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The Highs and Lows of Being Blanche

October 29, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since she was a teen-ager, Jessica Lange has been transfixed by Blanche DuBois, Tennesee Williams' tragic heroine from his landmark 1947 play "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"There has never been a part that has ever fascinated me like Blanche," says Lange, who first discovered the character while in high school in Minnesota. "I think maybe for a man it's 'Hamlet'--an actor feels this need , this desire , this incredible compulsion to play 'Hamlet.' I am sure most actresses feel that way about Blanche. I know I surely did."

In 1992, she fulfilled her long desire to explore the character when she played Blanche opposite Alec Baldwin on Broadway. Now the two have reunited for Sunday's "CBS Playhouse 90s" presentation of "Streetcar."

The three-hour drama marks the first time the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been filmed intact. The classic 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando was modified because of censorship constraints of the era. A pivotal rape scene near the end and references to Blanche's young husband's homosexuality were watered down and the ending was altered. Because ABC's 1984 movie starring Ann-Margret and Treat Williams was based on the 1951 screenplay, it, too, did not reflect Williams' original writing.

Lange's Blanche is a fragile, unstable woman who comes to New Orleans' French Quarter to stay with her younger sister Stella (played by Diane Lane) and her brute of a husband Stanley Kowalski (Baldwin) after she loses the family home in Mississippi. Stella loves and wants to protect Blanche, who, as do many of Williams' heroines, lives in a dream world.

Stanley, however, perceives Blanche as a liar and troublemaker and resents that she lost the family home. Blanche's only gentleman caller is Mitch (John Goodman), Stanley's naive poker buddy, who lives with his ailing mother.

The original production took Broadway by storm and so did its stars. Another famous Jessica--Jessica Tandy--received the Tony Award for her portrayal of Blanche. A 23-year-old Brando became an overnight sensation as Stanley; Kim Hunter played Stella and Karl Malden was Mitch. The 1951 version garnered Oscars for Leigh's Blanche, as well as for Hunter and Malden. Though Brando received an Oscar nomination, he lost out to Humphrey Bogart for "The African Queen."

While doing the play on Broadway three years ago, Lange says there were discussions about filming the production. "For one reason or another it just never came together," she says. "I was so glad that it didn't happen because that time away from it, you know, kind of let everything settle in. Do you know what I mean? It was like everything settled down and gave us enough time to come back to it and still know it, know it deep down in your bones. But you could approach it in a way that was completely fresh."

The 46-year-old mother of three is sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. She's just finished a pasta lunch with her publicist and is eager to talk about her "Streetcar." For the next 30 minutes, Lange speaks passionately and fervently about the project. Of course, there are a few interruptions. One woman, the sister of the choreographer of "Blue Sky," the movie that won Lange best actress Oscar this year, stops by and introduces herself. A fan sitting at the next table tells an appreciative Lange how much she admires her work.

Lange, who won a best supporting Oscar for playing the object of Dustin Hoffman's affection in 1982's "Tootsie," received mixed reviews on Broadway for "Streetcar." In the CBS version, though, she inhabits the heart and soul of Blanche.

"To tell you the truth, to be able to do it on film was really a thrill," Lange says with a smile. "I like working in front of the camera. It gives me much more to do. I am sure that there are stage actors who vehemently disagree with me, but I find it much more liberating to work in front of a camera because it's so intimate and personal. The work feels more natural."

Lange says she didn't change her approach to Blanche, but rather honed her performance. "Because of the intimacy of doing it on film, I was able to do a lot more than I did on stage," she explains. Although she did much of that on stage, "it just doesn't come across on stage," she says/

She was overjoyed that Glenn Jordan, who directed her in the Emmy-nominated "O, Pioneers!" directed the CBS prodution.

"He was just the perfect person to do it with. He understood the play very well. He had done it before on stage long ago,"she says with enthusiasm.

There were certain things in the stage production, directed by Gregory Mosher, that bothered her. "Some of the staging, some of the music. Some things were never done properly. After you do it for a while, those things, rather than let it go and forget it, bother you."

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