IMDB summary

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Frances is a tale of two actresses:


Jessica Lange was a latecomer to acting, having made her first appearance in a movie at age 27. Since she'd probably like to forget that one ("King Kong"), she never really did anything substantial before her 30th birthday. Once she got goin', though, there was no stoppin' her. I think of Jessica as the anti-Brando, in one sense.

Brando probably had more talent than any actor who ever lived. Pauline Kael used to tell the story of the epileptic fit that Brando feigned in his early stage career. It stopped the show many times. And I mean it literally stopped the show. The audience thought it was an actor having an epileptic fit, and not part of the play, so medical professionals in the audience would try to help him.

Unfortunately, Brando got lost after about five great performances, and had nowhere near the career his talent merited. How many great performances did he give after the fifties? I suppose only one (Last Tango). How many good performances? Maybe a half-dozen, many of those debatable - Countess from Hong Kong, The Godfather, Don Juan de Marco, Bedtime Story, maybe One-Eyed Jacks, maybe Apocalypse Now, maybe The Score. That's it for 40 years!  Somewhere in there, his overwhelming talent was swamped in a tidal wave of self-indulgent portrayals where the director should have simply kicked his silly ass off the set and hired a real actor. Missouri Breaks, Mutiny on the Bounty and the Dr Moreau remake come immediately to mind.

Jessica Lange has probably had a better career than Brando, despite the fact that she didn't have one lick of natural talent. Her performance in King Kong is a sample of legendary atrociousness. She made Kathy Ireland look like Meryl Streep. And yet, through a combination of hard work, serious study, and intelligence, she became one of the best actresses of her generation. The Frances Farmer biopic was the first of Lange's six Oscar nominations. Actually, I guess that's not exactly correct. I guess it was tied for first, since she was nominated twice that year, for both Frances (lead - lost) and Tootsie (support - won).


This film is a disturbing, true story about a rebel whose individuality was seen in Hollywood as emotional instability, and even as mental illness.

Frances Farmer was a rebellious actress in the late 30's and early 40's. She didn't like the Hollywood system, and just didn't fit in. She was sympathetic to Communism. She was an athiest. She was an intellectual who had been a top student, but she had the bad luck to end up in a profession in which her brains had no value, and her far left radicalism was viewed as dangerous, possibly demented.  It's hard to imagine anyone with a brain not being angry at being treated like a brainless and interchangeable prop by the filmmakers of that day. Viewed through the prism of today, she seems more like us than the others of her day who kowtowed to the system. Yet in those days her attitude was seen as a mental condition serious enough that she was held against her will in mental institutions for a decade, and eventually lobotomized.

Of all the Hollywood columnists, only John Rosenfeld came to her defense:

"The Frances Farmer Incident should never have happened at all. This actress was no threat against law and order or the public safety. Something that began as merely a traffic reprimand grew into a case of personal violence, a serious charge, and a jail sentence. And all because a sensitive high-strung girl was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Miss Farmer, who is no prodigy of emotional stability or sound business management. needed a lawyer one unhappy night last winter. A helping hand might have extradited her immediately from nothing more than a traffic violation. The terrible truth is that she stood alone, and lost"


The truth is that the traffic violation was only the kick-off. She received a suspended sentence after that incident. That was mild enough treatment, but she was supposed to report to her parole officer and failed to do so, forcing the court to order her arrest.  To be fair, there was much more to her legal predicament than a mere parole violation. Frances had enough emotional baggage that I suppose one might call her deeply troubled. She was filled with anger, and simply did not have her emotions in check, partially because of a drinking problem. In between her two court appearances, Frances had broken her hairdresser's jaw in a fight, and had streaked topless through traffic down Sunset Strip.

This time, the police broke down her door in the dead of night and hauled her to the station, kicking and screaming and stark naked. As shown in the film, she listed her profession as "cocksucker" at the police station. When she came to court, she threw a tantrum and actually threw an inkpot at the judge (accurately!), oblivious to the impact it would have on her case. The judge was not amused, and threw her in the slammer for six months. Before the bailiffs got her into a straightjacket, she floored a police matron and slugged an officer. When she got into the calaboose, she refused to do her work detail and caused trouble at every opportunity. Things went from bad to worse.

Her mother eventually had her committed to a sanitarium, where she was subjected to insulin shock. Within a short time she was adjudged clinically insane by the State of Washington, tossed in the loony bin for ten years, and eventually lobotomized.

Essentially lobotomized for a traffic ticket.

The film doesn't really make clear that Frances sort of "made her own bed." It is not possible to defend the way she was treated, but if she had developed any networks in Hollywood, there would have been studios or powerful individuals coming to her aid. That did not happen because she had alienated everyone. She was a troublemaker who had bad-mouthed everyone and treated everyone badly. While in Hollywood she had claimed that the directors and scriptwriters were morons, and that the producers were exploiters. She looked down on film performers because she fancied herself a serious actress who wanted to appear on stage in the classics. She was often quoted as saying she hated everything in Hollywood except the money. And they hated her right back.  "The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable", as William Wyler put it. Frances had proven so completely odious in Hollywood that many in Hollywood saw her brutal treatment as deserved comeuppance for her arrogance, her Communism, and her atheism.



Frances is rated a solid 7.4 at IMDb, and received two Oscar nominations, but its director, Graeme Clifford, never directed a theatrical film before this one. He didn't do much afterward, either, at least not in the realm of theatrical movies. The rest of his career was primarily focused on television. In fact his resume includes only three other films which received theatrical releases: Gleaming the Cube, Burke & Wills, and the critically lambasted Ruby Cairo, which essentially ended his career outside of the TV industry.