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Frances Farmer was a talented, intelligent, and beautiful actress of the 1930s and '40s whose career was derailed by mental problems and alcohol abuse. Her memoir, Will There Really Be a Morning? (1972), was published two years after her death in 1970, and a 1978 biography, Shadowland, revived interest in her life and career.
Frances (1982) is a harrowing portrait of the troubled actress as a stubborn individualist victimized by her domineering mother and studio bosses. Emotionally fragile, she's eventually forced to submit to a lobotomy which leaves her calm but a shadow of her former self. Whether or not she actually had a lobotomy is unproven, but the film presents it as fact. And the screenplay added a fictitious character, Harry York, a sometime lover and close friend who's constantly bailing Farmer out of trouble. Those were just two of the problems with this problematic film, which nevertheless includes a striking, star making performance by Jessica Lange in the title role.
Lange had been fascinated with Farmer's story for years, after she read Farmer's autobiography as an acting student in New York in 1974. Disappointed by her film debut in the campy remake of King Kong (1976), Lange tried unsuccessfully for years to interest directors such as Bob Fosse and Bob Rafelson into making a film version of Farmer's story. Meanwhile, producer Marie Yates had optioned Shadowland, and was working with the book's author, William Arnold to develop a screenplay. Eventually, Yates took the project to Mel Brooks' production company, which dropped Arnold and his book. He sued and eventually lost. The screenplay for Frances was supposedly based on the known facts of Farmer's life, and the character of York was based on the claims of a political activist named Stewart Jacobson who claimed he had a long relationship with Farmer. Whether or not his claims were true (people who knew Farmer claimed they were not), the York character weakened the film.
Among those reportedly considered for the role of Farmer were Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Sissy Spacek, and Tuesday Weld. Editor Graeme Clifford made his directing debut with Frances. He had edited The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), which starred Lange, and he thought she would be ideal for the role. Lange was not yet a big star, so her salary would not be as high as some of the other contenders, and since she was less well-known, her persona would not overwhelm the character of Farmer. Lange threw herself into the part, researching Farmer's life, talking to people who had known her, and using her own Method training to dig for emotional truth. During filming, her intensity and identification with the character was total. "I had a nervous breakdown a day," she later told a reporter. "I lost a lot of weight and had huge black circles under my eyes." Part of that may have been frustration. The script, which had undergone numerous revisions, was still a mess, and Clifford's inexperience as a director (he previously worked as a film editor) led him to do take after take of emotionally taxing scenes. "It devastated me," Lange said later, "to be immersed in this state of rage for twelve to fourteen hours a day. I was really hell to be around." Playwright Sam Shepard, who played Harry York, was impressed with Lange's dedication, and with Lange herself. Their personal relationship began on the set of Frances, and has lasted for nearly 30 years.
Frances did not do well at the box office, and the reviews were mixed, with most critics faulting the script and directing. But Lange's performance received nearly unanimous praise. The New York Times' Vincent Canby called it "magnificent...Here is a performance so unfaltering, so tough, so intelligent and so humane that it seems as if Miss Lange is just now, at long last, making her motion picture debut." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Lange plays Farmer "in a performance that is so driven, that contains so many different facets of a complex personality, that we feel she has an intuitive understanding of this tragic woman."
Lange was nominated for two Academy Awards® for 1982, as Best Actress for Frances, and as Best Supporting Actress for her comic portrayal of a soap star in Tootsie (1982). Meryl Streep won the Best Actress Oscar® for Sophie's Choice (1982), but Lange won the Best Supporting Actress award. Kim Stanley was also nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Farmer's mother.
As for Frances, Lange had a hard time throwing off the character. "Roles are baggage that you carry around," she said in an interview. And three years later, she told the New York Times, "I'll never do a role like that again." Perhaps not, but she has continued to give performances that are quirky, emotionally committed, and fully realized throughout her career.
Director: Graeme Clifford
Producer: Jonathan Sanger, Co-Producer Marie Yates
Screenplay: Eric Bergren, Christopher De Vore, Nicholas Kazan
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Editor: John Wright
Costume Design: Patricia Norris
Art Direction: Ida Random, Emad Helmey
Music: John Berry
Cast: Jessica Lange (Frances Farmer), Sam Shepard (Harry York), Kim Stanley (Lillian Farmer), Bart Burns (Ernest Farmer), Jeffrey DeMunn (Clifford Odets), Jordan Charney (Harold Clurman), Hitchhiker (Jonathan Banks), Donald Craig (Ralph Edwards), Darrell Larson (Louella's Spy), Gerald S. O'Laughlin (Lobotomy Doctor).
C-140. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri