COMING OUT

Karel Reisz’s Sweet Dreams will come to be known as the coming out for Jessica Lange. The zonked-out, never-quite-there qualities in some of her previous work—King Kong, Tootsie, Frances and parts of Country (when the camera moves in on her)—are gone. For the first time she’s right for a role—absolutely right for playing the legendary Patsy Cline, and for the first time I believed in her as an actress. The achievement is all the more striking because Lange has to do what’s been the bane of many performers before her—lip-synch to pre-recorded music. If at the beginning we’re all too aware of it—because Lange can’t sing; because the music is state-of-the-art enhanced; and because Cline’s voice is inimitable—the accomplishment is that, long before the end, Lange convinces us to accept Cline’s singing as her own. (Friends say that when listening to Cline on CD, they “hear” the great Patsy but “see” Lange.) That’s not just because Lange’s synching very well, it’s due mainly to how she gets into Cline’s life and her songs as a movie character. She brings Cline to life not as clone, which would have been easy, but as a full-bodied woman—someone she’s never brought to the screen before this. She’s so vivid and likable that you simply have to have more of her. (She has said this was “the best time I ever had making a movie” and you believe it.) Any real complexity that may have been part of Cline has been removed; the story is straight forwardly about the relationship between Cline and her second husband (Ed Harris) and how her rising career interferes with wedded bliss. Simplifying all of this helps Lange and it’s the country simplicity of Cline’s plaintive songs that provides the meat of her performance: much of what Cline felt in real life is in that music. She was a sucker for love and felt pride in saying so in her lyrics; her music says she’s been had, but that she’ll try again and again until she gets it right. If that’s the indisputable emotional core of country music, it’s also the reason she was a successful crossover to the pop charts. As a teen, I remember some of Cline’s smashes—especially “Crazy,” “So Wrong,” the countrified cha-cha “Strange”—because, though I was dancing with friends or doorknobs every afternoon to Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” I also responded to her hillbilly torture blaring from those then-new tiny transistor radios from Japan that were all the rage: her voice transcended the confines of country, her effusive stories—“I’ve got your picture, she’s got you,” “Why can’t he be you”—glamorized as well as soothed the heartache. That’s why she remains as powerful today as she did when she died so tragically: audiences feel her honesty, her casual purity. And Lange instinctively embraces both elements—by end she is Cline.

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