Jessica Lange survives one new film, scores in the other

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How sweet it is to have just one such moment in life. How bitter to have it early, and then be forced to rerun it ad nauseam, until the triumph turns into sitcom. Bitter for Gavin, for the luminous Babs, for their bookworm nephew Donnie (Timothy Hutton) and their lumbering pal Lawrence (John Goodman). The story meanders through 25 years of the changing South -- civil rights, women's rights, the capricious kingdom of celebrity -- and ends in 1981, but its moral should catch in many a yuppie throat. The price of pursuing eternal youth is catching it, like a cold you can never shake. Especially for the eternally adolescent male. Games, after all, are what men play with themselves.

Movies have trod this turf once or twice before; the mid-'50s were rife with such sprawling family sagas (Giant, Written on the Wind). And it might seem as if such broad emotions, such guileless ironies, have no place in our blandly cynical age. But Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) strides easily among movie cliches. His gift is to play them as if they're all new and all true. And this time he has a cast to lend them flesh and nuance. Quaid creates a genuine pathetic hero, first exuding charm, then marketing it. And Hutton, in the thankless role of Gavin's conscience and Babs' would-be lover, makes his clammy patience and docile come-ons darned near authentic.

As the one character who grows and doesn't just calcify, Lange brings wily zest to each step in Babs' coming-out party. She can toss dewy-eyed soul into a line like "I just want to be Mrs. Gavin Grey" -- all ardor, no condescension. She can bear, with a smoldering fuse, the later ordeal of player's wife and baby factory. She can tease Donnie while ironizing her flirtation: "It's every Southern mama's legacy to her daughter." She can seize control of her own life and still stand by her man. Gavin may have embodied, as the film suggests, "everything that the South wanted to believe about itself." But as she matures in this role, Lange comes close to embodying everything a modern woman hopes to see in the mirror of her hard- earned self-esteem.

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