Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange
Celebrities in love, overanalyzed by a newly married woman.
The similarities between actress Jessica Lange and playwright, actor, and writer Sam Shepard, her partner for almost thirty years, abound, if you know where to look. Both come from small towns — Lange was born in Cloquet, Minnesota; Shepard was raised in Duarte, California. Both were born to volatile, alcoholic fathers, though Shepard’s relationship to his was doubtless more troubled. (His most famous plays — True West, The Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child — for which he won the Pulitzer Prize — and A Lie of the Mind all center on fractured families, dominated by drunken, often violent patriarchs.)
They were both wild in their twenties. Lange in Paris, where she moved to study with the mime Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau’s mentor; Shepard in New York, and then London, where he fled to escape an increasingly druggy scene. Both married early — she to Paco Grande in 1970, when she was 21; he to O-Lan Jones in 1963, when he was 26 and the bride was 19 — and then divorced. They love horses, are publicity shy (he more prominently than she), and have, quite purposely, stayed far away from Los Angeles. In past relationships, neither has been monogamous: Shepard had an affair with Patti Smith early in his marriage; when Shepard and Lange met, he was still with Jones, and she was dating Mikhail Baryshnikov. They seem, however, to have made an exception for each other. “It would never occur to me that Sam would be unfaithful,” Lange told Vanity Fair in 1991. And if he was: “I’d kill him.”
It isn’t hard to see what drew them to each other. They exhibit, on screen and in interviews, a similar kind of feral, sexual dynamism that is in part a product of reticence. It’s almost always more exciting to imagine that which is being withheld than to enjoy that which is offered freely. And they both — behind steely gazes and set jaws — deliberately project the act of withholding. (Though she is more likely, in any given performance, to show the viewer what lies beneath the cool exterior.) “He’s a great man, a natural man,” Lange told Vanity Fair, “which is rare. I’ve been with a lot of men and I’ve known a lot of men . . . none compare to Sam in terms of maleness.” In The Guardian, Shepard called Lange “astounding. One of the great things about her,” he continued, “aside from her natural beauty, which was remarkable, was her humbleness.” It’s harder to tell what pulled them apart. Shepard’s Guardian profile was published in 2010; in 2011, People Magazine reported that the couple had been separated for almost two years.
Shepard and Lange’s first meeting, on the set of the 1982 film Frances, was inauspicious. As Don Shewey reports in his biography, Sam Shepard, the pair was left alone in the director’s office; Lange had Shura, her one-year-old daughter with Baryshnikov, with her in a stroller. “We’re both terribly shy and we’re sitting there,” she explained. “Sam looked like he was ready to run out. We’re both very judgmental, so we were judging each other.” And yet, Lange still knew: “I had a feeling Sam and I were going to fall in love.”
They did. Soon after, a TV producer spotted them having dinner together in Hollywood. “I’d never seen anything like it in a restaurant,” Shewey quotes the producer. “They were literally attached to each other over the top of the table. They kept twisting around, holding hands, then a hand would go up the arm, into Jessica’s mouth. I don’t think a lot of eating was going on because her mouth was constantly full of his hand.” When photographers spotted them on another date, “Shepard blew his top: he screamed obscenities and slung his leather jacket at the paparazzi, whose blurry snaps of a wild-eyed guy with a contorted face and a blond woman with her hands over her mouth made the wire services the next day.”
This was the tenor of their affair, at least for the first few years. “When we were together,” Lange told Vanity Fair, “we were so wild — drinking, getting into fights, walking down the freeway trying to get away.” The violence of the passion was intoxicating, and then too intense — they broke up, briefly — and then undeniable. “He left his wife,” Lange explained. Shepard went to Iowa, where Lange was doing pre-production for Country, the second film in which they would co-star, “and we drove to New Mexico, and that’s where we settled.” (In the decades to come, they would live in Kentucky, Virginia, Minnesota, and, finally, New York.) In 1991, after just under a decade together, Lange confessed, “To me, it hasn’t settled in completely. Because of the obsessive nature of our beings, the passionate nature of our coming together — and it’s still there, the jealousy, the passion, the insanity.”
In the nineties, Shepard told The Guardian, he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. He quit drinking for four years. And then he “picked it up again.” In 2009, he was arrested in Normal, Illinois for drunk driving after police pulled him over for speeding; his blood alcohol content was twice the state’s legal limit. He was arrested again, in 2015, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the same charge, though it was dismissed later that year. It’s almost too neat an explanation: the two sides of a man’s personality doing destructive battle, as dramatized by the dueling brothers in True West; the ghosts of the past continuing to haunt, as in Buried Child.
There are other hints. “He’s not the kind of man who’s going to follow a woman around,” Lange told Vanity Fair. “He’s not going to pack his bags, sit on my location for three months, and twiddle with the kids.” (Shepard and Lange have two children together.) She spoke, in the same interview, of Shepard’s restlessness. He gets, Lange explained, “horse eyes.” In 1991, Lange admitted she too found “regular existence” palatable only a couple of months at a time — after that, “I’m ready to go mad. I can’t wait to go on location, start a movie, study a character — anything that gives me a release.”
By 2000, Lange was less interested in “interrupt[ing her] life” for her art. “If I can spend a half-hour before I’ve got to go to the set hanging out with my kids, or have a conversation with a friend on the set,” she explained, “I would rather do that than prepare for the scene.” It’s hard to imagine Shepard — who has acted in sixty or so films and written over fifty plays (to say nothing of his memoir or three collections of short stories) — uttering a similar sentence.
But these may be only red herrings. In the Guardian interview, apparently published (though possibly not conducted) after their split, Shepard mentions giving Lange gifts for Valentine’s Day: “Two really good bottles of wine. Really good ones. Oh, and a tape measure. Because she was putting up a painting.” He declares that they’re “an incredible match.” He swears Lange is “the only woman I could live with.” (Though he also wonders, “What other woman would put up with me?” which reads as a caveat.) But then, in the midst of praising Lange for her honesty, Shepard admits he can be less than truthful. “Men,” he says — and this reads not like a caveat but like an excuse — “lie all the time.”
There is something singularly painful about the breakup of a relationship late in life. Especially when the relationship was forged not in youth, but in maturity, after both partners were presumably done, to paraphrase Lange, burning out their cylinders. Especially when the reasons for its demise seem, to an observer at least, pitiably unoriginal: the woman content to spend time at home with her family; the man still in thrall to an addiction nurtured in younger, wilder days.
In his biography, Shewey quotes from a 1984 interview Shepard gave to London’s Sunday Times. The writer asked Shepard “why he thought country and western music is so invariably sad.” Shepard — who had recently left Jones for Lange — replied, “country music speaks of the true relationship between the American male and the American female.” That relationship is, per Shepard, “terrible and impossible.” Shepard was asked about that statement ten years later, in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s impossible,” he clarified, “the way people enter into it feeling they’re going to be saved by the other one . . . And of course that’s going to be a disappointment . . . In that sense, yeah, I think the illusions about it are impossible.” He claimed to have lost those illusions. Maybe he — or Lange — simply didn’t.
And maybe there’s still time for both to learn. Lange was in the audience for the premiere of the Broadway revival of — all too appropriately — Fool for Love late last year and “very much in evidence” at the after party.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter: @mmpopkey.