Long before she was Fiona Goode in American Horror Story: Coven, Jessica Lange was Dwan, the damsel in distress taken hostage in 1976’s King Kong.
The role was Jessica’s first in a major film. Before that point, she studied mime in France and modeled in New York City. She then stumbled into her breakthrough role when Barbra Streisand and Cher turned down the opportunity.
“I was so busy I didn’t even have time to be apprehensive, to wonder how well I could act,” she told Roger Ebert in 1976.
Despite her concerns, King Kong film was an immediate success, earning an impressive $80 million during its first six weeks.
Jessica also catapulted into star status — which was solidified when she won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture. She was also likened to actresses ranging from Margaux Hemingway to Eva Marie Saint to Marilyn Monroe. Even though that would have been music to many other young actress’ ears, Jessica told People in 1977 that she hated the comparisons — particularly the last one.
“That really upsets me,” Jessica said. “She was a tragic figure who led a tragic life and who wasn’t taken as the serious artist she was. I don’t want to compete with her memory or with anyone.”
Even though her career seemed to be getting off on a great note, Jessica and King Kong producer Dino De Laurentiis were still cognizant that they needed to pick her next role wisely — particularly because Jessica’s predecessor, Fay Wray, failed to parlay her King Kong role into a successful career.
“Jessica is already a great big star. But if the second movie doesn’t work, we are in trouble,” Dino told People in 1977, adding he recast Jessica in a King Kong sequel. That follow-up never happened. At least not with Jessica. (Dino filmed King Kong Lives in 1986, but it was a total flop.)
Instead, Jessica spent the next three years intensively studying acting and improving her skills. She reemerged in 1979’s critically acclaimed All That Jazz and went on to win her first Academy Award for 1982’s Tootsie… And the rest is cinematic history!