Frances - 1982
Jessica Lange - Frances Farmer
Sam Shepard - Harry York
Kim Stanley - Lillian Farmer
Producer - Jonathan Sanger
Co-Producer - Marie Yates
Director - Graeme Clifford
'Frances' good candidate for Ripley's
By Rita Rose - published in The Indianapolis Star
There are a lot of things wrong with "Frances," Universal's film biography of Frances Farmer, the outspoken, non-conformist film star of the '30s who spent her final days as an Indianapolis movie show hostess.
Her battles with booze, her mother, the Hollywood echelon and the doctors who treated her during eight years in mental institutions are all there in glorious technicolor to depress - and sometimes anger - the moviegoer.
Because of her connections in this city, Indianapolis audiences are bound to be curious about how Hollywood has chosen to treat one lady who has walked among us. Those who knew Frances surely will find the film has distorted some facts and embellished others.
The film opens with Jessica Lange as 16-year-old Frances, a Seattle high school junior, who is told by a member of the PTA that she'll go "straight to hell" for writing an essay titled "God Dies."
AT THAT TIME she meets Harry York (played by Sam Shepard), a left-wing political worker who flits in and out of the film like a guardian angel, bailing Frances out of trouble whenever she needs it (which is fairly often) and becoming a pseudo-romantic interest. York never really existed.
The film is so adept at skipping over events in Frances' life, it's a good candidate for "Ripley's Believe It Or Not." No mention is made of her college years, which were instrumental in her acting career and political affiliations. Her marriage to an actor is a brief interlude.
Her mother, quite a character in her own right, is only explored as far as her relationship to Frances, whom she always referred to as "little sister." Kim Stanley portrays Lillian Farmer.
Her Indianapolis years are mentioned only in the film's epilogue.
Frances' relationship with playwright Clifford Odets, however, is well-done and, from the information available, pretty accurate. This was a man who sprinkled rose petals on their love bed, then disappeared the next morning to rejoin his wife.
The asylum scenes are raw: They show the various forms of shock therapies and drug experimentations Frances endured, the wild-eyed, moaning patients and the cold, ex-acting procedure of a transorbital lobotomy, brain surgery that controls aggressive behavior. The film intimates Frances had a lobotomy, but her friends and family vehemently deny it.
THESE SCENES have incurred the wrath of many, including two women who worked as nurses at Washington's Western State Hospital when Frances was a patient in the 1940s. Beverly Tibbetts of Tacoma, Wash., who retired just last year, "doesn't agree with many events" in the film.
In a telephone interview with The Star, Mrs. Tibbetts said her main objection was the way the film depicts Western State as "a dirty, filthy hole. It's entirely unfair," she said.
"Even back then cleanliness was next to godliness. When they did the lobotomies, they were done under sterile conditions and with good techniques. The patients were always 'put out' for the operation," not awake as shown in the film.
"There were no gang-rapes by soldiers. Males and females were segregated and no men worked in the female wards. The patients didn't run around naked; if they took their own clothes off, someone quickly covered them up. Everything always has to be sensationalized in films," observed Mrs. Tibbetts.
Another former nurse, Mary Burchett of Tacoma, said Frances' ward nurse told her she did not have a lobotomy, did not escape (as shown in the film) and felt Frances needed hospitalization - that she wasn't there unjustly. "She was changeable, set in her ways and moody," recalled Mrs. Burchett. "Sometimes she liked me, sometimes not."
IN CONTRAST, Ms. Lange turns in a moving, in depth, effectual performance as Frances, right down to her mannerisms. (But did she always pick at her tongue after lighting a cigarette?) This film is worth enduring all its inaccuracies just to watch Ms. Lange get inside her character and explode. It's an emotional, demanding role she handles (and obviously researched) well.
Miss Lange deserves the Oscar nomination she received Thursday for this role, and she deserves the golden statue as well.
Although many questions remain about the causes of Frances' breakdowns, Ms. Lange treats you to a reincarnation of this fascinating woman: The physical resemblance is amazing. (Try to ignore Ms. Lange's soft voice that's nothing like Frances' husky one.)
Believe the character, but not her life as it is presented in "Frances."
Courtesy of Jack Randall Earles
The Jessica Lange - Frances Farmer visual comparison
Jessica Lange as Frances, Frances early studio publicity photo, Jessica Lange as Frances, The famous Hurrell shot of Frances
Additional stills of from the film "Frances"
These images courtesy of Dario
Read about "The Making of Frances" here
(2:21 - 579k)
Click above to hear a RealAudio clip of Jessica Lange discussing why she's perceived as difficult on the set and the range of negative emotions it took making the film "Frances" as she talks with NBC's Gene Shalit in 1985
From her earliest years as an actress, Jessica Lange has been fascinated by the tragic saga of Frances Farmer. Lange first learned of Farmer's troubled history in 1973, as a student in acting class when she rehearsed a scene improvised from an early biography.
"What interested me was the tremendous possibility that what happened to her was not so far out of the realm that it could happen to many a young actress," Lange explains. "Frances was not crazy, she was ahead of her time. She was a threat because she was so straightforward that she refused to play anyone's games."
"I believe that Frances Farmer was a very complicated person," Lange says. "She had great vitality, energy and honesty. These attributes were magnified still further by her natural beauty and intelligence. That threatens some people - - some became extremely vindictive because they couldn't understand or control her."
Courtesy of Universal Studios Press Department
Lange was nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of Frances Farmer. "She really took me over the edge--I felt the same kind of rage she did. I immersed myself in it more completely than I needed to. I was really haunted by that character."
Courtesy of Dario
Jessica Lange received an Oscar nomination for role
Frances was presented by EMI Films - a Brooksfilm Production - written by Eric Bergren & Christopher Devore and Nicholas Kazan - Distributed by Universal Pictures and Associated Film Distribution Corp.
FRANCES...... TV CLOSE UP
In the late 1930s and early '40s, Frances Farmer was one of Hollywood's brightest ingenues, starring in such films as Howard Hawks' "Come and Get It" and appearing on Broadway in Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy." Behind the sunny screen facade was an unhappy, high-strung nonconformist rebelling against a studio system whose demands, as she later wrote in her autobiography, were her "greatest aggravation... and a prime cause of my smash-up."
That collapse began with a minor arrest in 1942 and was followed by drunken brawls and worse. To keep Frances out of jail (and to salvage her career), her mother Lillian got herself appointed as her daughter's legal guardian - and set the stage for Frances's eight-year struggle with mental illness. It was a struggle fought in and out of a state asylum Frances called "a godless crypt of the damned," and it left her "barely human."
Such is the framework of this episodic 1982 biography, which was criticized for taking dramatic license but which nonetheless won Oscar nominations for Jessica Lange (as Frances) and Kim Stanley (Lillian).
Harry York: Sam Shepard. Clifford Odets: Jeffrey DeMunn. Harold Clurman: Jordan Charney. Mr. Bebe: Allan Rich. Ernest Farmer: Bart Burns. Hitchhiker: Jonathan Banks. (2 hrs., 30 min.)
TV Guide - May 14, 1985
(This extract is from Danny Peary?s 1993 book Alternate Oscars, in which he discusses the performances and films he believes should have been awarded Academy Awards for the years 1928 through 1991. Peary is the author of Cult Movies and Cult Movies 2 and 3, Guide for the Film Fanatic, and Cult Movie Stars, and the editor of Cult Baseball Players, Close-ups: The Movie Star Book, and Omni?s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies.)
1983 - Best Actress
WINNER: Meryl Streep (Sophie?s Choice) Other Nominees: Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria), Jessica Lange (Frances), Sissy Spacek (Missing), Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman)
THE BEST CHOICE: Jessica Lange (Frances) Award-Worthy Runners Up: Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria), Diane Keaton (Shoot the Moon), Sissy Spacek (Missing), Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman)
Like everyone else, the Academy members were in awe of Meryl Streep?s dramatic skills, including her ability to do accents. So they eagerly gave her the Oscar for her guilt-ridden Polish-Catholic concentration camp survivor in Alan J. Pakula?s film of William Styron?s Sophie?s Choice. Streep has some powerful moments when one can?t help being stunned by her talent, but I think the Academy wrongly rewarded that talent rather than her performance. As in other early, humorless Streep films, her portrayal is too calculated and mannered, as if she was far more interested in the role as a vehicle for an actress than in the woman she is playing. She might well have watched Jessica Lange, who, as the ill-fated actress Frances Farmer in Frances, invested herself in the woman rather than the part. Lange won the Academy Award for Tootsie, but it was a consolation prize for having given such an impressive performance in Frances and still losing to Streep as Best Actress. If the Academy had correctly selected her Best Actress for Frances, then Lange?s Tootsie costar Teri Garr could have won the Supporting Actress Oscar she deserved more than Lange (who actually was a leading lady in Tootsie).
Directed by former editor Graeme Clifford and scripted by Eric Bergren, Christopher DeVore and Nicholas Kazan, Frances begins when Frances Farmer is a high-school student in Seattle. She wins an essay contest for a piece about God being dead, but her mother, Lillian (Kim Stanley), is the only one in town who appreciates her effort. The domineering, slightly loony Lillian has always taught her daughter to speak her mind. In time Frances becomes an actress. She wants to work in serious stage productions in New York but signs a contract with Paramount. She doesn?t like her own work and detests the efforts of the studio executives to make her toe the line. But Lillian eats up her daughter?s fame and couldn?t be happier. Frances? marriage to an unsuccessful actor breaks up after she sleeps with a longtime acquaintance, reporter Harry York (Sam Shepard), her one loyal friend. The unhappy Frances walks out on Paramount and goes to New York to work in Harold Clurman?s leftist Group Theatre. She falls in love with playwright Clifford Odets. But Paramount puts pressure on Clurman and Odets, who, needing financing, push out Frances. Odets returns to his wife. Shattered, Frances returns to Hollywood. There she is hounded by gossip columnists and punished by Paramount with embarrassing roles. She drinks heavily and takes pills. She has a run-in with a cop, and after slapping an insulting studio hairdresser, she is thrown in jail for six months. She refuses to behave and continues with tantrums and violent behavior. She is placed in a mental hospital. She undergoes therapy from an authoritarian psychiatrist and is given shock treatments. Harry helps her escape. She goes back to live with Lillian, and is placed under her care. When Frances refuses to go back to Hollywood, Lillian goes berserk, initiating a violent reaction from Frances. Lillian has her daughter committed to the asylum. There she suffers a hellish existence and is finally given a lobotomy. After her release she is tame and speaks of God.
Frances is a sloppy, jumbled film that is populated by vicious caricatures of men in authority and women with power, but Lange?s gutsy, realistic performance emerges unscathed. That she was let down by those who made the picture seems ironic considering that the movie is about betrayal. Fighting for her identity and sanity, Frances refuses to be ?what you want to make me - dull, average, normal.? She endures humiliation, harassment, confinement, physical pain, mental anguish, and the destruction of her body and mind in order to maintain her identity. Meanwhile all those around her who are frightened by such hostile independence turn against her, including a mother who once inspired her to be true to herself. She suffers so much that we viewers want her to cool it so she?ll have some time to recover from the latest violation on her life. But she never lets up, never backs down from an argument or physical confrontation, never lets anyone have the satisfaction of controlling her. We don?t know whether to agree with her own assessment that she isn?t insane, but if she is, we blame others for her condition and wish that somebody would help her. She is well aware that those who pretend to want to cure her ?madness? are actually trying to break her will.
Lange immediately sought her comic role in Tootsie to disengage herself from the devastatingly emotional experience she had playing Frances Farmer. She says she was a wreck after Frances, which is understandable considering all the wear and tear, all the crying, screaming, and fighting she goes through in the film. Rarely has an actress put so much of herself into a character, and considering that Frances is constantly battered and finally destroyed, Lange was unable to experience any joyful release.
In her teenage scenes Lange?s performance is reserved. We usually can tell what Frances is thinking simply by the way she cocks her head, moves her eyes to the side, and smiles knowingly, her lips tightly together and moving in small circles. At this time, Frances is suspicious about the world and knows that she?s basically on her own, but is quite optimistic. Her romanticism will be crushed in Hollywood and again in New York. From then on she has no direction in life, no trust in anyone but Harry, no one but her self-destructive self to protect her. In Lange?s voice we find Farmer?s strength and her hurt, her defiance and her suspicion that whoever she?s talking to will turn against her. In her screaming and physical tantrums (against the cop, hairdresser, and her mother), we recognize the fury and desperation. What is most sad and most admirable about Lange?s Farmer is that although she is worn out, wounded without the possibility of healing, and helpless, she carries on the fight . . . alone. She knows her situation is hopeless, but rather than admit that to her enemies, she accedes to more of their abuse. When Farmer has her lobotomy and we look at Lange?s glazed eyes and battered face, we realize why this film has been so uncomfortable an experience: Lange?s deep immersion in the role of the long-suffering, brutalized Farmer has made us feel as sorry for her as the woman she plays.
Courtesy of Cookie Crawford
For other movies about Frances Farmer, click here.
This page last updated 2001, Aug 24