Fangirl Fridays – American Horror Story’s Daring Divas

American Horror Story has ushered in a new era in high-quality TV suspense, oddball characters, twisting plot lines, and genuine, honest-to-goodness, spine-tingling horror. It’s also audacious, outrageous, quirky, and totally unpredictable — and one of my very favorite shows!!

AHS excels at using a recurring set of performers to portray completely different characters in a completely different era, setting, and story each season. At its core is a stellar and versatile cast, which includes some highly acclaimed, scenery-chewing, scene-stealing ladies of the limelight.

I think this strong ensemble of actresses deserves a big round of applause! They are varied, multifaceted, and include high-powered veterans, rising stars, and occasional guest divas. At the center of the show’s maelstrom of madness and mania is AHS’s reigning queen, Jessica Lange — around whom all the others revolve.

Haunting our dreams with many faces: Jessica Lange,
Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Sarah Paulson

Sometimes I’m still amazed that talent of this caliber “condescends” to appear in horror roles, and that great creative teams produce stories worthy of their formidable skills! For many years, horror was mostly relegated to cheeeeeesy matinees with tacky special effects, and it was hard to get my “fix”. So I deeply appreciate the lengths to which these lovely ladies (and everyone else working on the show) go each year to keep us riveted to the edge of our seats for another season — with poise and panache.

So let’s strap on our straightjackets and take a look at some of the memorable tirades and trash talking, temptresses and taskmistresses that make this show so compelling and just plain fun! (I’ll try to minimize spoilers, and I have no clue what’s going on this season!)

Four Seasons of Fantastic Females

AHS is a seasonal anthology series. It builds a new world from scratch, with entirely different characters, each year. But many of the same character archetypes show up repeatedly: the aging, glamorous diva, the vulnerable young ingenue, the sinister serial killer, the badass bitches, the charmers and con artists and caretakers.

Sister Jude knows what she’s talking about
Like genre pioneers that I used to watch growing up — Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night GalleryAHS provides an unconventional platform from which to explore deeper moral issues. Or simply scare the heck out of us. It illustrates again and again that the really scary monsters are lurking where we least suspect them. And it does not pussyfoot around. It goes DARK and DARKER, BLOODIER and BIZARRE-IER, and sometimes completely BATSHIT.

It takes performers with immense presence to counterbalance this much crazy. Fortunately, AHS’s magnificent cast is up to the challenge. I’d like to give a big shout out here to the men of AHS, who perhaps deserve a post of their own some day because they are awesome. But we are Saucy Wenches, so I’m going to focus on some of the sassy and saucily delicious roles dished up by the gals over the years.

The supporting sirens

Jessica Lange might be billed as the show’s star (and she is awesome!), but she can’t do it all by herself. It’s the combined talents of a brilliant ensemble cast (and production team) that make AHS such a success. Many of the cast members come and go through the different seasons. Here are some terrific performances by the recurring actresses who are not Jessica Lange.

Season 1: Murder House

A family recovering from tragedy and betrayal moves across the country, emotional baggage in tow, to start a new life in Los Angeles, California, 2011. Their new house turns out to be haunted by a long and eccentric list of former inhabitants and their victims, a list that keeps growing. The creepy neighbor Constance, who keeps hanging around, might know something about why.

Billie Dean Howard – Sarah Paulson
A medium summoned by the creepy neighbor to help the family’s daughter, Violet, understand what’s going on in her house. She also shares some secrets with Constance about the end of days, which come back to haunt viewers.

You might recognize Paulson from her previous roles in Deadwood, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Golden Globe Award nomination), and Game Change (Emmy and Golden Globe nominations). I saw her recently in 12 Years A Slave.

Nora Montgomery – Lily Rabe
Young mother with a heartbreakingly horrendous and poignant past who haunts the house in search of her lost child.

Lily Rabe is a Tony-nominated, Shakespearean stage actress and the daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late (and wonderful) actress Jill Clayburgh.

Moira Kelly – Alexandra Breckinridge/Frances Conroy
Housemaid who appears to men as young and sexy but to women as older and matronly. The younger incarnation is a bit of a bitch and a tease, but the older one befriends the new lady of the house and becomes her immortal ally.

Breckinridge has appeared in movies (She’s the Man) and television shows (including season 4 of True Blood). She’s also a voice artist, who most notably performs a multitude of voices on Family Guy, and an accomplished photographer.

Conroy’s signature mousy delivery and knack for imbuing characters with quirkiness and an elusive, ethereal quality are perfectly suited to this series. I first saw her in HBO’s Six Feet Under, as Ruth Fisher, long-suffering matriarch of a family who runs a funeral parlor. (Here and here are a couple of fun rant scenes, and here is what passes for family dinner conversation around the Fisher table.)

For this role, Conroy was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress (which her co-star Jessica Lange won) and a Saturn Award for Best Actress.

Violet Harmon – Taissa Farmiga
Depressed and rebellious teenage daughter of the new home owners, who struggles with suicidal thoughts and befriends her ghostly cohabitants.

Taissa had no interest in acting until her older sister, Vera Farmiga (Up In the Air, Bates Motel), persuaded Taissa to appear in her directorial debut, Higher Ground. Taissa then appeared as the daughter of her sister’s character in At Middleton. Taissa’s first real audition was for AHS.

Addie Langdon – Jamie Brewer
The creepy neighbor’s young daughter, who has Down syndrome and wrestles with the limitations it presents and the abuse it evokes from others.

In addition to acting, Jamie advocates politically for the Down Syndrome community in the state of Texas.

And I’d like to nominate for a recurring role... Since she’s not busy with House of Cards anymore...

Hayden McClain – Kate Mara
Emotionally unstable former student (and lover) of the new man of the house, who shows up to wreak havoc on the family. Because apparently there can never be enough havoc or too many ghosts in this house.

Random Real Life character...

The Black Dahlia – Mena Suvari
One of the household ghosts who met an unfortunate end here over the years. This one is based on a real-life murder victim, perhaps to tie the story to Real Life and make it seem more realistic. Just in case it wasn’t scary enough already.

Season 2: Asylum

A reporter is involuntarily committed to Briarcliff, a mental institution for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, 1964. It’s run by a sadistic nun who is haunted by her past. While she seeks redemption for her own sins by punishing the patients, others in the asylum are busy with their own horrifying agendas.

Lana Winters — Sarah Paulson
Journalist who unearths unsavory secrets that Sister Jude would prefer remain hidden and is committed against her will to “treat” her lesbian sexual orientation. She is subjected to bizarre forms of therapy by a demented doctor with major mother issues, whom she must outwit as she seeks her escape. And unfortunately, he isn’t the only demented doctor in the building.

For this role, Paulson won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Movie/Miniseries and the Saturn Award for Best Actress on Television. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.

Sister Mary Eunice McKee — Lily Rabe
Naïve young nun who is easily duped by her co-workers into doing their dirty work, she claims to be possessed by the Devil, wreaks havoc on the asylum, and plots to overthrow the Pope. She had some great scenes! And AHS just announced as I write this that Sister Mary will be back during the current season 4!

For this role, Rabe was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Movie/Miniseries, which her co-star Sarah Paulson won.

Shachath: The Angel of Death — Frances Conroy
The black-winged personification of Death, who bestows the Kiss of Death upon dying characters who accept her offer.

Pepper — Naomi Grossman
An inmate suffering from a neurological disorder that causes reduced intellectual capability. Accused of murdering her sister’s baby, she is kidnapped by aliens and receives some surprising enhancements.

Pepper is the only character who appears in more than one season of AHS. [News Flash: No, she’s not! AHS just announced that Sister Mary Eunice will join her on season 4!! And that all the seasons are related, so maybe more characters will appear in multiple seasons going forward!!] Look at the amazing transformation that this actress undergoes for her role!

Random Real Life character...

Anne Frank — Franka Potente
Inmate who claims that she is the famous diarist, she survived the Holocaust, and she knows secrets about one of the evil doctors at the asylum that he does not want revealed.

Just for fun...

Here’s one fan’s slideshow of over-the-top season 2 awesomeness (Warning: SPOILERS! And graphic, gratuitous grossness!): The 10 Most Insane, F*cked Up Moments From ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’!

Season 3: Coven

Young witches at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, led by Supreme Fiona Goode, defend themselves against attack and attrition (and zombies! and infamous serial killers!) in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2013. They also have to figure out who the new generation’s Supreme will be, if they can get the current one to step aside and the potential replacements to stop pitching magical temper tantrums.

This was the least coherent season for me, as far as the story goes, but it was a delightful smorgasbord of camptastic lunacy by the show’s regulars and a few new gals.

Cordelia Foxx – Sarah Paulson
Long-suffering daughter of the current Supreme who wants to spread her own wings, so to speak, and get out from under her controlling mother’s thumb.

For this role, Paulson was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Movie/Miniseries, which her co-star Jessica Lange won.

Misty Day – Lily Rabe
Young witch who can communicate with and resurrect the dead. She prefers to live alone as a quasi-hippie-earth-child, twirling around in her gauzy, flowing layers, á la Stevie Nicks from her Gypsy days. Misty idolizes Stevie Nicks and faints dead away upon meeting her.

Zoe Benson – Taissa Farmiga
Shy young witch who has no idea she’s a witch until her first sexual partner’s brain begins to hemorrhage uncontrollably. Once she realizes that she has this special “talent,” she enrolls in the Academy in hopes of learning to handle it and avoid jail.

Nan – Jamie Brewer
Young telekinetic and possibly clairvoyant witch who can read the thoughts of others and force them to do really yucky things. Though the other gals at the Academy tend to underestimate her, she proves herself a strong contender.

Myrtle Snow – Frances Conroy
Gloriously eccentric and fashionably flamboyant head of the Witches Council (and former student at the Academy), who investigates reports of misdeeds at the Academy and indulges in an ongoing feud with Fiona. This zany character is an absolute hoot. I would say she steals every scene she’s in, but that’s hard to do when you’re facing off with Jessica Lange.

For this role, Conroy was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie, which her co-star Kathy Bates won.

Madison Montgomery – Emma Roberts
Spoiled former actress and all-round bitch witch who is convinced she is the next Supreme and has no qualms about backstabbing, boyfriend stealing, and knocking off anyone who gets in her way.

Kaylee – Alexandria Breckenridge
Young witch with poorly controlled pyrokinetic powers who tries to repress her powers and lead a normal family life rather than join Miss Robichaux’s Academy. She just wants to be loved like a normal gal.

Millie – Grace Gummer
Former Supreme at the Academy who organized and led her coven members in an attack on a local serial killer. Grace, whom you might recognize from HBO’s The Newsroom, is the daughter of Meryl Streep, and her older sister Mamie is also an actress.

Random Real Life characters...

Delphine LaLaurie – Kathy Bates
Notorious New Orleans serial killer Madame Delphine LaLaurie, infamous for torturing and murdering slaves in a secret room in her house, which is a popular stop on the haunted house tours today. After a lengthy exile, she resurfaces and struggles to adjust to modern concepts of integration, equality, and human rights.

Kathy Bates has had a long and illustrious film career to prepare her for this scene-chomping role. Here is a scene from her Oscar-winning performance in Misery, and here is one of my favorite revenge scenes from Fried Green Tomatoes.

For this role, Bates won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie. She was nominated for a Saturn Award and a Satellite Award.

Marie Laveau – Angela Bassett
Infamous voodoo priestess of New Orleans and long-standing rival of the Salem witches, from whom Fiona and her modern pupils are descended. They keep a respectful distance from each other, but Marie gets riled when Fiona frees Delphine LaLaurie from the eternal entombment to which Marie had exiled her.

Bassett is another screen veteran with an impressive array of strong movie roles. Here she plays Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, and here is a great rant from Waiting to Exhale.

For this role, Bassett was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Mini-Series/Dramatic Special, and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie, which her co-star Kathy Bates won.

And I’d like to nominate for a recurring role...

Queenie – Gabourey Sidebe
Young witch and “human voodoo doll” who can hurt others by hurting herself, sort of like a ventriloquist of pain and injury. Gabourey is an Oscar-nominated actress who brought ferocity and pizzazz to her role.

For this role, she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Mini-Series/Dramatic Special.

Guest divas...

Patti LuPone plays a neighbor of the Academy who has the unenviable task of drinking a bottle of bleach this season, and the “Welsh Witch” Stevie Nicks performs as herself in two episodes. She opens the final episode with her song Seven Wonders, which dovetailed nicely with the coven’s search for the elusive seven skills of the next Supreme.

Season 4: Freak Show

A traveling carnival camps outside Jupiter, Florida, 1952, looking to entice paying customers to gawk at a the strange and unusual members of the troupe at the same time they reiterate they are just like the everyone else. I haven’t made much progress yet in deciphering the competing neuroses and agendas, much less figured out where the story is headed. But I think it’s safe to say we’re in for another very weird season, less campy and a whole lot darker.

It’s too early in the season to know what these characters are up to in their latest incarnations, but here’s a quick summary.

Dot and Bette Tattler — Sarah Paulson
Siamese twins with polar opposite personalities
Gloria Mott — Frances Conroy
Clueless socialite/mother of psychopath

Ethel Darling — Kathy Bates
Bearded lady
Desiree Dupree — Angela Bassett
Triple-breasted hermaphrodite

Maggie Esmerelda — Emma Roberts
Con artist/Fortune teller

Naomi Grossman is back as Pepper, in a prequel to her story from season 2. Now we’ll find out what happened to her before she got to Briarcliff. Here she is shown with her co-star Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest woman. And... AHS says that Lily Rabe will reprise her season 2 role as Sister Mary as part of Pepper’s story line. She will appear on the mid-season cliffhanger episode.

Grace Gummer makes a brief (so far) but memorable early appearance as candy striper nurse Penny, who participates in some risqué after-hours fun with the carnival members.

Gabourey Sidebe is rumored to be playing a wealthy aristocrat who returns to Jupiter in search of her missing mother, but she has not made an appearance yet. I’m looking forward to seeing how she’ll fit into this menagerie.

Guest diva...

Patti LaBelle plays Gloria Mott’s no-nonsense maid, who is not afraid to dare a spoiled brat on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and brandishing a knife to go ahead and kill her. She also does a mean Woody Woodpecker imitation.

Real Life performers...

In lieu of some of the usual recurring cast members, this season features several extra-ordinary performers with an assortment of unusual talents. Though they might not look like the townspeople, they seem far more trustworthy and emotionally well adjusted than many of the “normal looking” members of their traveling troupe and audience.

Season 4 characters have adopted the surreal convention of belting out anachronistic songs from the center stage. Here’s Dot and Bette singing Fiona Apple’s Criminal. Bette is the outgoing, optimistic personality, who loves music and performing. Unfortunately, cranky, judgmental Dot has the vocal talent, and Bette is relegated to backup singer.

The grand dame herself, Jessica Lange

She plays the diva whose better times are behind her, facing an uncertain future, tough and tenacious with a occasional glimmers of vulnerability. (Reality or deception? She’ll never tell.) In many ways, she has been the heart and soul of the show, the guardian of secrets, the linchpin performance that anchors each season’s particular incarnation of glorious insanity. Each and every role has been quite memorable.

Season 1: Constance Langdon, Neighbor from Hell

Former aspiring starlet and resident of Murder House who resides next door as the personification of abominable parenting and nosey neighboring. She knows quite a bit about the shady shenanigans and ghostly inhabitants of the haunted house, but is she friend or fiend?

For this role, Lange won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie, a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series/Miniseries/Television/Film, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series. She was nominated for two other best actress awards and received a 2011 Satellite Special Achievement Award.

Season 2: Sister Jude Martin, Sadistic Nun and Reformed Drunken Floozy

Administrator of a hospital for the criminally insane, who tries to escape her past by transferring her own sins onto her inmates so she can torture them into repentance. She’s so focused on escaping her past that she doesn’t notice the multitude of horrors hiding under her own roof (and in the surrounding woods).

For this role, Lange was nominated for an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild, a Critics’ Choice, and a Saturn Award. I think this was my favorite role of hers, yet she won no awards for this season!

Season 3: Fiona Goode, Supreme Witch

Sassy, flashy leader of a witch coven in New Orleans, bent on halting the sands of time, interrupting the natural chain of succession, and hanging on to both her sexual allure and her powerful position for a few more decades. Tangles with voodoo queen Marie Laveau, sadistic zombie racist Delphine LaLaurie, all of her aspiring replacements, and a ghostly, axe-wielding serial killer.

For this role, Lange won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries/Movie and a Dorian Award for Best TV Actress. She was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild, a Satellite, a Saturn, and a Golden Globe Award.

Here’s a fan’s montage of some of Fiona’s most fabulous moments from season 3. (Warning: SPOILERS!)

Season 4: Elsa Mars, Carnival Proprietress and Songstress

Traveling freak show proprietress who hopes it’s not too late to leverage public curiosity about her carefully collected assemblage of co-workers to launch her own singing career. Because she totally believes that Marlene Dietrich stole her career. At first we wonder what might have inspired her to gravitate toward those who are “different” and don’t fit into the mainstream, but at the end of episode 1 we see that her “abnormality” is merely hidden from view.

Unfortunately, AHS hasn’t released official YouTube videos of Elsa’s musical performances. The last time I checked, this was the only unofficial video of her singing Lana del Rey’s Gods and Monsters that was still working. I’m hoping to find a better version soon. She sang David Bowie’s Life on Mars earlier in the season.

In summary...

Here’s a fan’s homage to Lange’s fabulous zingers during the first three seasons. (Warning: SPOILERS!)

Life before AHS

Where did Jessica Lange develop the acting chops to master these gritty, full-spectrum performances? She says that she definitely has a dark side, which she has grappled with her whole life and from which she draws for her darker roles. But her resumé is long and impressive, with many comedic and dramatic roles, both on and off screen.

Bonding with King Kong
Exotic companions

It seems just yesterday that she first caught my eye in 1976 as an up-and-coming new ingenue in a remake of King Kong.

Intriguing partners

She shares a daughter with renowned Russian ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she was romantically involved during 1976–1982.

She shares a daughter and a son with acclaimed actor and Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard. They recently separated after almost 30 years together.

Impressive filmography

She became well known in the 1980s for a string of critically acclaimed films with award-nominated performances, and she and continues to seek unusual and challenging roles. Judging by AHS, she’s not afraid to play down-and-dirty, decidedly non-glamorous characters either.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) — Steaminess and illicit intrigue with Jack Nicholson.

Frances (1982) — Loosely biographical story of aspiring actress Frances Farmer, who is institutionalized involuntarily by her mother for her rebellious nature. Lange co-starred with Sam Shepard, whom she also began a personal relationship with. For this role, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress (but instead won an Oscar for a different role).

Tootsie (1982) — Delightful comedy-drama in which a single mother befriends a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and wrestles with her confusing feelings for him/her. For this role, Jessica won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Sweet Dreams (1985) — Bittersweet biography of country music superstar Patsy Cline’s hard life, mercurial career, and amazing voice.

What’s ahead?

Jessica Lange is slated to leave AHS after the current season, though recent reports indicate that she might consider returning in season 5 for a shorter story arc as a guest star. I have no fear that the show’s remarkably deep pool of talent won’t succeed without her, but I will certainly miss her singular spin on such marvelous characters.

One thing’s for sure: AHS has provided a wealth of killer scenes in which to show off her wondrous array of talents. I’m sure she’ll have no shortage of future projects offered to her, and I look forward to seeing what she selects. But first, I’m going to hunker down with my blanket (for the scary parts) and savor the rest of this scintillating season!!

Whew! What a huge cast of fabulous actresses! When I set out to write this post, I had NO idea what I was getting into! Are you a fan of American Horror Story? Does it scare your socks off — or is it just me? What’s your favorite character and story line so far?


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