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Jessica's Long Journey to that Triple Crown

With only three performances remaining in Broadway's Long Day's Journey Into Night which closes this Sunday, here's Eric to talk Jessica Lange's long and awards-full career.

Jessica Lange recently became the 22nd actor to complete the official Triple Crown of Acting (performers who have won competitive Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Awards - full list prior to Jessica).  It’s an exciting moment in time, as winning the big three isn’t easy. 

Ten of her Triple Crown peers are still alive and all working to one degree or another:  Rita Moreno, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Al Pacino, Geoffrey Rush, Ellen Burstyn, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, and Frances McDormand.  All of these actors have had decades-long success and still get enough offers for splashy roles that it’s not inconceivable that almost any of them could win another late-career major award.

As it stands, of all the 22 current Triple Crown winners, nobody has amassed more than six total competitive awards across the three fields of film, television, and theater.  The folks with six are Ingrid Bergman (3 Oscars, 2 Emmys; 1 Tony); Shirley Booth (1 Oscar, 2 Emmys, 3 Tonys); Maggie Smith (2 Oscars, 3 Emmys, 1 Tony); Helen Mirren (1 Oscar, 4 Emmys, 1 Tony), and now Jessica Lange (2 Oscars, 3 Emmys, 1 Tony like Dame Maggie).  At this point, Mirren and Lange, only three years apart (they’re 70 and 67, respectively) would break this (granted silly) awards record if they were to win one more of the Big Three prizes.   

Now, on to Jessica's own 'Long Journey' to this triumph...

Jessica accepting her Tootsie (1982) Oscar

It took Lange 33 years to complete the Triple Crown, which puts her towards the long end compared to how long it took most others (only Jessica Tandy, Anne Bancroft, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, and Ellen Burstyn took longer).  But one of the special things about Lange's story is that seven years ago, she had all but disappeared from major acting work of any kind.  It’s only her resurgence on TV via Grey Gardens and then American Horror Story that got her back on track not only with the Emmy wins, but with acting in general.

Lange has had a fairly erratic career.  She’s not had one major blockbuster film success outside of Tootsie. Her frequent employment through the 1980s and 90s are credit to her talent alone, as from a business perspective she was never considered “bankable” and always chose off-the-beaten-track projects.  


From The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1981 through to Oscar number two with Blue Sky in 1994, Lange delivered one leading-lady performance after another where her character was front and center and was never defined by her relationship to the central male character.  In fact, two of Hollywood’s biggest leading men of the time (Ed Harris in Sweet Dreams and Tommy Lee Jones in Blue Sky) played second fiddle to her, something that rarely happens nowadays, and in turn both men gave two of their most subtle, intelligent, and detailed performances.  Lange brings something out in both Harris and Jones that we don’t see in any other movie with them… the men know they are equally matched, and they’re forced to do their homework and find all the specific reasons they love their woman (rather than the generic “I guess he loves her because she’s pretty” substitute that is far more common).  There’s nuance in their work, and genuine sexual fire; you never doubt in either film that the central characters fuck happily and healthily.   

It’s a fairly universal consensus that had Meryl Streep not had Sophie’s Choice out in 1982, Lange would have won the Best Actress Oscar that year for Frances.  That film was where we first saw Lange’s particular specialty:  the mercurial powerhouse who swings from vulnerability to rage in a flash, always on the edge of something very dangerous.  She’s played variations on this emotional scale ever since, mostly to gloriously interesting effect and occasionally to a parody of itself (there are times where Lange forgets she is not always playing Blanche DuBois).  

But during the next decade after Frances, Lange delivered one indelible portrait after another:  quietly crumbling in Country; exhilaratingly vibrant in Sweet Dreams; selfish and melancholy (and funny!) in Crimes of the Heart; sultry and steely in Everybody’s All-American; sad and haunted in Music Box.  And then there’s Men Don’t Leave, arguably one of her actual best films, where she stays on the vulnerable side of her scale to heartbreaking effect.  (Sidebar: whatever happened to Paul Brickman???)


The fifteen years after winning Oscar number two weren’t generous to Lange, and she seemed to lose her passion for acting (she’s spoken about this in interviews).  But Grey Gardens gave her something operatic to play once again, and that’s what Lange responds to best.  She wants to go big or not go at all.  It’s that go-for-broke trait that feeds all of us who love her.  Even if she falls flat, at least she was doing something risky and interesting. 

Which leads us to her Tony win two weeks ago.  Lange has only come to Broadway three times, playing Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and now Mary Tyrone.  They’re arguably THE three biggest/hardest female roles in American dramatic theater, so even her detractors have to admit she’s ballsy.  Her first two tries were met with varying levels of success (IMO, her Blanche was beautiful but her Amanda was a snooze), but it all came together for Lange this time with Mary Tyrone.  It’s an unsentimental piece of acting where she nails the ethereal ghost-like quality of the character while giving us flashes of tremendous life and fight.  She illuminates the blurred lines of love and hate, and the extremes the blur can take, with the precision of a surgeon but the expressiveness of an artist.  And it’s glorious to see at age 67 that her patented sensuality is still alive and thriving.

It’s thrilling to see Lange in the game again.  She’s joined an elusive club, one that all of us lovers of great acting know is much more compelling than the EGOT.  

P.S. Last month it was announced that Lange will star with the amazing Naomi Watts in a film called The Lonely Doll.  If this film ever really happens, how sweet will it be to see two women who were both held in the paw of King Kong together in one movie?

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Reader Comments (39)

She always sells the sex appeal even in Cape Fear she is hot,I enjoy her work in Cape Fear a lot and it's a turn very rarely discussed.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Eric, thank you for this marvelous write-up on one of my all-time movie goddesses. You have delineated so artfully what makes her so special, but it's what you said about her low-key box office that really hits home. It's like you said--she has not been bankable; she has survived on sheer talent. This renaissance she is enjoying has been one of the most thrilling experiences I've had as a fan of actressing. When she won the Tony, I had to be restrained by my friends. Long Career's Journey Into Glory.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Very pleased with Lange joining the triple crown since it gives me hope for other performers in film I like to do the same. Viola Davis is shy an Oscar, Denzel Washington is shy an Emmy, Kathy Bates is shy a Tony, Blythe Danner is shy an Oscar. And it would be so cool to me to see each of them earn their place in the triple crown before any of them leaves us. (PS) I desperately want Kathy Bates to win a second acting Oscar. Doesn't matter the category since she'll always be a Best Actress Champ (Nick Davis).

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

O' My God I forgot about Close being shy an Oscar. But I don't believe she'll win a competitive one. I constantly root for her every year now to receive her honorary because why fool ourselves believing some enterprising filmmaker will figure out the right material for her to burn as brightly as she did in '87 and '88. Her being a bridesmaid at Streep's third coronation was just as cruel as the blunt reminder to Viola Davis Best Actress is a haven for white actresses only save for the fluke we're not as racist as you think Halle Berry historical and hysterical breakthrough.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of the great broads. I have always enjoyed that Lange and Streep were born in the same year, won Oscars in the same year, and their immense talent has carried them through and made them still dominant in varying mediums (each still in the game and at the top with movies, TV and/or theater). Her work on AHS was never boring, even if I found the Ryan Murphy-created stories often ridiculous. Part of me wishes Streep was playing Crawford in the new series Feud, just for a change of pace, but Lange will do a great job. Go forth sister!

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Wonderful article. She is always interesting even when she's a bit off her game (Hush, A Thousand Acres) but when she's on it she's one of the best.

I've always had a soft spot for Music Box even if it's not one of her more remembered roles. She's great in Frances and Blue Sky but they hand her big showy moments as opposed to Music Box where she's on a slow simmer throughout giving an observant controlled compelling performance.

Your mentioning of her tackling three of the hardest most complex roles in American theatre made me think of Gypsy and has me wishing now that she had taken a crack at it about 15 years ago. True she's not a great singer but than neither is Tyne Daly and she was fantastic. The only drawback is she might not have been able to project what singing voice she had as Tyne could. But man alive she could have torn into Mama Rose's tortured psyche and mad drive and made riveting theatre out of the play.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I was thrilled to see MEN DON'T LEAVE so highlighted. It's possibly my favorite performance of hers (though i'm admittedly not a huge fan) and a movie no one ever discusses even though it's just fantastic.

June 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think she's on fire in A Thousand Acres Pfeiffer to.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

This article sums up why Jessica Lange is one of the best actresses ever to grace the screen. She really is an amazing actress and it is a pity that she doesn't make movies that much anymore. What a shame. Along with Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, she made the 80's one of the best decades for actresses.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterheikoS

Streep, Close, Lange et al. are exceptions: in general, the actresses of the '80s can't compare to those of the '90s, let alone hold a candle to the Goddesses of the '30s-'70s.

In this actressexual's opinion, anyway...

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Thrilled to even be mentioned! Don't forget 80's also had Winger and Turner. Every decade has great leading ladies until this one, which only allows Jennifer Lawrence the green light (maybe Meryl and Sandra too, Melissa, nevermind). Congrats to Jessica!

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Close

Glenn -- yeah, it does seem that the Teens don't have the usual handful of leading lady giants (all decades have holdovers, but usually each decade has its own stars, too) . I think it's only Lawrence and McCarthy this decade which is quite spare really. (sigh). Hopefully the late teens will be explosive for a few possibly still rising women: maybe Jessica Chastain? maybe Brie Larson? maybe Alicia Vikander. We could count Scarlett Johansson i suppose but she needs a few more leading gigs too instead of all this second fiddle Marvel stuff.

June 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This is such a great article.
It is wonderful that both Jessica and Vanessa Redgrave won their Tony for Mary Tyrone.
Might I add MARTHA and Josie Hogan to the list of greatest dramatic American women roles?
I still think that it is Drew that should have won an Emmy for Grey Gardens.
@Glenn Close: I pray everyday that you will eventually win a fucking Oscar.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercraver

YES Craver. I really wish Drew won, especially in light of AHS.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I still think her two best performances are Men Don't Leave and Music Box. So disappointed in her Ryan Murphy collaborations.

@Glenn Close ... what are the deets on The Wife (aka, the movie that will finally win you an Oscar!).

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Is it possible that Diane West wins a Tony someday? I want her so bad to achieve her Triple Crown.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadie

I absolutely love Men Don't Leave. Jessica should have at least two more Oscar nominations--Losing Isaiah and A Thousand Acres. A strong case could be made for Titus. If she had several more scenes in The Gambler she could have had a supporting nom.

June 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

She will always be one of the greats in my opinion....Country, Music Box, Normal, Frances, Sweet Dreams, Hush, Tootsie, Men Don't Leave, Sybil, Crimes of the Heart...I can go on and on...although I wish she'd done more comedies which is lacking in her oeuvre. But I dislike her work in AHS and Blue Sky (makes me wonder how she got that 2nd Oscar which should have been won for her other roles). I'm now all blissed out she won a Tony so I will direct my hope on Close for that elusive Oscar!

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I have only seen Lange in Tootsie and King Kong. She was great in both. Not very keen on watching Frances though. Just not interested

It is an interesting thing that the leading ladies in the 80s were 30 + compared to the leading ladies of today. What happened?

Glenn Close: has she won both Emmy and Tony? And only needs an Oscar?

Blanchett: is a favorite to win that Tony next year for sure. A step closer to the Triple Crown

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Manuel -- yeah, Glenn only needs the Oscar. Frances is zzzz ;)

Nadie -it's weird that Dianne Wiest hasn't come anywhere near a Tony since she actually does a lot of stage work here in NYC. She's never even been nominated for a Tony Award (!) but she's done 8 Broadway shows and lots of Off Broadway stuff too.

Everyone -- i should probably note that whenever i read comments on Jessica Lange i realize I'm WAY off consensus with her both in her most acclaimed work and her least acclaimed / discussed work. For instance I think she's better in Tootsie than in Frances so I'm okay with the Oscar (though I would've given it to Lesley Ann Warren that year for Victor/Victoria in a heartbeat. I think she's GREAT in Men Don't Leave (which no one talks about and Oscar ignored) better than Pfeiffer (WHAT?) in Thousand Acres (which no one talks about) and I don't like her Ryan Murphy stuff all that much (he does really get actors fired up which I enjoy but Jessica has so much natural fire that I think she's better when a director actually directs her rather than lighting a match.

and I thought Drew Barrymore was miles better in Grey Gardens.

June 25, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Lange to me has always been like an uncomfortable cross between Joanne Woodward and Faye Dunaway. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Her win for Tootsie (Her perf inside is so-so) is a make-up for losing for Frances (IMO her best performance thus far).

I agreed that Barrymore shld have won the Emmy for Grey Gardens....Had Grey Gardens been released as a motion pic and not on HBO, I'm sure Barrymore wld won for best actress!! & Lange will be nom as best supporting! lol

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Love her (Frances and Men Don't Leave are my faves), but Lange was not a supporting actress in Tootsie nor was she the best supporting actress nominee that year, which makes her win all the more outrageous. Teri Garr, Lesley Ann Warren, and especially Glenn Close would all have been more worthy winners. "Oh, we like you and don't want you to go home empty handed, so we'll give you a consolation prize." Too bad the members weren't feeling that generous during Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore's double nod years.

And that Blue Sky Oscar ... I do not get. Was the Academy too chicken to recognize that year's best leading female performance, Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom? After recognizing Kathy Bates in Misery, Turner should have been a lock.

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

NewMoonSon -- literally no one was pushing to take Serial Mom seriously for awards at the time. Turner didn't even get a Globe Comedy Nomination! Isn't that crazy? 1994 only proves the theory we've often shared on this site than in years when the best performances come from outside drama --thrillers, comedies, horror, sci-fi, whatever..-- Oscar voters almost always give up and produce lame lineups, as if they're utterly at a loss and it's called a "weak" year by the media (the media not daring to help them by saying... uh, not a weak year at all. Just stretch your tastes a bit)

Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) and Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) were just two such victims that year but most of in '94 was way outside of "traditional drama" field. Jessica wouldn't even make my top 12 that year AND SHE WON.

June 26, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

When they hold a grudge against a woman it holds. Hence Sigourney Weaver being denied throughout the nineties from the academy. Four nomination worthy performances. Roger Elbert made a big fuss about her performance in Death and the Maiden. Right there she could have won Best Actress for 1994. Certainly could have taken a spot in the supporting actress lineups of '93 and '97 for Dave and The Ice Storm. And Streep took her slot in '99 for A Map of the World.

Dolores Claiborne was initially slated for release in '94. Due to poor test screenings it was re-edited and postponed till the following year where it received a Spiring release killing its chances in one of the most competitive years ever for the category of Best Actress.

June 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Weaver shld've won for Working Girl & Moore, The Hours, period.

Blue Sky was not even made in 1993/4. It was made in 1991 & SHELVED for 3 years b4 the studio released it!! I tink Lange won for sentimental reasons, Its her 5th (& maybe last) try at best actress and this is Tony Richardson's last feature b4 he passed on....

So effectively, 1994 did not produce any best actress that year!! lol

IMO, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction shld've been nom & won that year! Too bad her movie was released on TV b4 the it hits the cinema

June 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

thanks everyone for the spirited debate! i like that jessica brings out so much passion in people.

1994 was a super duper weird year. i thought the year's best performance was by jennifer jason leigh in MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, and she wasn't nominated either! the nominees were indeed, in the words of Nathaniel, lame. but of course i stand by jessica's win as the best of the five nominated. i think it was the reward for the decade of great work since winning for tootsie. at the time, in 1994, she was still one of the biggest LEAD actresses in the business, and she had yet to win a lead oscar. akin to cate blanchett in a way recently with BLUE JASMINE (although cate's role and performance are of course much more complex).

super fun to read all the comments...thanks jessica fans and non-fans alike!

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentereric

Nathaniel: I forgot all about Juliette! She would've been #2 on my ballot.

I had to go back and look at those Globe nominees:

Jamie Lee Curtis – True Lies
Geena Davis – Speechless
Andie MacDowell – Four Weddings and a Funeral
Shirley MacLaine – Guarding Tess
Emma Thompson – Junior

Really??? Kathleen had already scooped up consecutive Best Actress Musical/Comedy prizes in the 80s; it's like they went out of their way not to recognize one of her best performances. I'm surprised the award didn't go to Shirley.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

LOVED this write up. You did a fantastic job of highlighting not only why Lange is one of the true greats - a legend matched by no other outside of Streep (who, interestingly enough, has cited Lange more than any other actress as her favorite per several interviews) - but of also articulating what makes her so special: she's ballsy, marches to the beat of her own drum, and has never taken the easy road.

To be able to witness her resurgence this millennium has been truly one of the greatest experiences as a fan of hers. I proudly claim the title of "Biggest Lange Fan Girl".

There were so many instances in her rollercoaster ride of a career where she could've been dismissed - and was! - and yet she continued to bulldoze through walls and barriers to immerge as one of the single greatest actresses in the history of film, television and now theater.

Her career is inspirational and defined by perseverance, gutsiness and sheer balls-to-the-wall genius talent.

Mama is queen. Mama is goddess. Mama is Magisterial.


You left out Liza Minnelli. Her Emmy for Liza with a Z lists her winning in a "Performer" capacity. She's also got an Oscar and two Tonys. (Interestingly, she won each award under the direction of Bob Fosse.)

July 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Loved this, surprise, surprise. So glad I got to see her in LDJN before it closed. I think Sweet Dreams is really under-appreciated, and I agree with the person above who underscored how great she is in Cape Fear. (I also agree that Barrymore and Pfeiffer were better in Gardens and Acres.)

July 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

I feel in love with this actress in 1981, when I saw " The Postman Always Rings Twice". She had one of the most beautiful faces I'd ever seen. There was something behind the beauty. Something dangerous, vulnerable, and carnal. Five years before, she was the girl in the monkey movie and now she was stealing a movie from Jack Nicholson! The one two punch of Frances and Tootsie demanded recognition. Here she was in an electric, poweful turn, flipping to Monroe-like heights. She brings heart and depth to what would have been another silly cross dressing comedy. Terri Gerr never had a chance! Haunting and luminous usually beats quirky angst. She could be beautifully restrained in " Country" and " Men Don't Leave" and Hollywood (Susan Hayward )style larger than life in "Sweet Dreams" and "Blue Sky" or (in what I consider her best work in a feature ) Cassevetes raw and real in " The Music Box". She has been referred to as the Anti-Streep , something I agree with, if this means she transforms with heart and not technical virtuosity. Her Blanche Dubois, took Vivien Leigh's southern belle/china doll and used it as a shield for something that went deeper and allowed me to believe as she walks off, that this Blanche may actually survive! Lange is a character actress first and a movie star second. The distinctive traits are hers alone. The sneer...The crouch... the little laugh after a statement, the hand to the chest. They work for her because they "are" her! It's very exciting for a Langelover like myself to see this superb creature still surprising, still winning!

July 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Holden

As it stands, of all the 22 current Triple Crown winners, nobody has amassed more than six total competitive awards across the three fields of film, television, and theater. At this point, Mirren and Lange, only three years apart (they’re 70 and 67, respectively) would break this (granted silly) awards record if they were to win one more of the Big Three prizes.

Nope. Maggie Smith nominated this morning for the final season of Dowton Abbey will likely beat them to the punch.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I've just watched "Blue Sky" and was so impressed by her & Tommy Lee Jones. Jones is one of those actors I'm continually bored by, but his work in it surprised me with the expressiveness of his eyes. I get what you mean that he had to raise his game to match Lange. She was heartbreaking in her vulnerable moments and sensuous, but with an inner strength that shined through. I've been a Winona Ryder - Little Women supporter for the '94 Oscars for years, but I get why the voters went for Lange. The write-up above makes me want to watch her '80s output.

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWayne B.

Isn't she on Lifetime tonight? She is a mess.

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSophia

Wayne B, so great that you saw "Blue Sky". Such an undervalued gem.

Try "Music Box next.

August 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMark-Alexis

Maggie Smith is the first to get 7 triple crown awards with her 4th Emmy win.

September 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Viola Davis clenching it this year will make her only second to Rita Moreno for women of color whom triple crowned.

January 5, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

This needs to be bumped again for Glenn Close.

January 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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