Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

John Carpenter’s The Ward


Amber Heard prays that someone will take her seriously.

(2010) Horror (ARC Entertainment) Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lindsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Sydney Sweeney, Mika Boorem, D.A. Anderson, Susanna Burney, Sean Cook, Milos Milicevic, Jillian Kramer, Sali Sayler. Directed by John Carpenter

When looking back at the annals of horror movies, some directors stand out; James Whale, Todd Browning and in later years George Romero and David Cronenberg. Into that company, one has to add John Carpenter. The auteur of horror and science fiction classics such as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), it has been ten years since he has directed a feature film. Is this the movie to launch the comeback of one of horror’s masters?

A young woman sets a somewhat isolated farmhouse on fire. She is caught there by the police, who bring the struggling, screaming woman to the North Bend Mental Institution. We discover her name is Kristen (Heard) and she has no memory of how she got to the farmhouse or why she burned it down.

She is assigned to Dr. Stringer (Harris), the urbane Brit who seems to be the only doctor in the Asylum. There’s not much staff there either – Roy (Anderson), a somewhat menacing orderly, Nurse Lundt (Burney) who likely took her education at the Nurse Ratched school of Nursing (note the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reference), and Jimmy (Cook), a kindlier orderly.

Then again, there aren’t many patients. There’s Sara (Panabaker), a somewhat self-centered and looks-oriented young woman who never met a mirror she didn’t like. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has some pretty serious emotional traumas and deals with them by reverting to childhood. Iris (Fonseca), the friendly bespectacled one who has a sketchbook and draws the things that disturbs her. Finally there’s Emily (Gummer), the strong sort who appears to be the leader of this merry band.

There’s also Alice Hudson (Boorem). Who’s she? Well, apparently she’s a former resident of North Bend who took her leave of this mortal coil in a sudden and not very nice manner. Now her ghost (Kramer) is roaming the halls of North Bend, bumping off the remaining girls in also sudden and not very nice manners. Kristen must figure out a way to escape before she winds up on the grisly list of victims. But who is she really? Why can’t she remember any of her past? And why did she burn down that farmhouse. That is the key to the supernatural goings on at North Bend and a secret she must unlock if she is to survive.

Carpenter has mostly been working in television the past decade and in some ways that absence show. This is a very old school kind of movie in the way the shots are set up; it looks in many ways like an 80s horror film which is unsurprising given Carpenter’s pedigree. This is his first movie with a nearly all-female cast.

He gets some good performances, the most outstanding of which is by Gummer as the erstwhile leader of the group Emily. Gummer looks very much like a young Meryl Streep which makes some sense because she’s her daughter. She has as much as any of the female characters has to work with but in the end she does more with it.

Panabaker and Fonseca also acquit themselves well, Panabaker as the resident flirt, Fonseca as the sensitive girl. They’re essentially disposable cannon fodder for the monster who stalks them. Both of them are attractive women, which helps and both of them are solid professional actresses, which helps them even more. While you could have plugged in the cast of Jersey Shore to these sorts of roles, Fonseca and Panabaker give it the old college try.

Heard is usually a very capable actress but here she seems a little forced. There isn’t a lot of real emotion coming from her, mostly taking us from point A to point B with little examination into the process of getting there. She’s at her best in the opening shots, frightened and not really knowing what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, merely following her instincts. That scene piqued my interest.

Too bad what followed was awfully derivative, even of movies that were filmed concurrently (say hello, Sucker Punch) but for sure of asylum horror movies like Gothika and The House on Haunted Hill. A creature stalks the actors, lurks in shadows, shows signs of being a decrepit corpse and winds up being part of a twist.

That’s what this movie is and to be honest, it doesn’t disgrace itself. It just isn’t the comeback you’d hope for a master of the genre. Romero managed to re-invent himself without losing sight of what got him to the dance – Carpenter hasn’t quite mastered that trick yet. This is very much like the movies he would have made back in 1981. The unfortunate thing is that it’s 2011 and we expected something better.

REASONS TO GO: Well directed by a master craftsman. Some good performances, particularly by Fonseca, Panabaker and Gummer.

REASONS TO STAY: We’ve seen this all before, and better. Heard picks a bad time to give a sub-par performance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images as well as some violence and the very important obligatory extraneous nude shower scene (although much more nudity is implied than scene).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Carpenter not to have been shot in Panavision since his first one, Dark Star.

HOME OR THEATER: Essentially a haunted house horror movie which takes nearly entirely within a mental institution, this will be fine as a home video offering.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Easy A