Talk about having it all. Jessica Lange is juggling three golden balls: a life with playwright-actor Sam Shepard, status as a celebrity supermom (two children by Shepard, one by Mikhail Baryshnikov) and, when she can make time, movie stardom. Is Lange's part-time job as exemplary actress a hobby, as football is for Bo Jackson? If so, it can be no less punishing or rewarding, because Lange -- any actress, really, in today's Streepstakes -- must find the core of feminism, of flinty self-fulfillment, in a modern movie role. No wimpering-wife parts, thank you. Just Joan of Arc in Levi's, with Silkwood strength and Flo-Jo flash.
Two new films show Lange playing by these implicit rules while bending them to suit. In Far North, she is Kate, a Manhattan careerist come home to Minnesota. Kate is a little addled, but less so than most of her relatives, and she possesses a loyalty to the whims of her dotty dad that is fierce enough to pass for independence. In Everybody's All-American she is Babs Rogers Grey, Louisiana U.'s Magnolia Queen of 1956, who blossoms into a principled businesswoman even as her marriage to a college football star withers like a corsage she forgot to press into her yearbook. Within the hash marks of familiar sports drama, the picture aims to be a Southern-fried epic, and Lange nudges Babs toward that goal. She is Scarlett O'Hara who almost becomes Maggie the Cat -- until, in the '80s, she ends up so strong and nurturing she could be a Lear's cover girl.
Lange only inhabits her films; she doesn't write or direct them. Shepard assumed those two tasks in Far North and distinguished himself in neither. The plot is as old as Antigone, the emotional temperature as wintry as Ingmar Bergman's, the conflict as scabrous as any Eugene O'Neill family flaying. And yet the movie unravels as if it were an anguished parody of Shepard's own play A Lie of the Mind. He lured Lange and a cast of fine actors to Duluth, then stranded them on a back road halfway between Hysteria and Catatonia. Virtually every character is either deranged or noisome. The big debate is over which daughter loves Dad (Charles Durning) more: Kate, who insists on shooting the family horse, or Rita (Tess Harper), who wants to save it. The film should have been put out of its misery long before. They shoot movies, don't they? Yes, but few so spectacularly egregious as this one.
Don't go Far North. Instead, consider heading south for Everybody's All- American, directed by Taylor Hackford and written by Tom Rickman from Frank Deford's novel. At least you will discover that Louisianans have more fun being miserable, and accomplish it in suaver style, than Minnesotans do. This is the movie that asks, Is there life after the Sugar Bowl? Jan. 1, 1957: that's when Gavin Grey (Dennis Quaid) soldered his legend to his destiny by scoring his team's winning touchdown.