(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
1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
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
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