowley

Lange clearly wanted to make a movie with her co-stars, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, as the script calls for three older friends to drive cross-country to deliver the ashes of Lange’s husband to her ungrateful step-daughter. Nothing about this movie works, and every performance feels forced, even Lange’s. What promises to be a fun road trip movie ends up being painfully boring, a really hard feat considering the talent on screen. It’s rare when Lange completely misses the mark but she never is able to really find the right tone, and neither does the film.

35. Neverwas (2005)

Director: Joshua Michael Stern

Blink and you’ll miss Jessica Lange in this quaint, Fisher King-like film where she plays mother to Aaron Eckhart as he searches for the meaning in his dead father’s famous children’s book. I literally forgot she was even in this movie, so that should tell you everything.

34. Losing Isaiah (1995)

Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal

There aren’t many missteps in Lange’s career, but this is most definitely one of them. She is completely overshadowed by a more dramatic role and performance from Halle Berry, but the main hindrance is the overly melodramatic story, which leaves both actresses to pander to the emotional beats of this story about a tug-of-war between adoptive and biological mothers. The film as a whole is an insult to its audience, and neither actress is done any favors by the movie-of-the-week feel of the whole thing. Lange somehow manages to be two things she never is: bland and forgettable.

33. King Kong (1976)

Director: John Guillermin

Producer Dino De Laurentiis wasn’t looking for an actress to star in his glossy remake of the 1933 monster classic, he just needed someone young and beautiful. When he cast Jessica Lange, an unknown American model who was living in Paris studying mime and photography, he had no idea he had discovered a raw and genuine talent. Lange’s first film landed her on the cover of TIME magazine, but her performance, which was imbued with passion and ferocity—not to mention raw sexuality—was what got her noticed by other directors in Hollywood, who then offered her, and even wrote for her, the roles that truly showed off her acting skills and began her career. While her role as Dwan in King Kong is often written off as a joke, Lange gives the role everything it needs and she is able to hold her own with both Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, not to mention an enormous ape, and never once looks out of her league.

32. Masked and Anonymous (2003)

Director: Larry Charles

It’s obvious that all the stars in this movie (and there are many) did this movie for one reason and one reason only: Bob Dylan. Written by and starring the legendary singer, Masked and Anonymous is a mess from start to finish, a loopy, bizarre, and aimless fever dream. And Dylan’s acting is even worse. Lange’s small role as a showgirl-turned-concert-promoter is as off-the-hinges as the rest of the film, but her performance is a delight and she makes the most of every brief moment she’s on-screen.

31. Night and the City (1992)

Director: Irwin Winkler

There’s nothing much to write home about here, as Lange plays the uninteresting part of the gangster girlfriend, but she gets to play opposite Robert DeNiro’s hustling street lawyer, so it’s not all bad.

30. Far North (1988)

Director: Sam Shepard

By far the most personal of all of Lange’s films, Far North was written and directed by her real-life partner, Sam Shepard, and is inspired by Lange’s real-life family in rural Minnesota, especially her father, a tough and unemotional man. Lange’s performance certainly has intimacy and realism, but the entire film suffers from an overall weirdness that works in Shepard’s plays, but just doesn’t always translate to the screen.

29. The Gambler (2014)

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Lange is in two scenes in the entire film, and, in each one, she’s being asked for money by Mark Wahlberg’s character, a gambling addict. Don’t get me wrong, she looks great and her two scenes are perfect, but having to endure Mark Wahlberg for just two Jessica Lange scenes is not a gamble I enjoy.

28. Big Fish (2003)

Director: Tim Burton

Here’s proof that you can be a pixie dream girl at any age. Lange has a small role as the elder version of the female lead, but, with most of the film in flashback, the junior version, played by Alison Lohman, gets the majority of the screen time. But when she’s on, she brings it. And her scenes with Albert Finney are a treasure.

27. Prozac Nation (2001)

Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg

Suffering the fate of most elite actresses once they cross a certain age threshold, Lange finds herself playing a put-upon mother, this time to Christina Ricci, who has the starring (and much more meaty) role here as writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, in the film based on her memoir. We’ve seen it all before, unfortunately, and this is the type of role Lange can totally phone in if she wanted to—and it looks like she wanted to.

26. Don’t Come Knocking (2005)

Director: Wim Wenders

Lange has always been about the experience of making a film, not necessarily the final product, which is clearly the case with this small indie film. She got to work with celebrated director Wenders, and, more important than that, she got to act again with her longtime partner, Sam Shepard. It’s clear why she’s in this movie, it’s just not clear why anyone else is. Even though she’s totally miscast as the abandoned waitress girlfriend who’s stuck in a dead-end Montana town, she owns it. And it’s always fun to see Lange and Shepard on-screen together

25. Broken Flowers (2005)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Lange is in one 6-minute scene, but it’s a great one, as she plays an animal communicator in a movie about Don, an aging playboy (Bill Murray) who is on the search for the ex-girlfriend who sent him an anonymous letter claiming he has a child. Lange plays Carmen, the third of four exes that Don visits (the other three played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy and Tilda Swinton), and their brief conversation in her office is curious and natural, making you long for more. As if the great cast and Jarmusch weren’t enough of a draw, Lange’s chemistry with a cat is more than worth the price of admission.

24. Hush (1998)

Director: Jonathan Darby

In a role that one critic called “a Southern vagina with teeth,” Lange chews every piece of scenery in sight in this career camp classic. Whether or not Lange knew how bad this movie really was, she makes the absolute most of it and plays the part of the evil mother-in-law to the hilt, eschewing subtlety wherever possible. There is no way to take this movie seriously, so don’t. Plus, there is pure joy in watching Jessica Lange torture Gwyneth Paltrow, let’s be honest.

23. All That Jazz (1979)

Director: Bob Fosse

Director Bob Fosse wrote the part of the Angel of Death for Lange in this semi-autobiographical drama about the famous choreographer/director’s life. In only her second film, despite the small and limited role, it’s easy to see shades of what’s to come.

22. Sybil (2007)

Director: Joseph Sargent

In this made-for-television remake of the 1976 Sally Field classic about a woman who struggles with multiple personality disorder, Lange plays the psychiatrist who helps Sybil, played by Tammy Blanchard, come to terms with her illness. Twenty years earlier, it would have been Lange to play the hysterical patient who pinballs between her inner voices, but, this time, Lange is the calm and centered one, and I have to admit it’s a nice change.

21. In Secret (2013)

Director: Charlie Stratton

It’s a repressed spinster in mid-nineteenth-century Paris again for Lange, but this time her foils are her daughter-in-law and her lover, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac, in this far sexier but just as dreary cousin to, well, Cousin Bette. Lange doesn’t have a lot to do until her character suffers a stroke, then she kicks it into high gear, acting up a storm without the use of much of her face and body. She proves that, even with her two most valuable tools not in play, she still manages to deliver a powerful performance.

20. Everybody’s All-American (1988)

Director: Taylor Hackford

Playing the All-American girl is a no-brainer for Lange, but she still manages to turn a simple cheerleading role into a meaty, complex, and feminist statement, turning an otherwise lightweight sports movie into something much more epic.

19. Crimes of the Heart (1986)

Director: Bruce Beresford

Lange co-stars with Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek in this very-80s movie about three wacky Southern sisters, Lange playing the adventurous actress who returns from the big city with a chip on her shoulder. She looks like she’s having a blast though, playing in the sandbox with Keaton and Spacek, and, even though the film never really comes together, the three actresses shine and Lange goes all out, tapping into her own rebellious roots. She is again paired romantically on screen with her off-screen partner, Sam Shepard, and whenever they are together, the chemistry is palpable.

18. A Thousand Acres (1997)

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Lange is again drawn to a film about a family on a farm, a common theme in her films, which reflects her roots in rural Minnesota. Another common theme in Lange’s choices is co-starring with other strong women, and this time it’s Michelle Pfeiffer, in the first film of Lange’s directed by a woman. Loosely based on King Lear, A Thousand Acres pits three sisters against their aging father, played by Jason Robards, who slowly descends into madness after promising to give them their lucrative farm when he dies. Lange, Pfeiffer, and Robards lead an impressive ensemble cast, including Colin Firth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keith Carradine, John Carroll Lynch, Elisabeth Moss, and Michelle Williams. But it is Lange and Pfeiffer who are both pillars of perfection, managing to avoid much of the melodrama in the script and deliver strong and grounded performances.

17. How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980)

Director: Robert Scheerer

Jessica Lange is known as an ultra-serious actress, in spite of the fact that two of her first five films were comedies. This first comedy is often overlooked, if not forgotten altogether, despite the cast and how utterly charming it is. Lange stars alongside Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James (four years before they starred together in “Kate and Allie”) as a trio of housewives who plan an elaborate scheme to rob a local mall. Lange leaves the broad comedy to Curtin and Saint James, but she most definitely holds her own, fine-tuning her subtle comic skills that would serve her well a couple of years later.

16. Cousin Bette (1998)

Director: Des McAnuff

Another rare accent and another rare period film for Lange, as she plays a spinster who plots revenge against the woman who stole away the man she loves in this film based on the classic novel by Balzac, set in nineteenth-century Paris. It’s continuing a trend for Lange of being attracted to movies about revenge, and it’s no wonder because she’s really good at it.

15. Titus (1999)

Director: Julie Taymor

Lange’s first Shakespeare on film, and it’s quite a doozy. The source play, Titus Andronicus, is rarely done because of its graphic violence, but in the hands of Julie Taymor, a director with a unique visual flair, this adaptation is violent and sometimes hard to watch, yes, but also stunningly gorgeous and breathtaking in all its production elements. Lange fits the role of vengeful Queen Tamora like a glove, making you wonder what else she could do with Shakespeare if given the chance.

14. O Pioneers! (1992)

Director: Glenn Jordan

In her first true period drama, Lange stars in this made-for-television adaptation of the Willa Cather novel set in Nebraska at the turn of the century. A project no doubt close to her heart, she plays a woman from a family of Swedish immigrants who inherits land from her father and struggles to overcome many challenges, including from within her own family. Although it has some very familiar elements, her performance is luminous and she’s never seemed more at home.

13. Normal (2003)

Director: Irma Applewood

Long before gender identity was part of mainstream thought and discussion, and long before Orange Is the New Black, Pose or Transparent brought transgender issues to popular culture, this HBO movie about a married, middle-aged father who finally comes to accept that he is a woman inside a man’s body was nominated for five Emmys and started a conversation in America that used to only be a whisper. Tom Wilkinson is unsurprisingly excellent as the man with the courage to be her real self, as is Lange as her loyal and loving wife, who sticks by her partner through it all. Both Wilkinson and Lange were nominated for Emmys, deservedly so. While Wilkinson has the showier and more emotional role, Lange matches him, beat for beat, as the woman who is forced to question everything that matters to her, and defines what love really is.

12. Rob Roy (1995)

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

In Lange’s first role as a non-American (which means her first accent), she plays the wife to Liam Neeson’s titular Scottish hero, who, in 1713, seeks revenge against the English invaders who destroy his land, kill his cattle and rape his wife. Lange is at her best, suffering the many abuses and tortures of her character with strength and grace. Her accent is not the best, but she makes up for it with passion and fire. It’s too bad this film got lost amid the fanfare of Braveheart, the other Scottish period movie that happened to come out the same year because Rob Roy is a pretty great film.

11. Wild Oats (2016)

Director: Andy Tennant

Lange’s most recent film credit (hopefully, not her last) is a rare comedy. While Tootsie was not Lange’s first film and Wild Oats will certainly not be her last, it does seem somewhat poetic that her only two purely comic performances have come at the beginning and the end of her notoriously drama-filled career. It’s too bad because we all know how good she was in Tootsie, and, guess what—she’s almost as good in Wild Oats. Leaves us only to imagine what could have been—or what still may come. In Wild Oats, she is paired with Shirley MacLaine in one of those films that all actresses of a certain age are now seemingly required to do, the “old friends vacationing at the end of their lives, letting their hair down and getting into all kinds of trouble” comedy trope. But, no matter how predictable or standard this fare may be, there is no denying the pure joy that is seeming to come from Lange, who attacks this role with energy and freshness. Whether it’s working with MacLaine or with Tennant, or it’s the chance to be funny or it’s just being in a tropical location, something just clicks and she finds the old magic.

10. Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Director: Paul Brickman

A film about grief and motherhood is right up Jessica Lange’s alley, but Men Don’t Leave’s serio-comic and offbeat undertones required a new approach, forcing her to discover new weapons in her arsenal, including wry humor and vulnerability.

9. Cape Fear (1991)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Jessica Lange had been carving out a good career in small, intimate family dramas until Martin Scorsese called and offered her a supporting role in his campy, pulpy mainstream remake of the dark thriller Cape Fear, starring Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte. DeNiro and newcomer Juliette Lewis may have gotten all the acclaim, but Lange’s grounded, no-nonsense wife/mother is the anchor of the film.

8. Music Box (1989)

Director: Costa Gavras

Lange’s fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination came for playing an American lawyer who defends her immigrant father against accusations of being a war criminal. Lange is in her wheelhouse playing a daughter in conflict with her father, and, with the additional dramatic elements of the Holocaust, history, and a courtroom, it is acting catnip that Lange eats up with the greatest of ease, hardly breaking a sweat.

7. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

Director: Bob Rafelson

With three films under her belt, Lange exploded into the major leagues as Cora, the vengeful wife who conspires with her lover (Jack Nicholson) to murder her cruel husband in this film-noir remake that truly sets Lange’s career on its trajectory towards greatness. Lange is simmering and fierce, commanding the screen with her sexually charged magnetism. This is the first film where Lange uses her sexuality to her advantage, owning and controlling it, instead of allowing others to define or contain it for their will. Lange proves that femininity does not equal weakness, and sexual appetite is not something to be ashamed of. Plus, far beyond her sexuality and beauty, the world finally saw what a raw acting talent Jessica Lange truly is.

6. Sweet Dreams (1985)

Director: Karel Reisz

Lange earned a third consecutive Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Country music legend Patsy Cline, and there’s no one else who could have given the character the passion, ferocity, and tragic melodrama like Lange (not even Meryl Streep, who also auditioned and seemingly really, REALLY wanted the part). Even though she lip-syncs the songs, her performance is still wholly believable, and her chemistry with Ed Harris as Cline’s husband Charlie is electric.

5. Grey Gardens (2009)

Director: Michael Sucsy

Lange plays Big Edie to Drew Barrymore’s Little Edie in this fictionalized remake of the classic 1975 documentary about two reclusive and eccentric high society dropouts who have shut themselves off from the world in their decaying mansion. Both Barrymore and Lange are magnificent in this HBO film that was nominated for seventeen Emmys and won six, including for Lange, who won her first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. Her performance is absolutely sublime and proves that she truly hasn’t missed a beat.

4. Country (1984)

Director: Richard Pearce

The only film Lange ever produced was also one of her most personal. Having grown up in rural Minnesota, Lange was attuned to the plight of the American farmer, and she cast herself in the role of a farmer who is struggling to survive during a recession. Co-starring her then-partner Sam Shepard, Country was one of several high-profile films about the farming crisis in America. Ironically enough, Country earned Lange her second consecutive Best Actress Oscar nomination, losing to Sally Field who starred in one of those other film movies, Places in the Heart. But even though Country got lost in the shuffle, Lange’s performance is engaging and emotional, as she finds strength in her desperation, holding together her family against all odds and taking on a system that is stacked against her. It’s one of the rare times when Lange’s offscreen social conscience has seeped into her work, and it’s what makes her performance in Country that much more visceral.

3. Blue Sky (1994)

Director: Tony Richardson

In her fifth Best Actress nomination, Lange finally wins for this Tony Richardson-directed drama, in which she plays a bipolar Army wife to Tommy Lee Jones. The film’s silly plot about a shady nuclear testing program is vastly overshadowed by Lange’s performance, by far the only reason for this movie to exist. Lange is at her absolute best as a wife and mother whose mental illness often takes hold at the least opportune times, prompting periods of manic exuberance, matched by equally devastating depressive valleys. Lange navigates the inconsistent screenplay and often heavy-handed character mood swings with delicate precision, never insulting her character, nor diminishing her pride or grace. She finds nuance in her character’s illness, revealing humanity that may have been overlooked by a lesser actress. Anyone who thinks Lange won the Oscar more as a career appreciation rather than to recognize this specific performance is clearly someone who has never actually seen it.

2. Tootsie (1982)

Director: Sydney Pollack

Lange’s role as Dustin Hoffman’s dream girl in this Sydney Pollack classic is still what most people think of when they think of Jessica Lange, mostly because she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. But Lange’s layered and sublimely hilarious performance as a soap opera actress who is inspired to stand up for herself by her co-star, who, unbeknownst to her, is Dustin Hoffman dressed as a woman, is subtle and supremely perfect. She is vulnerable and endearing, strong-willed and slightly ditzy, sensitive and clueless, holding her own in every moment with Hoffman, who likewise delivers a career-defining performance. While there have been many to point out that the real standout supporting performance in the film belongs to Teri Garr and not Lange, it’s impossible to not recognize the degree of difficulty in Lange’s role, finding the perfect tone, playing the least funny role in the film yet being tasked with winning the hearts of the audience. The fact that Garr does give such an indelible performance only goes to prove the depth of skill Lange found, making the audience fall in love with her, against all odds, plus the fact that, on paper, her character really is not much more than a pretty face. Everything in the role that works is because Lange makes it work and turns the ultimate pixie dream girl into a three-dimensional, complex character.

1. Frances (1982)

Director: Graeme Clifford

The performance that nearly killed her is what defines her. Playing tortured actress Frances Farmer was exhausting for Lange, but the performance that is captured on film is still, to this day, the best of her career. Lange mines every emotion for the role based on the true story of Farmer, who was abused by everyone in her life, including her mother and the movie studio that employed her. While the film itself is far from perfect, Lange’s immersion into the role creates a performance that is shattering, heartbreaking, violent, and explosive. She is also able to find perfection in the quiet moments, revealing her character’s desperation and inner strength, a woman who is supremely punished for expressing individuality and conviction, persecuted for daring to speak her mind and have her own thoughts. The role of Frances Farmer would serve as a blueprint for a career to come for Lange, filled with misunderstood characters who are sometimes too strong, determined or independent for their own good. Although she was nominated for Best Actress for Frances, the award went to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice that year instead, beginning a long run of Best Actress nominations for Lange, before finally breaking through for Blue Sky in 1995.

Written by
Catherine is a senior writer for We Live Entertainment. She has also written for Awards Watch, In Session Film, and Awards Radar. She is Rotten Tomatoes-approved and a proud member of The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. Offline, she loves baseball, World Cup soccer and all things ‘80s.

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