Jessica Lange has a great talent for acting and an Oscar to prove it. She has versatile good looks that allow her to play sexy or wholesome with equal credibility. And she has a house in the country, where she raises her three children with writer Sam Shepard, a man who seems to correspond to Everywoman’s ideal of the ruggedly handsome American male. But this month, Lange has the misfortune of starring in a pair of dreadful movies, each a distinctly fascinating failure in its own right. The two pictures could not be more dissimilar.
Everybody’s All-American is Hollywood to the hilt—a romantic epic that stars Lange as a southern belle hitched to a football hero played by Dennis Quaid. Far North, the first movie directed by Shepard, is a dumb art film about a horse. Lange plays a farmer’s daughter who tries to shoot the animal, which injured her father. Apparently no one, Lange included, had the nerve to question Shepard’s judgment: he developed the script while convalescing after being thrown from a horse during a polo match.
The two movies suffer from opposite sorts of self-indulgence. Everybody’s All-American is an unabashed soap opera that exploits nostalgia for America’s lost heroism.
Far North is an absurdist lament for the lost honor and eccentricity of rural life.
Equipped with every cliché in the Hollywood playbook,
Everybody’s All-American was directed by Taylor Hackford, whose previous romantic dramas—An Officer and a Gentleman má Against All Odds—seem almost spartan by comparison. Bridging the conservatism of the 1980s with that of the 1950s, Everybody’s All-American tracks its characters over three dec-
ades. The story begins in 1956, the year that Gavin (Quaid), a Louisiana running back nicknamed the Gray Ghost, triumphs as an All-American while his college
sweetheart, Babs (Lange), is proclaimed Magnolia Queen. They seem the perfect couple, and Gavin’s insecure nephew, Donnie (Timothy Hutton), idolizes both of them. Gavin marries Babs and moves on to a career in professional football, while Donnie stays single and becomes a successful academic. Over the years, as Gavin’s body gives out, he is left facing a future as a washed-up athlete. Meanwhile, his restless wife becomes enamored of Donnie, an intellectual in tune with the changing times.
Everybody’s All-American is like a lugubrious class reunion that never ends. As the years pass, Quaid’s jowls grow progressively fatter with layers of makeup. For Hutton, aging has its main effect on facial hair, which shifts from beard to goatee to moustache. Lange, aside from some changes in hairstyle and wardrobe, looks much the same regardless of the decade. There are some moments of fine acting. Beefy John Goodman, the star of TV’s Roseanne, adds a hint of comic relief as a charming racist who wonders, “What in the hell is better than playing
football?” And in extremely
unfavorable circumstances, Quaid turns in an admirable performance.
But none of the cast stands a chance against
the inane script. With a straight face, Quaid has to deliver such lines as, “Look Babs, I don’t get all mushy over babies.” And Hutton, who has the job of reminding the audience which decade is being portrayed, displays great prescience with such aphorisms as, “We’re on the wrong side of history.” Lange is stuck with lines that
make her sound as if she has overdosed on mint juleps. “I don’t want to be like all the others,” Babs tells Gavin in her sweet southern drawl. “I don’t care about being Miss Louisiana, Miss America, Miss anything. I just want to be yours.” As slickly produced as a Rose Bowl Parade, Everybody’s All-American is a great,
clanking machine of all-star stereotypes. What is most remarkable is that Hackford plays them straight up the middle, without a touch of irony.
There is no shortage of irony in Far North, but there is little else. The story is a writer’s conceit that might have looked amusing on the page but fails to make much sense on the screen. Although much of the drama takes place outdoors, in a bleak Minnesota landscape, the movie has the precious quality of a stage play so oblique that only the actors fully understand it. Lange is cast as the daughter of a character played by Charles Durning, who also portrayed her father in Tootsie. Bertrum (Durning) is laid up after a runaway horse pulls him and his wagon off the road. From his hospital bed, he vows revenge and instructs his daughter Kate (Lange) to shoot the horse. Kate is at first horrified by the suggestion, but under pressure from her incorrigible father, she agrees to carry out the deed. Back at the farm, Kate’s stubborn sister, Rita (Tess Harper), tries everything to stop her.
Too often, Far North’s quirky humor is diluted by sentiment. Lacking the bite of the black comedies that Shepard has written for the stage—including Fool for Love and True West—the movie is an absurdist fable about a family in search of itself. Everyone, including the horse, gets lost in the woods. And so does the audience. As for Lange, she is no better off as a farmer’s daughter than as an all-American wife.
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