From the archives: Today would have been Frances Farmer's 100th birthday. Here's a look at Frances, the movie, and Frances, the actress and icon.
Oh, Frances Farmer. She was born 100 years ago today and for those of us who love cinema, the power of performance and brave, talented, intelligent "bad girls" who do not go gentle into that good night, we should feel a pang of sadness. And frustration. Deep frustration. And we should be frustrated by the movie version of her life, Frances. Based on how many times I've watched the picture I'm beginning to believe I harbor some kind of frustration fetish. I've viewed the movie more than necessary, in spite of its flaws, and finally had to concede that even with Jessica Lange's supreme, kick-out-the-jams performance, the movie is not going to change through time. I'm never going to be happy with how it fully depicts Frances Farmer, I'm never going to accept its romantic side story, and I'm never going to know the truth anyway (whatever that is), so why be frustrated? Well, Frances Farmer's whole life was frustrating.
But my god, how I love when Jessica Lange loses her composure and understandably smacks that bitchy hairdresser in the face: "Your hair's so thin, you're gonna lose it if you're not careful." And the intense power and pain I feel when she screams "You got no fucking right!" as the police break into her room, wake her up naked, and drag her out of the Knickerbocker Hotel. That hotel still stands in Los Angeles and every time I pass by, I not only think of Frances, but of Jessica spitting out her rightful invective. That moment comes to me with such immediacy that I've uttered "You got no fucking right!" spontaneously, under my breath. Whether or not Frances Farmer deserved her arrest, the moment plays more as the iconic, uninhibited woman, that woman who terrifies others -- and the tragic aftermath of that woman. This is the legend of Frances Farmer.
And Jessica Lange gets this. Her ferocious, fearless beauty saved what could have been yet another studio mangling of the life and legend of a notorious woman. Lange reminds viewers that once upon a time there was this actress named Frances Farmer, a gifted but troubled actress from the 1930s who was not just crazy, but superb. And was she even crazy? Certainly no more, and probably a lot less, than many a young, intelligent woman struggling in that often alienating business. Frances Farmer was soulful, a natural and well studied talent with brains, an outspoken temper, inner demons and pure beauty. She also drank too much. You're not allowed to possess all of those things at once.
And these elements are presented, though not as skillfully or as layered as they should have been. A chance to really tell her story, a tale straight from Nathaniel West or Horace McCoy, was clearly at hand when the film was conceived (read Farmer's autobiography "Will There Really Be a Morning?" Never mind its questionable veracity, read it, and you can see why), but through script problems, studio requests, and one strange association with the conspiracy-obsessed ex-convict and probable liar Stewart Jacobson (played in the film as "Harry York" by Sam Shepard), Frances veers into fantasy, a fantasy Frances Farmer would not have appreciated.
Many fine films based on real lives or events stray from facts, add characters, or reinvent history (JFK and Nixon are supreme examples. Inglourious Basterds creates its own insane, inspired, collage mixed tape), but that's not what makes Frances suffer. It's more that the movie, though lovely with its period detail and certainly good, veers into this romance, and so never creates anything but the boilerplate case about just why Farmer had to endure such torment. Harry York is an easy character to throw on top. And as harrowing as many scenes play out, it works to soft-pedal the core story: about one woman's fight against Hollywood, the abuse of the mental profession and her own demons.
You don't hurl an inkwell at a judge if you're not troubled. The picture understands this. It also understands that what ultimately happened to Frances Farmer was wrong; her life was stolen from her. And not just because we'd never see her again shine onscreen as an actress (though Farmer later appeared on stage and on local TV, and that may have suited her fine) but because she was confined and, more than likely, mistreated. She didn't need to be locked up.
The actress agrees. In the hands of Lange, Frances is thoroughly watchable and potently traumatizing. Lange not only looks like Farmer, but also embodies everything we've ever read about the talented star: The understandabled drinking (who didn't tear it up in Hollywood?), the rage (how many stars were under studio control? Farmer was too strong-willed to take it), and the desperation to find freedom. But the powers that be -- Mother and the Mental Institution -- helped keep this intelligent woman from getting healthy and furthering her art. She had so much to give.
Though much of Frances Farmer's biography is speculative (including the book "Shadowland"), I'm not, as stated earlier, with those who believe she entirely deserved to be incarcerated (and neither does the movie). She was a drunk, she was hard to work with, she was, to some, truly crazy. So what? Some even think her stay in the mental ward has been over-dramatized. I'm not certain. My unique, beautiful great-grandmother was sent to the literal Cuckoo's Nest (the State Institution in Salem, Oregon) as a young woman, and she died locked up. Like Farmer, she should have never been in that wretched, soul-sucking place.
These things happen. They happen to all kinds of women. And like the young ones who exhibit their so-called "eccentric" free-thinking or rebellious thoughts and actions, Frances would both be ostracized and praised for her precociousness. The picture begins in 1931 when a 16-year-old Farmer writes a high school essay entitled "God Dies" (At 16? In 1931? How fucking great is that?). This is just the first of many cases where she enrages Seattle's moral majority, who later branded her a communist (her trip to Russia doesn't help). A talented stage actress in college, Farmer lands in Hollywood, where she declares (in the film) "I'm not a glamour girl."
Nevertheless, she marries a young actor and makes movies (mostly to her chagrin), including Howard Hawks' Come and Get It (which she was reportedly proud of, Frances suggests otherwise), Son of Fury (with Tyrone Power) and Flowing Gold opposite the brilliant John Garfield, another intelligent, sensitive actor whose career was stolen from him (from the fuckers at HUAC, in Garfield's case. Had Farmer not been sent away she surely would have been called).
Exasperated with Hollywood, Farmer ventures to New York and finds a home in the Group Theater, where she displayed great gifts, but (to her downfall) has a torrid affair with the married playwright Clifford Odets. After he harshly ditches her, she returns to Hollywood and falls into the legendary trouble that would slam her in horrifying mental institutions where she underwent experimental medication, shock treatments, rape, disgusting facilities, and finally (and this is highly speculative) a lobotomy before her release in 1950.
Lange carries us through this hell with brilliance, but Frances decides to shift the focus of the relationship with Farmer's deranged mother (perfectly played by Kim Stanley) to the more romantic overtures of Harry York. Lange and Shepard have wonderful chemistry, and he's charming, but the poetic license here bothers me. According to the film, York tried to reach out to Farmer after her inconceivably unfair and colorful court appearance (well-documented in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon in which we learn Farmer wrote her profession down as "cocksucker" -- thankfully we see that in the movie as well).
Nice thought, but I'd rather see the entire courtroom dramas played out in their ball-busting, gory detail. Frances kicking and screaming in her sensible, disheveled suit is as iconic to me as Marilyn Monroe standing on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. The hair, the cigarette, the smirk -- this is some woman, goddammit. I want more of her. Not a mystery man attempting to save the damsel in distress. But according to Frances, York was responsible for Farmer's first escape from the sanitarium and the reason she was presentable for a hearing that excused her from her first asylum (the film contends Harry sneaks into her ward and convinces a doctor to inject her with a drug that would make her more lucid). He also, allegedly, asked for her hand in marriage when she was under the legal guardianship of her mother, and he loved her until the end of her days.
Oh, life is but a dream but... bitch, please. I dream to burn down every rotten, abusive, mismanaged mental institution to bust Frances Farmer out of the loony bin. I understand the romantic impulse. But the idea that, despite everything written to the contrary -- Farmer may have had a chance at a decent life had she just ran away with this Prince Charming is an ill-conceived cinematic fantasy, and an insult to Farmer's memory.
It's the ultimate irony that the story of "the bad girl of West Seattle," the troubled non-conformist, the pain in the ass, the possible drop-out (through her own actions), the short lived Hollywood star who rarely censored her thoughts, was, even after death, under the control of a major studio who deemed her real life too depressing. As director Graeme Clifford states in the commentary on the DVD, you don't want to "nickel and dime the audience with facts." Pity. Farmer's "facts" weren't that cheap. But Farmer's reality and mythology are both important, regardless of the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A powerful, iconic symbol of what happens when female movie stars (or any woman in any profession who is wronged for speaking her mind or being labeled a bitch or an asshole) stir it up, open their mouths and get mad. Real mad. The fear of the uninhibited woman. Jessica Lange, the picture's true auteur, understands that anger. She passionately kicks down doors and screams in vehement memoriam, seemingly, for all the Frances Farmers. They will not be forgotten, goddammit.
Happy Birthday, Frances Farmer.