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!

Advertisements

Jolene


Jolene

Jessica Chastain looks pretty in too much make-up said no-one ever.

(2008) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Jessica Chastain, Frances Farmer, Dermot Mulroney, Zeb Newman, Chazz Palminteri, Denise Richards, Theresa Russell, Michael Vartan, Shannon Whirry, Drea Pruseau, Rupert Friend, Sherry Leigh, Amy Landers. Directed by Dan Ireland

 

Most people are fully aware of the Biblical story of Job. You remember, the guy who had all sorts of things thrown at him on a bet between God and the Devil. They wanted to see how long he’d remain faithful to the Lord and Good Old Job stayed faithful despite losing everything. Good Job, Job.

The truth is that when real people are beset by numerous catastrophes of Biblical proportions, they tend to grow cynical and bitter. They lose faith in everything and everyone. They become hardened and often their outlook makes them difficult to be around. Of course there are exceptions.

Jolene (Chastain) is an orphan who gets married far too young to Mickey (Newman) who means well but is weak. The young couple move in with Mickey’s Uncle Phil (Mulroney) who takes a liking to Jolene and she to him. The two take to fornicatin’ and are sadly discovered by Aunt Kay (Russell) who as a conservative Christian woman doesn’t cotton much to infidelity and throws the young girl out on her ear, which eventually leads to tragedy. The vengeful Kay sees to it that Jolene ends up in juvenile detention where a counselor named Cindy (Farmer) who happens to be a lesbian, also succumbs to Jolene’s charms and helps her escape.

Jolene makes her way to Arizona where she takes up with a tattoo artist with the unlikely name of Coco Leger (Friend) who is also a drug dealer. To nobody’s surprise that ends up badly so Jolene makes her way to Las Vegas and finds work as an exotic dancer. She catches the eye of Sal (Palminteri), a Vegas businessman who falls head over heels for Jolene and looks to be the one to treat her nicely and with respect. Sadly, Sal’s got problems with the mob. So long, Sal.

Next stop, Tulsa where Jolene hooks up with Brad (Vartan) who is a millionaire. He’s also a religious nutcase and an abuser of women. Can Jolene break out of this pattern of bad choices or is it just a matter of bad luck?

This tale of woe is based on a short story by noted author E.L. Doctorow (who also penned Ragtime and The Book of Daniel among other) which was in turn inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” In all fairness the story is basically a means of explaining how the red-haired seductress of Parton’s song got to be that way but the movie really isn’t into making excuses for Jolene. She is where she is because she makes some hideously bad choices and doesn’t learn from them. Which, also to be honest, is true of most of us.

The movie is notable as being Jessica Chastain’s debut and she is quite frankly the reason to see it at all. Her performance here is electric and mesmerizing; yes you can see that Jolene is a train wreck but Chastain makes her a sympathetic train wreck. She makes Jolene a memorable woman, feisty and artistically talented but simply lacking in sense.

While there are some pretty strong performers here for the most part the performances are surprisingly vapid outside of Chastain. Mulroney and Farmer are usually pretty reliable as is the handsome Michael Vartan; they don’t disgrace themselves but they don’t really distinguish themselves either.

Part of the problem is that the script reads as melodrama. You half expect Snidely Whiplash to come leaping out with a “Nyah ah ah,” fingering his moustache as he prepares to tie poor Jolene to the train tracks. I get that Jolene had a really hard life. I get that as a woman, she suffered terrible exploitation. I also get that she made choices that screwed her over. But does it have to be hammered into the viewer repeatedly? It isn’t a plot point so much as an assault.

This is a movie that sat two years on the shelf before making the festival circuit and another two years before hitting its theatrical release. That usually bodes ill for a movie, even at the independent level. Other than Chastain who is almost in another, better movie (and very clearly carries this one) there isn’t a lot to recommend this film for but certainly if you’re into mesmerizing performances from young actresses, this one fits that bill.

WHY RENT THIS: Chastain’s first movie and she’s amazing in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly melodramatic. Perhaps a little too much is thrown Jolene’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality here is very rampant with lots of frank discussion, graphic nudity and of course sex scenes. There’s also some bad language and a bit of drug use, not to mention a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolene debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival which director Dan Ireland is co-founder of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A gag reel is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Lincoln