Freaky Lange steals the Show

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 In a silky, beguiling whisper, Elsa Mars, the Marlene Dietrich manquee played by Jessica Lange on American Horror Story: Freak Show, tells a new employee why she would not allow matinees.

Audiences, she says, want to watch these kinds of acts only at night, "when darkness moves in and speaks of mystery and the unknown, when logic loosens its vise grip and the imagination comes out to play".

Then her voice drops to a scary Teutonic growl. "You're in a real freak show now," she says. "My freak show."

On this campiest and craziest of series, every season of American Horror Story on FX serves up a new setting and a fresh metaphor for Hollywood.

The current season, Freak Show

(returning on Wednesday), about a troupe of carnival sideshow performers in the small, backward town of Jupiter, Florida, in 1952, is almost too apt.

Freaks were how older movie stars were regarded in Hollywood after their careers dried up. Television was the sideshow where ageing performers sought work when studio bosses stopped calling.

Movies have not changed. Actresses Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren still command lead roles in films, but in most cases, the sad truth is that the older an actress is, the harder it is for her to be cast as an attractive character, let alone a love interest.

Television, and especially American Horror Story, is more likely to mine the sexual allure in repellent characters.

Hollywood is past its heyday, however, and television is no longer a comedown.

Now, movie stars who make the move to television are like European aristocrats emigrating to America after World War II - there are so many opportunities in the new world and so little left back home to reclaim.

At 65, Lange is a seductive, sinister hoot in all her American Horror impostures - the actress glows with matriarchal mystique.

Her women have different accents and back stories, but they share many of the same preoccupations with age, power and loneliness.

The redeeming underlay of every season is in the characters, who are strangely real even when enacting the most extreme flights of fancy and brutal violence, Lange most of all. Her heroines are feathered in madness and satire, but each one carries a glint of inner truth - the actress manages to slip some poignancy into all these gargoyles without dimming their brio.

Lange, who won an Oscar for Tootsie (1982) and another for Blue Sky (1994), has star billing in last year's drama The Gambler, playing Mark Wahlberg's wealthy, imperious mother. She gives a powerful performance, literally: In one scene, she socks Wahlberg in the face. But it is nevertheless a small supporting role.

The opposite is true on Freak Show. Lange hams it up as the impresario of Fraulein Elsa's Cabinet Of Curiosities, an ageing German chanteuse with no legs - they were cut off in 1932 for a pornographic snuff film. (Now, she strides around the carnival tents on shapely prosthetics.)

There is something spellbinding about her cruelty and neediness, but she is also surprisingly tender with her favourite monsters, particularly her first, Pepper the pinhead girl (Naomi Grossman).

When Elsa speaks, she sounds like Dietrich, but when she sings on stage, she looks like the Betty White of the Weimar Republic, crooning tunelessly in a powder-blue tuxedo, yellowing perm and bright blue eye shadow.

Elsa's ambitions seem absurd and delusional until, in what is certainly a joke about show business, viewers learn she went from a failed career in cabaret and carnival side shows to television stardom.

This season in particular, American Horror Story is a glorious mess, a preposterous, celebratory splatter of mid-century design, eclectic pop music and slasher-film violence.

The story pays homage to Tod Browning's 1932 cult film, Freaks, and Southern gothic, tied together with a connoisseur's appreciation of vintage Americana and B horror movies.

Besides Lange, this anthology series has a core group of actors who appear in more than one season.

In Freak Show, Kathy Bates plays Ethel, the bearded lady; Sarah Paulson plays the conjoined twins Bette and Dot; and Evan Peters plays Jimmy, a young man with hands like lobster claws. Michael Chiklis is a newcomer as Dell, the strongman with a hidden weakness, while Angela Bassett plays Desiree, his sultry three-breasted wife.

Freak Show follows the troupe's struggle to stay in business in an era when audiences are staying home to watch television, but their fear of extinction is overshadowed by a more immediate and brutal menace, a homicidal clown who terrorises the town of Jupiter.

The message is nominal - in a world of blinkered conformists, outcasts are the normal ones. Mostly, each episode is a spilled jewellery case of gorgeous retro design, artful cinematography and, most of all, Elsa.

"What pretty girls you are," she purrs at the conjoined twins after tracking them to their hospital room. "And so fortunate to have a sister."

At times, it almost seems as if Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of the show, decided to test Lange to the limit with a role so nutty and over- the-top even she could not humanise it.

Lange has said this season, the fourth, is her last, and while that could change, her producers seem determined to squeeze out every last drop of diva excess.

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