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Looking Back on Jessica Lange’s First Scream Queen Turn in ‘King Kong’

Looking Back on Jessica Lange’s First Scream Queen Turn in ‘King Kong’

It’s hard to imagine, but Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange was a model with no big acting aspirations before King Kong. Legend has it that producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted a newcomer in the female lead of his $24-million blockbuster meant to eclipse 1975’s Jaws. A massive campaign was launched to find a starlet that could rival Fay Wray in the 1933 original King Kong. Eventually, they zeroed in on Lange.

From there, it was a whirlwind. A rival studio meant to also remake Kong for the 70s. This meant production had to be streamlined.

“The moment I was signed,” Lange told film critic Roger Ebert in 1976, “things started happening. Dino was in a race with Universal at that time to see who could make ‘King Kong‘ first. I was so busy I didn’t even have time to be apprehensive, to wonder how well I could act. And there were times, I think, although nobody would admit it, when we all had our doubts that the movie would ever actually be completed.”

Looking back, perhaps Jessica Lange’s reservations were rooted in some of the notorious problems the King Kong production had. Dino De Laurentiis famously proclaimed that his giant ape would be the real deal. He said the film would boast a 40-foot-tall animatronic ape designed by E.T. creature effects guru, Carlo Rambaldi. The contraption didn’t really work and is only shown in a handful of awkward shots. The bulk of Kong’s scenes are the work of monster maker Rick Baker, who himself donned an expressive ape suit he designed for the role.

Jessica Lange Used King Kong’s Rough Hydraulic Hand in Her Performance

Of course, one large animatronic was used in several key scenes: Kong’s gigantic hydraulic hand. The massive King Kong prop was used to hoist Jessica Lange as high as 40ft up in the air. This led to a somewhat infamous scene in which Kong holds Lange under a waterfall, drenching her. In a scene that dances from camp to erotic, the behemoth then blows on the blonde acting ingenue.

jessica-langes-first-scream-queen-turn-in-king-kong
(Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

However, Kong’s hand wasn’t as gentle as it was depicted in the film. “Once [the hand] was supposed to crush me, and he almost did. Once he was supposed to pat me on the head, and he almost knocked me out,” she told Ebert.

Surprisingly, she used Kong’s rough treatment for her role. “I got bruises and pinches and pokes, and I looked scared to death half the time, which was fine because I was supposed to be projecting fear.”

Despite being poorly received and considered a flop, King Kong marked a turning point for Lange. In the aftermath, she devoted three years to refining her craft through intensive acting classes. Her perseverance paid off when she triumphantly clinched an Oscar six years later for her more grounded performance in Tootsie. She would win the Academy Award again in 1994 for her turn in Blue Sky.

She also used her scream queen acting roots to great use across several seasons of American Horror Story. The series, which features even more camp than the 1976 King Kong, introduced her to a new generation of fans. She won a Golden Globe for her first season with the show in 2011, earning three more nominations afterward.