Jessica Phyllis Lange was born on April 20, 1949 to her parents Dorothy Florence Sahlman and Albert John Lange in Cloquet, Minnesota. Her mother was a housewife, while her father was a teacher, as well as a traveling salesman. She is of Finnish, German, and Dutch ancestory. Jessica is the second youngest of four siblings, which include: Jane, Ann, and George. Because her father traveled for work, her family had moved over a dozen times around Minnesota before returning to Clpquet, where she graduated high school. Jessica received a scholarship at the University of Minnesota in 1967 to study art and photography. That year, Jessica dropped out of college to travel the United States and Mexico with Spanish photographer, Francisco Paco Grande. They moved to Paris after that, where she began studying mime theatre and joined the Opera-Comique as a dancer. Jessica studied mime for two years and eventually perked her interest in acting. She was discovered by fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez and became a model for the modeling agency Wilhelmina. When she returned to the US, she started studying acting at HB Studio in New York City while waitressing at Lion’s Head Tavern in Greenwich Village.
Jessica was discovered by Dino De Laurentiis, who was looking for a fresh face for the 1976 remake of King Kong, where she would make her Hollywood film debut, playing the role of Dwan. Jessica ended up beating out actresses Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn for the role. With the film’s success, she received a review from film critic Pauline Kael writing, “the movie is sparked by Jessica Lange’s fast yet dreamy comic style. She has the high, wide forehead and clear-eyed transparency of Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, and one liners so dumb that the audience laughs and moans at the same time, yet they’re in character, and when Lange says them she holds the eye and you like her, the way people liked Lombard.” She ended up winning the 1976 Golden Globe Awards for New Star of the Year. Jessica’s next film came in 1979, where she played Angelique in the musical All That Jazz, also starring Roy Scheider and Ann Reinking. She began the 1980s in the crime comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living, playing Louise. The next year, she portrayed Cora Papadakis in the remake of the romantic drama The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film received mixed reviews, but Jessica received high praise for her performance. In 1982, she starred opposite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, playing the role of Julie, which earned her an Oscar and Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The romantic comedy follows Michael Dorsey, who disguises himself as a woman to get a role on a trashy hospital soap. She would next play the title role of Frances Farmer in Graeme Clifford’s biographical drama Frances. The film earned Jessica Best Actress nominations for the Golden Globes and Oscars, and she earned the Best Actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Jessica would go on to play the role of Maggie in the television movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Tommy Lee Jones, in 1984 before starring alongside Sam Shepard in the drama Country, as Jewell Ivy. Country earned her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations fro Best Actress in 1985. In Sweet Dreams, Jessica portrayed the legendary country singer Patsy Cline opposite Ed Harris and John Goodman. The film earned her a fourth Oscar nomination in as many years. Though Meryl Streep begged for the role in the film, she praised Jessica’s performance, stating her performance was “beyond wonderful” and she “couldn’t imagine doing it as well or even coming close to what Jessica did because she was so amazing in it.” Jessica’s next film was the comedic drama Crimes of the Heart in 1986, where she portrayed Meg Magrath next to Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek. In 1988, she would play Kate in Far North, and Babs in Everybody’s All-American. In 1989, she played Ann Talbot, a Hungarian lawyer defending her father of Nazi war crimes, in Music Box. The film earned her yet another nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and Oscars. In 1990, she starred alongside Kathy Bates in the film Men Don’t Leave as Beth Macauley. The film earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the National Society of Film Critics Awards. The next year came starring in the Martin Scorsese thriller Cape Fear alongside Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, and Juliette Lewis. In 1992, Jessica starred as Alexandra Bergson in the television movie O Pioneers!, a film about her character inheriting the family farm and struggles to carve a home and fortunate from the prairie. The film earned Jessica yet another Golden Globe nomination, this time for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. Later that year, she portrayed Helen Nasseros in the crime drama, opposite Robert De Niro, Night and the City. Also in 1992, she made her Broadway debut as Blache DuBois in a production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Alec Baldwin.
In 1994, Jessica starred as Carly Marshall in the romantic drama Blue Sky, opposite Tommy Lee Jones. The film earned her Best Actress awards at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, as well as her first Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Jessica became the second actress, after Meryl Streep, to follow a Best Supporting Actress Oscar with a Best Actress Oscar, an achievement not repeated until nearly 20 years later by Cate Blanchett. The next year, she played the role of Margaret Lewin in the drama Losing Isaiah, opposite Halle Berry. The film is about the biological and adoptive mothers of a young boy involved in a bitter and controversial custody battle. Later that year, she played Mary in the film Rob Roy and a television release of her Broadway performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1997, Jessica starred alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in an adaptation of “King Lear” in A Thousand Acres, as Ginny Cook Smith. The film earned her yet another Golden Globe nomination for her role, as well as winning the Best Actress category with her co-stars at the Verona Love Screens Film Festival. Next, Jessica starred opposite Gwenyth Paltrow in the thriller Hush; the film received generally negative reviews, but Roger Ebert praised her performance writing, “the film’s most intriguing element is the performance by Jessica Lange, who by not going over the top provides Martha with a little pathos to leaven the psychopathology.” Later that year, she starred in Cousin Bette, as Bette, about a lonely seamstress who tried to ingratiate herself into her brother-in-law’s life after her sister dies. She would also lend her voice for the first time as The Swan Princess in an episode of “Stories from My Childhood”. 1999 brought the film Titus, where Jessica received strong reviews of her performance, based on William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus. The film co-starred Anthony Hopkins and Alan Cumming.
Leaning into the next decade, Jessica was on the London stage for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, playing Mary Tyrone. She became the fist American actress to receive an Olivier Award nomination. She played Mrs. Wurtzel in Prozac Nation, a biographical drama co-starring Christina Ricci and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in 2001. 2003 began with the HBO television movie Normal, directed by Jane Anderson and based off of her play. Jessica played Irma Applewood, opposite Tom Wilkinson and also starred Hayden Panettiere. Later, she was Nina Veronica in Masked and Anonymous, a dramatic comedy written and co-starred Bob Dylan. The fantasy drama Big Fish came next, where she played the elder version of Sandra Bloom. She would next return to Broadway in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie before her next film Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, as Carmen. Also in 2003, she portrayed Doreen in Don’t Come Knocking and Neverwas as Katherine Pierson. In 2006, the comedic drama Bonneville was next up, where Jessica played Arvilla Holden, starring alongside Kathy Bates and Joan Allen, then starred alongside Tammy Blanchard in the 2007 television remake of Sybil, as Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. In 2009, she starred opposite Drew Barrymore as Big Edie in the HBO film Grey Gardens, based on the 1975 documentary by the same name. The film was a success and Jessica won her first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, along with Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. In 2008, the published her first book, filled with a collection of her black-and-white photographs, 50 Photographs by powerHouse Books. The next year, an exhibition of her photography and film work was presented at the George Eastman House – the oldest international museum of photography and film. She received the first George Eastman Honors Award, an award given to an artist whose life work embodies the traditions and values. Jessica published her second collection In Mexico.
Her next role would become Jessica’s first recurring role on a television show, on FX’s “American Horror Story”, playing multiple roles throughout its seasons, beginning in 2011. Series co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk originally wrote her part as a supporting character, but after she acquired the role, they expanded it considerably. Murphy, a long-time admirer of Jessica, stated that he chose her because he wanted to expose her work to a new generation of viewers. Jessica was chosen by TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and MTV for giving one of the “best performances of 2011.” She won her second Primetime Emmy Award, her fifth Golden Globe, as well as her first Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance. Jessica’s next film role came as Rita Thornton in the film adaption of the Nicholas Sparks book The Vow, which starred Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, in 2012. The next year, she would portray Madame Raquin in the crime drama film In Secret, based off of the novel by Emile Zola. She received rave reviews starring alongside Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, and Oscar Isaac. In 2013, she published her first children’s book of photography, It’s About a Little Bird and had an exhibition at Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum the next year. In 2014, she began with being honored with a nomination for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was also recognized with the L’Oreal de Paris Legend Award, and also became the first female recipient of the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film, which was presented to her by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. She became the new face of Marc Jacobs Beauty, with the summer and fall campaigns. Jessica was a part of a video short named Scorsese’s Women in 2014 as one of his stars before heading back to the silver screen in the Mark Wahlberg-led film The Gambler, playing Roberta.
During the fourth season of “American Horror Story”, Jessica covered David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters” for the show were both hugely popular, receiving heavy circulation on YouTube and charting in the top 50 on the iTunes music charts. She would announce that she wouldn’t be returning for the series’ fifth season. In 2016, Jessica was credited as Marsha in the web mini-series “Horace and Pete” before starring alongside Demi Moore as Maddie in Wild Oats. The film premiered on Lifetime on August 22nd before having a limited theatrical release on September 16th. Jessica returned to Broadway again for a revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night at the American Airlines Theatre, alongside Michael Shannon. She earned her first Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, along with countless other accolades. On November 12, 2016, she was honored at the Camerimage Film Festival, where she was awarded the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award for Acting. In 2017, Jessica portrayed Joan Crawford in the television mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan”. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG Award, Critics Choice Award, and TCA Award for her performance as Joan Crawford. She was also honored by the Trinity Repertory Company’s Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts on May 23, 2017, as well as the Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theater by the Roundabout Theater Company. Jessica reprised her role on “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” for two episodes before being cast opposite Gwenyth Paltrow for the Netflix series “The Politcian” as Dusty Jackson, which premiered on the streaming service on September 27, 2019. With her reprisal on “American Horror Story: Apocalypse”, she received her tenth Primetime Emmy nomination. Jessica would also publish her fourth photography book, Highway 61, comprised of photographs of US Route 61.
Other than photography, she enjoys gardening. Jessica is quote the humanitarian, being a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – beginning in 2003, specializing in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Congo and in spreading the awareness of the disease in Russia. She has been a human rights supporter of the Buddhist monks in Nepal. In the early 1990s, Jessica fostered a Romanian child with disabilities, and also joined the opposition to Minnesota’s wolf hunt.
Jessica has three children: Aleksandra “Shura” Baryshnikov, born in 1981, with former ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov; and Hannah Jane Shepard (born in 1985) and Samuel Walker Shepard (born in 1987), with actor/playwright Sam Shepard. She also has two granddaughters, Adah and Ilse Bryan, from Aleksandra and her husband Bruce Bryan.