Monday, July 13, 2009

Lange's delicious film debut had everyone believing the real talent belonged to a giant furry mechanical paw.

When the now almost-revered Jessica Lange made her screen debut in the 1976 remake of King Kong, critics judged her without benefit of having seen her as Frances, or even as the blonde tootsie in Tootsie, wrote her off as just another pretty --- and pretty bad --- starlet. Not one of them noticed that she was playing just another pretty --- and pretty bad --- starlet. Lange did not suddenly acquire talent during the making of her later films; she had merely been so convincing as an untalented airhead in King Kong that people thought she wasn't acting at all. The accomplishment's all the more impressive in view of the fact that Lange had only an empty special effects screen (and a giant paw) to play off.

In re-imagining the familiar Girl-Meets-Ape storyline for contemporary audiences, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. hit on the smart, funny notion of turning the main characters into greedy, ambitious, self-centered '70s types. Lange's part was updated to the microsecond: her character became a ready-for-anything, been-around-the-block playmate with the body of a goddess and the heart of a cash register. Saved at sea by the oil rig crew headed for Kong's island, Lange's character sees at once that, as the only female aboard, she's just where she loves to be --- at the center of attention. Lange lets us watch the wheels spin as she toys with the guns, slipping slowly into the daydreamy character this beauty's been enacting since puberty to manipulate men. "I'm Dwan. D-w-a-n, Dwan. That's my name --- like Dawn, except I switched two letters to make it more memorable," says the bimbo, and Lange is so convincingly blank it's easy to see how critics thought that producer Dino De Laurentis had simply cast a dim bulb as a dim bulb.

Aware, as ever, that she's holding her audience spellbound with her languid stretches and moves, "Dwan" goes further to see how much she can get away with in these new circumstances. Putting a false veneer of naivete atop her obvious innuendoes, she says, "I owe my life to a movie. They were showing this film I refused to watch, and that's why I was up on deck by myself when the yacht exploded. Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" The men don't laugh, but we do, because we can see how she gets her way with a smart act of stupidity. And Lange delivers this line as casually as if she were applying lip gloss. Lange is just as adept at pulling off the trickier, sillier scenes of "Dwan" as a budding feminist who has the moxie to get angry instead of scared when she's abducted by Kong, the biggest of all the many big apes she's met.

A large part of Lange's achievement in King Kong is showing us the type of actress she, in fact, turned out not to be herself: "Dwan" is the prototypical, eager-to-please pinup who, since she can't think, hopes that she can act her way through any situation -- and since she can't, in fact, act, she has to rely on playacting. The touches of Tuesday Weld's plaintive voice and Marilyn Monroe's shudders of pleasure are all part and parcel of Lange's clever portrait of a woman who's expressly made up of all the dream women who came before her, and can't turn it off, ever. This reaches its zenith at the finale when, after Kong takes his final fall for her, she's where she's always dreamed of being --- surrounded by press and paparazzi --- and cries hysterically for her lover. Lange shows us it's all just for show: she doesn't take one step out of the spotlight to move in his direction.

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