By Kim Morgan
Press Play Contributor
On August 1, Frances Farmer passed away. Here’s to Saint Francis.
Oh, Frances Farmer. She died 41 years ago August 1st 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 genius, kick-out-the-jams-motherfuckers 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? See, the frustration turns into questioning frustration. Which is … frustrating.
But my god, how I love when Jessica Lange loses her composure and understandably smacks that bitchy hairdresser (‘Your hair’s so thin, you’re gonna lose it if you’re not careful.“) in the face. 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 isn’t far from my apartment 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, perhaps disturbingly, under my breath. But this is my instinctive duty as a fellow native Seattleite. For some of us hailing from the soggy, boggy PNW, Frances is our girl, and not just our original riot girl who will one day get her revenge (god bless you Kurt Cobain), but our patron saint of “don’t fuck with me fellas!” — and the tragic aftermath that kind of behavior creates. Alas, no Pepsi for her.
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. Miss 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 the often alienating business of show. Frances Farmer had a soul, natural born talent, a real, thinking, searching brain, an outspoken temper, inner demons and pure beauty. You’re not allowed to have 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, brilliantly creates its own insane, inspired, collage mixed tape), but that’s not what makes Frances suffer. It’s more that the movie, though lovely period detail and certainly good, isn’t entirely focused, and so never creates a strong case about just why Farmer had to endure such torment — Harry York is an easy character to throw in. And as harrowing as many scenes play out, it also soft-pedals the core story — about one woman’s fight against both the indignities of Hollywood and the abuse of the mental profession. What happened to Frances Farmer is an abomination, and not because we’d never see her again shine as an actress but because her life was perversely and hideously stolen from her.
But in the hands of Lange, Frances is thoroughly watchable even when becoming an almost traumatizing experience. Lange not only looks like Farmer, but also embodies everything we’ve ever read about the talented star: The understandable drinking (who didn’t tear it up in Hollywood?), the rage (how many stars were under studio control? Farmer was just too strong-willed to take it), and the desperation to find freedom. But the powers that be — Mother, Hollywood, and the Mental Institution — helped keep this intelligent woman from getting healthy and furthering her art — and she had so much to give. Though much of Frances Farmer’s biography is speculative (including the book Shadowland), I’m not with those who believe she deserved to be incarcerated. She was a drunk, she was hard to work with, she was, to some, really 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 there. She should have never been in that awful, stinking, soul sucking place. Even sadder, she was stuck in that snake pit for so long, that when anyone realized she was fine to leave, she chose to stay. The past was over and she knew no other life.
These things happen to “different” women. And like the young ones who exhibit their so-called “eccentric” free-thinking thoughts, 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 “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 (a film she was reportedly proud of, despite what this movie wants us to believe).
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 speculative) a lobotomy until 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 some guy 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 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 would 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 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” were never boring. And the movie isn’t either thanks to Miss Lange. Had she been given a little more control, or maybe had she been allowed to smack Stewart Jacobson in the mouth, hell even the hairdresser (without getting arrested) she could have directed this film — she’s the picture’s real auteur. Saint Frances would have approved.
This piece can also be viewed on Kim Morgan’s blog here.
Kim Morgan is a film, music and culture writer who authors Sunset Gun and her tumblr blog Sunset Gunshots. She’s written for numerous outlets including LA Weekly, The Oregonian, The Willamette Week, MSN Movies, Salon, IFC, Entertainment Weekly, GQ and Garage Magazine. She’s guest lectured at Cal State, presented movies at both the Los Angeles and Palm Springs Film Noir Festival and for the New School noir series, and served on the Sundance Film Festival’s short films jury. She’s appeared on AMC, Reelz and in the documentary feature American Grindhouse. She sat in for Roger Ebert, co-hosting Ebert & Roeper and has contributed to his newest show. Most exciting was guest programming for Turner Classic Movies. She’s currently working with Guy Maddin on his “Hauntings” project appearing in three films, two with Udo Kier, and one with a white wolf. She lives in Los Angeles.