The Making of Frances

Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer

Note: this article is based on material previously featured in the book Jessica Lange - A Biography (1986) by J.T. Jeffries, in the Frances movie pressbook and in the Frances - Original Motion Picture Score CD booklet (Limited Gold Edition, 1997).

The tragic life of Frances Farmer was captured in chilling detail in three films: Graeme Cliffordís 1982 Frances, Fielder Cookís 1983 made-for-TV Will There Really Be a Morning? and the independent UK feature Committed, directed in 1984 by Sheila McLaughlin. Frances was the most visible and publicized of the trio. In a time when movies are aimed at twelve-years-olds, the subject was a meaty, tough assignment, aimed at adults. As such, the film was a labor of love for everyone from the leading lady, Jessica Lange, to the set designer. "There was a chance in a lifetime to do a picture like this," said the director of photography, Laszlo Kovacs.

Francesí original producer, Marie Yates, had first read William Arnoldís gripping 1978 Farmer biography, Shadowland, as an unpublished manuscript and optioned the film rights immediately. "It was the universal appeal of survival that haunted me", said Yates.

But financing was not easy to get. Having optioned the book in 1979, Yates worked with Arnold and other associates for two years before she hooked up with Jonathan Sanger, who had just finished the critically acclaimed The Elephant Man for Mel Brooksí production company, Brooksfilms. Sanger sold Brooks on the project, but, for reasons which have never been made clear, Brooks jettisoned Arnoldís involvement and brought in two Oscar-nominated screenwriters from The Elephant Man, Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren. Arnold and the other associates sued, and lost, finally, long after the film had been released.

Unfortunately, with William Arnold and his book out of the picture, the producers had to prove that their film was based on original material. The screenwriters came up with one Harry York, a largely fictional character who popped in and out of Farmerís life, rescuing her with the monotonous predictability of Rin Tin Tin. The existence of this character (playwright Sam Shepard was cast in the part), "a figment of the writerís desperation," as The New York Timesí Vincent Canby put it, was later justified by Yates, who claimed Harry York was based on a political radical named Stewart Jacobson (also featured in Shadowland). Yates explained that in-depth interviews were held with Jacobson, who had confessed a long relationship with Frances. It is extremely interesting to read the article written by Joshua Hammer regarding the York character controversy that appeared in People Weekly (March 21, 1983) under the title A shadowy figure says he was Frances Farmer's lover, but a lawsuit claims different:

Apart from the tormented title character played by Jessica Lange, he is Frances' most intriguing--if improbable--figure. The shadowy Harry York (played by Sam Shepard) appears repeatedly to bed and befriend the doomed actress Frances Farmer in her downward spiral through alcohol, despair and a Dickensian insane asylum. But is the York character, as The New York Times says, "a figment of the writer's desperation" or, as Universal Pictures claims, part of the "true life story of Frances Farmer"? That question has embroiled the widely hailed hit in a lawsuit that raises doubts about the business practices of Mel Brooks, whose company produced Frances--and about the veracity of the film itself.


Last week, rising to defend the integrity of the film, Frances' co-producer Marie Yates, 39, brought forth one Stewart Jacobson, 69, a Seattle elevator operator, detective and ex-convict who claims to be the real-life Harry York, Farmer's occasional lover and longtime confidant. Like York in the film, Jacobson says he met Farmer shortly after she wrote her controversial "God Dies" essay in high school and stayed in intermittent touch with her until her death from throat cancer in 1970 at age 56. Both he and Yates contend that his intimate relationship with Farmer was the major source for the film. "Jacobson provided the love story," insists Yates, "and the viewpoint that we wanted to present."


Hogwash, charges William Arnold, 37, a Seattle-based author who signed a contract with Yates to sell movie rights to his 1978 Farmer biography, Shadowland. Arnold, who is bringing the suit against Yates, Brooksfilms and producer Jonathan Sanger on copyright infringement and related charges, says Jacobson† was used by Brooks and Yates as a means of "stealing my book." Noel Marshall, executive producer of The Exorcist, who was originally slated to produce Arnold's Shadowland before Yates defected to work with Brooks on Frances, agrees. "Mel Brooks is a crook and an incredible cheat," he says, citing the similar controversy that erupted when Brooks successfully used the title of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play The Elephant Man for a film; he was able to do so by claiming that all the source material for the film was in the public domain.

People who were close to the late Frances Farmer insist that Jacobson's claims are of dubious validity. "I don't recall Frances ever mentioning Stewart Jacobson," says Lois Kibbee, an actress in The Edge of Night and a writer. Before Farmer died, Kibbee interviewed her over several months in Indianapolis for what ultimately became the Farmer autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? "I'm sure that Jacobson was not her lover," she declares.


Clearly, the man who claims to have been Frances' longtime lover has less than impeccable credentials. Born in Eastsound, Wash. and raised in Seattle, Jacobson managed to compile an extensive rap sheet. It began in 1939 with a murder charge (he was acquitted) and included arrests for vagrancy, tampering with a witness and assault, and a conviction for pimping. His record continued through a 1953 conviction for operating as an unlicensed private investigator. Jacobson says that he first met Farmer in 1931, while working as a detective in King county, Wash. (he would have been 17 at the time), and that he sometimes used the name Harry York. He says he had been sent to investigate Farmer and her "God Dies" essay, which had enraged some of the locals. His portrayal of the relationship that allegedly followed borders on the fantastic. Among Jacobson's highly dubious claims: that he set up a sexual
liaison for Frances with Justice William O. Douglas in 1941 at a hot springs resort (Douglas "never got over Frances," says Jacobson); that he personally persuaded Sen. Joseph McCarthy not to accuse Frances of being a Communist agent; and that he arranged Farmer's last job, as a TV movie show hostess at an Indianapolis station. Jacobson also swears that William Randolph Hearst wanted to kill Farmer because she had witnessed the murder of a producer who had been making love to Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, aboard the publisher's yacht in 1924. (Frances would have been 10 at the time.) The absence of any photos showing Farmer and Jacobson together is easy to explain, Jacobson claims, because "everything has been destroyed." And the lack of any mention of Jacobson in the Farmer autobiography is, he says, in compliance with "my direct orders."

The ties between Jacobson and Yates are equally disputed. The story begins in Seattle in 1973, when Seattle Post-Intelligencer film critic William Arnold embarked on a biography of Farmer after being intrigued by a revival of her 1936 film Come and Get It. An article about Arnold's planned book that appeared in the Scientology publication Freedom brought him together with Yates, then a struggling Hollywood producer-agent anxious for a promising property. Yates became Arnold's literary agent and negotiated a movie deal with Noel Marshall. It stipulated that Arnold would write the Shadowland screenplay and Yates would be associated with the film's production.


Meanwhile Jacobson surfaced in the Freedom editor's Hollywood office and reportedly offered to reveal important secrets of Farmer's life for $25,000. Arnold claims he sent Yates to meet with Jacobson but dismissed Jacobson's statements as "outlandish." But sometime later, according to Marshall, Yates started up a side deal with Brooks, who was interested in acquiring the Farmer property. "Brooks apparently offered her a better position in the making of the Frances film if she could get him the rights without paying me fees as co-producer," Marshall says. (Yates has earned about $100,000 in association with Brooks as well as "co-producer" billing.) As Marshall states and Arnold confirms, "Mel Brooks told Arnold that his lawyers could get him [Arnold] out of the contract and that they could easily 'f--- Marshall.'" But Arnold says he found Brooks "cruel and unpleasant" and refused to dump Marshall. There the matter rested for "a few days," recalls Arnold, "till I saw a piece in Variety that Brooks was making this movie about Frances Farmer and that Marie Yates was the co-producer. Just like that. She didn't even call me and tell me. I was really mad and phoned her and said, 'You can't do this, you're still my agent.' She said that, well, she thought she could. But she had a contractual obligation to me. She got 10 percent of my book, and then she sold me out."


Though Arnold charges that the resulting Frances screenplay is "a complete adaptation of my book," Yates insists that what was not in the public domain came from extensive interviews with Jacobson. For instance, there is the gruesome scene near the end of the film in which a doctor performs a lobotomy on Farmer, of which no mention is found in Will There Really Be a Morning? The operation is described in great detail in Arnold's Shadowland, but Yates claims that the scene was re-created from "Jacobson's records." Yates further claims that her discovery of Jacobson "never came through Bill Arnold" but
rather from her own research and her interviews with Seattle judges. "I don't want to mention their names," she says.


Arnold scoffs at Yates' alleged research. "It was easy for her to believe Jacobson because it was convenient for her," he says. "She was a person who had been around Hollywood a long time and had never made a feature film. This was her big opportunity. You get around the big money and the big glory and the temptation is great." Retorts Yates: "Mel Brooks wanted him to come aboard at one point, but he didn't. It's a pure case of sour grapes." Though Brooks has declined comment, the sniping continues as both sides gear up for further nastiness when the lawsuit comes to court, possibly in June. As for Frances Farmer, who gave up her film career rather than subject herself to the mores of Hollywood Babylon, she would doubtless be watching it all with a keen sense of irony.

Brooks hired Graeme Clifford, an Australian film editor, to make his directorial debut on Frances. Clifford, an innovative craftsman, had done intriguing editing in films like Nicholas Roegís Donít Look Now and the midnight cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At thirty-eight, he itched to direct his first film. Clifford had been a Farmer devotee for years and knew every detail of her life. He had spent two years investigating the subject, through research and scores of personal interviews. "I wanted to make this film as factual as possible," he later said. "Also, I wanted to get a true feeling for Francesí personality, which could be achieved only by talking with people who knew her intimately." Coincidentally, while editing Bob Rafelsonís 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice co-starring Jessica Lange, Clifford decided that Lange would be perfect for the part of Frances. Even before he had been chosen to direct the film, Clifford had insisted to Sanger and Brooks that Lange would be allowed to read for the part.

Jessica Lange

Lange, the Minnesota-born actress (20 April, 1949), had long known sheíd make the perfect Frances. Years before, an acting teacher, Warren Robertson, had told her so. Teaching Lange in a 1974 acting class in New York, Robertson had been struck by the "ferocity combined with innocence" in the acting of this lithe young woman. Two students, one of them Susan Blakely, read a dialogue from Farmerís autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning? between Frances and her vitriolic, manipulative mother Lillian. "The scene was absolutely shattering, like an extreme version of Mommie Dearest," fascinated, Jessica hunted for Frances Farmerís autobiography. "It stunned me. I got the book and read it in one sitting," she said. Then she watched Farmerís most famous film, Come and Get It. "I was struck by her physical presence," Lange said. "I was struck by what I saw in her face and body." The identification was emotional, "nothing intellectual or rational, more a sympathy or empathy. Sheís a very identifiable character. She was a willful, troubled woman - an outspoken woman - a big risk taker, too. Thatís why I had to play her on the screen."

For Lange, the identification was instantaneous and complete. Even in 1974 and 1975, waiting on tables, struggling to become a model, she "somehow...knew Iíd play her one day - and that was before Iíd ever made a film." Like Farmer, Lange had deserted home for travels, arrived in New York to study acting, and was then plucked from obscurity by a Paramount contract that brought her west to Hollywood and seething frustration (the disappointing remake of King Kong). Or perhaps it was Farmerís frantic and doomed desire to be politically useful and artistically important, two goals shared by Lange that Hollywood did as little to serve for her as it had for Farmer. Or, possibly it was Jessicaís own connection to a "powerful and charismatic parent," namely, her father, Albert.

Later, when Jessica had made King Kong and was floundering somewhat for direction, back in New York, Robertson suggested she try to develop Francesí life story as a movie. He had been in the Actors Studio, and "certainly remembered who Frances Farmer was." Warren Robertson and Jessica actually worked for several weeks on the emotional subtext of this character. "It was obvious that Jessica had all kinds of emotion pent up inside of her," Robertson recalled. Susan Blakely, in turn, later starred in made-for-TV Will There Really Be a Morning?

Jessica tried unsuccessfully for years to share her passion for the Farmer story. As her own career moved forward, she tried to persuade Bob Fosse and later Bob Rafelson to direct Francesí story with her in it, but they both refused. "Neither of them," Jessica discovered ruefully, "felt it was their cup of tea."

Ironically, it was "out of the blue" that Lange got a phone call from Graeme Clifford. Up to that point, Sanger, Brooks and Clifford had been sitting back as a veritable whoís who of Hollywoodís top actresses paraded before them: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Sissy Spacek, and Langeís good friend Tuesday Weld. There was no one, apparently, who didnít want the part. "Even those who felt they were too old, or not exactly right, said they understood this woman," Sanger told The New York Times. The standard opening line, Sanger said, was "I am Frances Farmer" - "and they would go into a litany of the horrendous things that had happened in their lives."

But Jessica Langeís resemblance to Farmer was uncanny ("Itís hard to find a beauty with big bones. Frances and Jessica are both girls with large frames," as Mel Brooks put it somewhat less delicately) and, as a still relatively unknown actress, she didnít carry a high price tag - nor an identity that would overwhelm the part; Brooks was clearly looking for bargains, which was one reason he hired first-time director Clifford. Eric Kasum, a syndicated columnist, reported that Hollywood insiders thought the role was "more than a relatively untried actress could handle." Even producer Sanger said that "It may make her or break her, but this film will put Jessica Lange on the map." Mel Brooks was, in fact, more partial to Langeís buddy Tuesday Weld, who had not had a good leading part in some time.

If Hollywood was waiting for Jessica Lange to fall on her face, they had come to the wrong woman. Lange, as producer Sanger put it to The New York Times, "obviously had more acting training than anybody knew." In the spring of 1981, Lange worked on each scene with her coach, Sandra Seacat. Seacat had been an important and influential member of the Group Theatre herself, and had expanded her theatrical repertoire in recent years to include techniques from Eastern meditation. Lange regularly used those deep relaxation techniques on the set to improve her concentration in the grueling role.

The emotional preparation was a great deal of work. In New York, she went through the script scene by scene, picking the scene apart and then deciding what area in her own life corresponded most closely to the emotions the scene required. From the Paramount vaults, Lange screened every movie Farmer made, including the unfinished No Escape ("The only good movie she did was Come and Get It, for Sam Goldwyn. She was terrific in that, but the rest was grade B stuff, trash. She was forced to act in them - no wonder she was always so angry!"). She memorized which film was being made at which point in the script, but the most helpful bits of celluloid for Jessica were some 8-millimeter home movies that someone had found of Frances doing summer stock in the east in the late thirties. "Watching her walk and move gave me more to work from than any of the films she did," said Lange, the student of physical gesture. "It was fascinating." Naturally, Lange had read the books about Farmer, every newspaper and magazine interview with Farmer she could get her hands on, and an unpublished biography. She met with Lois Kibbee, a writer who had been working with Farmer on her autobiography at the time of Francesí death. She talked to scores of people who had known her, and the only ones who refused were members of the Group Theatre company of the 1930s, "like Lee Strasberg. Maybe it was because Frances was so political. She stood on the reviewing stand at the Moscow May Day parade, and she campaigned for the Spanish Loyalists. No, I don't think she always knew what she was doing, in that she wasn't calculating, but she was highly principled. The Hearsts hated her because she became too politically active. She was constantly under pressure," Lange explained. "That's why she was so edgy and high-strung. That's why she drank too much. But I don't think there's any real proof she was crazy. More than anything, I think she needed a good rest!" Jessica found that the most valuable material she read was in Margaret Brenman-Gibson's mammoth biography of playwright Clifford Odets. "Odets was one of Frances's lovers. She starred in his play Golden Boy, the triumph of her career. She fell madly in love with him, but he was a demanding, sadistic lover who eventually drove her to drink and self-destruction by alternately loving her and rejecting her. It helped me understand how a woman can be sexually and emotionally victimized by a man. Frances, like many women, never developed a strong sense of her own identity and worth."

In Los Angeles, in the meantime, pre-production on Frances moved ferociously ahead, with the producers anxiously following reports in the trades of an impending directorsí strike that would stall their film. After eight drafts in two years, Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren departed for the latest Dino De Laurentiis extravaganza, Dune. Writer Nicholas Kazan was brought in for the final polish and for rewrites during principal photography. Kazan later said he was attracted to the material "because Frances Farmer was a woman who told the truth about who she was, what she was, what she thought. She was beautiful, ugly, contradictory and challenging...too challenging ultimately for society to tolerate. For me, the film poses this question: Can one be really honest, open and alive...really oneís self...and still survive?"

Like so many others on the project, production designer Richard Sylbert felt a special affinity for Francesí story. "Iíd always wanted to do a story like this. Frances," he said, "is about a girl who constantly goes back home." For Sylbert, who always looked at his pictures in terms of music, this meant Frances was a concerto in an A-B-A-C-A form, like a sonata by Mozart that always returns to its first theme, he said. "The girl starts at sixteen and goes to Russia, New York, and Hollywood and comes back a star. She leaves and goes to Hollywood and New York and comes home again, a mess. She leaves and goes to a mental institution and comes home again." The ending, from a "This Is Your Life" episode, is the coda. For the three major locales in Farmerís life, Sylbert selected colors in three groups - browns for the Farmersí home in Seattle, whites for Hollywood and New York, gray for the mental institution. Sylbert stayed away from bright colors, because acrylic dyes had not yet been invented in the thirties.

The irony is that while this kind of detail for emotional accuracy in the sets and costumes was being carried out, the emotional detail in the actual words was still in a state of disarray. The script was still undergoing rewrites by Nicholas Kazan when Lange herself arrived in Los Angeles and William Arnold, seeing the script, insisted that it was not based on original material. With the character of Harry York (now the filmís narrator) in the picture, rescuing Lange every reel or so, Farmer seemed to be afflicted with nothing worse than an inability to stay with a perfectly good man who wanted her. Lange knew that York was "contrived", but there it was.

The directorsí strike, to everyoneís relief, did not materialize, and Lange officially began her life as Frances. With her makeup woman, Dorothy Pearl and the director of photography Kovacs, Lange sat under glaring lights for eight days of tests, primarily for close-ups and still photographs needed to establish the makeup and lighting for each different period in Farmerís life. Pearl realized that the toughest challenge was trying to turn Lange into a washed-out forty. Kovacs noticed that part of Langeís sense of intense emotion was the simple point that her eyes had a natural quality of watering, so that she always appeared on the verge of tears. He designed the lighting schemes to include eye lights that would take advantage of this. According to Laszlo Kovacs, Hollywoodís best technicians were working on this film, "because they feel the movie is important. This was human drama and you see very little of that today."

Jessica Lange and Kim Stanley

Kim Stanley (cast as Farmerís mother, Lillian) arrived in Los Angeles having dropped fifty pounds, thanks to a liquid protein diet. Jessica was "trepidatious", she admitted, about meeting this great star of Broadway, an actress from Frances Farmerís own generation, who had been with the original Group Theatre, had studied acting with Elia Kazan, and had even known Clifford Odets. Stanley and Lange spent two weeks together that summer getting acquainted, swimming together each morning, baking bread, and improvising on Frances and Lillian. Stanley had also researched the Farmer family, talking to Lois Kibbee as well. "Kim works exactly the way I like to work," said Lange. "Sheís very private, nothing is discussed. Thereís a mystery to the work." Lange, Stanley told Time magazine, is "the kind of dame I want to work with - quick, open, smart." They would finish the film as close friends, eager to work together again (which they did on the Showtime production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).

And then there was Sam Shepard who chose Frances, he said, "because it is like a Greek tragedy." Clifford cast Shepard in the fictional character of Harry because of what he called Shepardís "enigmatic sexuality". Lange and Shepard very discreetly began their affair on the set of Frances. Of his co-star, Shepard would only say at the time that she was "an intuitive actress. Every take is different." Commenting on Frances Farmerís political activities, Shepard said in an interview: "Are any stars really sincere in their politics? It comes from despair over the menialness of film. Being an actress creates desperation."

Lange became, for all intents and purposes, Frances Farmer. It was "a nervous breakdown a day, I lost a lot of weight and had huge black circles under my eyes" she would tell one reporter. Pure rage, screaming, seething pain and frustration, for twelve, fourteen hours a day were the norm for the next five months. She rented out a piece of her soul for the part. "What youíre seeing on the screen is only one one-thousandth of what was actually expended, with the number of takes and what was cut," she would say when it was over. "What youíre actually seeing on film is one minute of film time that was an entire day of rage." Clifford watched as Jessica "went a little crazy on the set." He explained away Langeís combativeness by telling reporters, "Jessie needed to act out a little. She was testing the authorities." But he was insistent about what he wanted. It was "emotionally taxing", even for the technical people, Kovacs said, "because you could never divorce yourself from the intensity in her performance. You were there and you were part of it and it just drained your emotions. Can you imagine what it did to her when she had to do it over and over?"

Lange was in every scene, spanning Seattle, Mexico, Los Angeles, New York. Though she and Clifford were friends, they had screaming matches about the film. She battled to keep Frances true-to-life in the midst of what reviewers would later consider an inadequate and sometimes inaccurate script and a director and a producer who believed "no one deliberately tried to victimize Frances," as Clifford told The New York Times. Producer Sanger was on the set next to Clifford for most of the shoot as well and had gone over "every line of dialogue" in the script. Later, he would eagerly tell the trade press (and by extension, the rest of the industry) that Frances was "not a downer." Lange stayed "tense and angry," as she put it, not just during the long weeks of shooting, but for months afterward. "All through life Iíve harbored anger rather than expressed it at the moment," she told Newsweek. "Once I started on Frances, I discovered it was literally a bottomless well."

"It devastated me," Lange admitted after it was all over, "to maintain that for eighteen weeks, to be immersed in this state of rage for twelve to fourteen hours a day. It spilled over into other aspects of my life. I was really hell to be around. I took on the characteristic of Frances that was elemental to her demise - battling every little thing that came along." At certain points in the shoot, she felt certain that "Frances was with us," her spirit watching over the Universal set, where Warren Beattyís office, a former Frances Farmer dressing room, was converted back into its original use for the film.

Though everyone could see the logic of not doing so, the film was shot out of sequence. "Which meant that one day Iíd be doing a breakdown scene," Lange complained to the Los Angeles Times, "and a month later Iíd have to do the scene leading up to it." Lange had urged that the film be shot in sequence, "but no one listened to me." Sanger recognized the problem and chalked it up to the low budged - $8 to $10 million. "It has been hard on Jessica," he admitted. "Itís hard to get the level of insanity to match from one scene to the next...we can never get any distance because weíre moving too fast. Weíre not able to shut down and catch up."

The set, in fact, became increasingly tense as Cliffordís inexperience became abundantly clear. He insisted on take after take after take because, having a natural film editorís bias, he wanted reams of takes and every conceivable angle with which to play in the editing room. For Lange, it was an agony. "The set was not well run," Lange told the Los Angeles Timesí Roderick Mann, "and there was far too much footage shot of everything. Thereís nothing wrong with overshooting unless itís fairly taxing on the actor. With a film like this, it was."

One scene on the Farmer staircase, a confrontation between mother and daughter, was shot "twenty or thirty times," Lange said. In this pivotal fight, takes were being made from so many angles and directions that "to get that pitch was difficult...[Clifford] broke it up and we started in the middle. We didnít have that run in, that natural build. We did it over and over and we were both so exhausted." Finally, Stanley took Jessicaís hand in hers and suggested to her young friend: "Letís just start from the very beginning." It was one of the few times that Kim Stanley offered suggestions on the set, and it turned the scene around. "From that point on, it had all the electricity that it was supposed to have," Lange said.

Or the memorable scene when Frances stops on the stairs, in her parentsí home in Seattle, and tells her parents that she doesnít love them. Lange wanted to play the scene as a statement of emotional independence, as something victorious. But she changed her approach to the one used in the film, a wrenching moment where her voice breaks with hurt, as she admonishes her parents not to think she loves them anymore "because I donít...I canít." In the end she switched approaches, "because, in fact, Frances never was a victor over her mother. She never was victorious. That was really a tough one to play."

The nude scene of Farmerís arrest with policemen breaking into the Knickerbocker Hotel was particularly frustrating and demanding for Lange. There was a problem with the bathroom door which stuck and stuck again when the actors playing cops on the other side tried to get it open. The entire scene, lasting no more than three minutes of film time, took four days to shoot. Lange was disgusted. She began to feel as used, abused, and manipulated as Frances herself.

Reports began to circulate that Jessica was "difficult". Lange responded to Gene Shalit on the "Today" show when it was all over. "I fought for things real hard that I thought were right, that I still think are right, that are in the film and make it a better film. I didnít want them to take the edge off of it - I didnít want them to take the edge off of her. I fought like a dog for things I believed in. I didnít say, ĎOkay, Iíll do it your way.í If I thought it was wrong, I wouldnít do it."

One of the most difficult scenes for Lange required no violence at all. Frances Farmer, according to the film, and as strongly suggested by her biographer, Arnold, was given a lobotomy at Steilacoom, the mental institution. Lange had to play the ultimate defeat of her heroine as a dulled, post-lobotomy Frances Farmer on a 1958 episode of "This Is Your Life." (Shepard remembered watching that show as a kid. "They took away her life and then gave her an Edsel," he quipped.) When Lange saw a copy of the original show for the first time, she burst into tears. "I was so overwhelmed, so moved," she said. She studied the tape obsessively. The episode "loomed in front of me like an insurmountable problem," she told Shalit. She memorized every gesture, every inflection: "There were a million things going on in her face, in her eyes." Speaking of eyes, Kovacs decided that the best way to show a lobotomized Frances was to take out the eye lights heíd been using the entire film. The scene finally fell into place.

The wistful, melancholy score by John Barry, whom Clifford felt was the only composer suited for the job, was also of particular importance in the context of the film: it was never intrusive, but striking in its subtle, elegant use of long sustained chords in the strings and woodwinds, punctuated by an occasional harmonica solo (which comments on a yearning for things past in the Frances character), and the two-note Frances motif - her cry for help - heard briefly in the horns.

A computer selected audience of 450 in Washington, D.C., found the original length of Frances too long. A third of the audience walked out during a violent rape sequence which was cut in the final version - the rape of Farmer at the mental ward, a constant theme in her autobiography. Scenes which made more sense of Farmerís breakdown and her relationship with her mother were dropped in favor of keeping the romance with Harry York intact. Said an angry Kim Stanley to the Hollywood Reporter several months later: "Iím not mad at Graeme Clifford. Iím damn mad at the studio that thinks the American public can sit still for five hours of football but canít sit still for an emotional study of a grown woman." The result of the editing, Stanley said, was "constant coitus interruptus."

Frances officially opened on December 3 in New York and in more cities on December 17. The filmís box office was disappointing ("I wonít let Frances die," Lange told a reporter. "I have a commitment to Frances. I hope it just takes off by itself, but if need be, I will do publicity because I want people to see it."). The reviews were decidedly mixed. The screenplay was singled out for not only its tendency to trivialize Farmerís life, but also its failure to dwell on those major events which contributed to her descent to hell. The story was contrived, critics said, slow, without dramatic pacing or logical motivations. To those critics, such as Rex Reed, who had followed the story of Frances Farmer closely over the years, the film was worse than bad. It was a betrayal, because those who took upon themselves to make such a film had a moral duty to do justice to this martyred actressí life.

Praise for Lange was on the contrary unanimous. Everyone would remember her as Frances. In a performance of "great intelligence," as one critic put it, Langeís Frances was never, for one moment, insane and rarely had an actress so risen above her film. "Magnificent," wrote Vincent Canby of her in Frances. "Here is a performance so unfaltering, so tough, so intelligent, and so humane that it seems as if Miss Lange is just now, at long last, making her motion picture debut." Another writer referred to her as "a Strindbergian woman whose beauty shields a passion close to madness." Lange received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (she lost to Meryl Streep in Sophieís Choice, but received an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in Tootsie). Kim Stanley also received a supporting actress nomination for her portrayal of Lillian.

After the filmís release, when Cliffordís directorial debut went virtually ignored in the torrent of praise for Langeís performance, the two conducted a brief feud in the pages of the Los Angeles Timesí "Calendar" section. Clifford commented that Lange hadnít had to "act" for the role in Frances. "She just let out all the stuff she usually represses." Far from being easy or natural, Lange insisted, "Frances was the hardest stretch Iíve ever done." She told the "Calendar" writer that she was hurt by the film reviews, that she felt they were unfair.

But both she and Stanley understood full well why the movie had failed. The two aspects of filmmaking that are most easily tampered with - the writing and the editing - both were subject to the doubts, ultimately, about showing Frances Farmerís life as the pit of despair it really was. Precisely the elements that had attracted Marie Yates, Graeme Clifford, writers like Arnold or Rex Reed, Lange herself, to this tragic heroine - her solitary refusal to acquiesce, her ferocious anger, her paradigmatic lock with a powerful parent that afflicts so many creative people - precisely these elements were jettisoned, in the final analysis, by the producers and Universal studio executives terrified of releasing something perceived as a "downer."

In January 1983, Graeme Clifford had found it a good joke to plan a benefit premiere of Frances at the very theater in Seattle, Washington, where Frances Farmer had premiered in Come and Get It, and where the sequences of the episode had been shot. It was for a good cause of some kind or another, and a bemused Jessica and Kim Stanley followed along. Jessica half expected the same actress to come out and honor her, just like in the film. "I couldnít resist it!" grinned Clifford.

Months later, Lange would stop, suddenly, and find herself "on the verge of tears, overwhelmed with sadness" about Frances. "Roles," she concluded, "are baggage that you carry around." Even three years later, when interviewed by New York Times reporter Dena Kleiman, Lange made it clear: "Iíll never do a role like that again."

Assembled, edited and provided by Dario Recla, updated Aug. '99


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