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Sisters in Arms

Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange star as siblings in a dysfunctional-family drama set on a farm. But don't call 'A Thousand Acres,' an updated version of 'King Lear,' a 'chick flick.'

September 14, 1997|Eric Gutierrez | Eric Gutierrez is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer have been on the lookout for each other for five years. Two of the most compelling actresses of the '80s and '90s had long recognized something familiar under the skin of each other's work, but could never find quite the right project for both their formidable talents--until "A Thousand Acres," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, was brought to their attention.

Directed by Australian Jocelyn Moorhouse ("Proof," "How to Make an American Quilt") for Disney and opening Friday, "A Thousand Acres" is "King Lear" set in rural Iowa, with all the passion, secrets and betrayals, except told from Regan and Goneril's point of view. The story of the sisters, renamed Rose and Ginny in the Smiley book and film, is less about the dissolution of a family and their farm than about shedding one's demons, walking through fire and breaking destructive family chains for the generations to come. Shakespeare meets Oprah in a classic tear-jerker made all the more epic for the talents of Jason Robards as the tyrannical farming patriarch and Jennifer Jason Leigh as little sister Caroline. Keith Carradine plays Ginny's salt-of-the-earth husband, Kevin Anderson plays Rose's disillusioned husband, and Colin Firth is a childhood friend of the sisters whose return home further fractures the divided family.

Given that both Pfeiffer, 40, and Lange, 48, have two sisters, their personal sibling dynamics illuminated their performances. As Rose, Pfeiffer turns from the cool sophistication of her most celebrated roles for a performance informed by fire, anger and sexual hurt. Lange, as elder sister and narrator Ginny, leaves behind the roiling sensuality of her star-making turn in "Frances" and Oscar-winning role in 1994's "Blue Sky" for a character more vulnerable and self-contained.

Lange enters the presidential suite of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, daughter Hannah in tow, immediately mounting the suite's spiral staircase with large, athletic strides before heading back down. "Ooh, nice. I guess your movie has to gross $37 million on opening weekend to get to stay here," she laughs. Small-town Minnesota lights up her features.

Pfeiffer fixes herself a cup of coffee and curls into the corner of a sofa. Her handshake is firm, the gaze direct and calm, as if testing the odds of connecting with someone genuine.

Together, they turn into cheerleaders for each other's talent, before taking on sisterhood, the American family, privacy in the media and the definition of "chick flick." Once on a conversational roll, they finish each other's thoughts, exchange some deadpan humor and laugh only if the joke's any good.

Question: You've been trying to work together for five years. What's the rush?

Jessica Lange: I don't know. I always felt this kind of familiarity with Michelle, even though we really didn't know each other. Who knew this would come up? It was the perfect material for us to do together. It's got two great women's roles of equal stature.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I have such admiration for Jessica as an actress. Early in my career I actually saw myself going in the same direction. [touching Lange's hand] I don't think I ever told you this but. . . .

JL: [leaning back, mock-wary] Uh-oh. What?

MP: I was working on "Scarface" at the time [in 1982], scared out of my mind. Every day for the six months this movie went on I got blonder and skinnier. By the time the movie was over I was so terrified of Al [Pacino]. Since then we've done "Frankie and Johnnie," but then it was a whole different thing. I couldn't even speak in his presence.

He came into the makeup trailer one day and said, "I just saw the most incredible performance by this actress called Jessica Lange in 'Frances.' " And I went, "Oh, really?" Because it didn't take much to intimidate me at the time. Of course I ran out and saw it immediately and I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Q: So how was it when you finally got to work together?

MP: For me, it was a difficult movie with a lot of obstacles to overcome, but the one thing that was constant was the joy of working together. It was so effortless.

JL: We didn't have any rehearsal time to prepare. I showed up in Illinois and we saw each other for the first time the first day of shooting. There was all the tension and hassle at the beginning of any shoot, where everybody's a little suspicious. I didn't have wardrobe, I didn't have a wig or anything. It was just nuts. [Pfeiffer nods emphatically.] Everything was in complete turmoil but from the very first moment, the one thing I took comfort in that felt right and good was the work we were doing together.

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