on February 11, 2001
'Frances' is, quite frankly, one of the most powerful films I have ever seen, and definitely one of the most compelling tales I have seen on film. I saw this movie 17 years after it was first released, but a story such as this loses none of its' power with time, and I was moved, touched and amazed at the life of Frances Farmer, upon whose life this film is based.
First of all, let me say that I saw this on DVD. The DVD version of the movie is crystal clear, though the sound could have been sharper. Colors are crisp and vibrant, and the director's use of film in certain places to create a '30s effect is well-transferred. The only sore point is that there are no extra features on the DVD other than the scene selection. Perhaps a documentary on the star's life would have complimented the movie, but I'm not really complaining. That such an excellent film is available on DVD is gift enough.
The life of Frances Farmer remains one of the most shrouded-in-secrecy tales to come out of Hollywood. Even her autobiography, it is said, was actually written by her 'best friend' Jean Ratcliffe, who doesn't even feature in the movie. I knew none of this when I first stumbled upon this film, which made the horror of the events it contained that much more gruesome and intolerable. For audiences who couldn't stomach 'Hannibal', I have news for you. 'Frances' is a film that deals with true horror, and for that reason this is a film that I will not see again. It affected me too much.
The film starts with Frances' Seattle days, when she was a schoolgirl who won the essay contest with her stunning view of religion and life called 'God Dies'. Jessica Lange's spoken version of the poem is gripping and sets the tone for the rest of the film. To be honest, Jessica Lange playing a 16 year old sounds unbelievable, but she pulls it off. Her transformation from schoolgirl to budding actress to tantrum-throwing firebrand is utterly compelling, and confirmed to me that she is indeed one of the best actresses we have in our company today.
Frances Farmer, according to the movie, was hopelessly controlled by her mother, and to some extent, her soft-spoken father. The unspeakable horrors in this film include the selling of Frances to the mental institution by her mother, something that I could not quite get over. And yet, through it all, the film suggests that Frances is sane, and it is the rest of the world that views an uneven temperament as something that one should be punished for, or even worse, lobotomized. Much has been written of Farmer's supposed lobotomy, and the film insists that it did indeed happen. Farmer herself, in her later years, was known to have told her friends that it did not. Whatever the true story, it cannot be denied that the inhuman treatment that met this girl was shocking and condemnable.
Jessica Lange is perhaps the only actress I have seen on film who has managed to tow the line between restrain and over-the-top so well, as she does here. Her scenes in the mental institution are breathtaking, because it reveals to us what true acting really consists of. Yet, at the same time, it seems as if Lange doesn't really act the part of Farmer. She IS Farmer, for all of the movie. This is at once both curious and remarkable, because no matter how hard I think, I cannot recall a single actress in a true-story adaptation who has managed to convince the audience that they ARE the person they are playing. Alas, Farmer's relationship with her mother, whom she keeps strangely going back to (proving that familial ties can sometimes be the noose around ones' neck) is where Lange hopelessly excels. These scenes are traumatic to sit through, and I must admit I had a tougher time sitting through this than I did during "Dancer in the Dark".
The fascinating thing about this movie is that it reminds us that there was nothing really wrong with Frances Farmer, other than her being an opinionated and strong-willed young woman, who wanted to take control of her own life. But in the '30s, this was blasphemy, at least to the circles that Farmer stemmed from. Jessica Lange's masterful potrayal of a woman torn between love for family, and love for ones' own sense of Self is something that I will not easily forget.
The scenes in the mental asylum are the ones that are hardest to swallow. And to think that these events actually occured! Frances was repeatedly tortured, raped by orderlies and soldiers who were snuck in, and subject to eight hour stretches of hyrdrotherapy every day (something the film does not show, as it would have been way too graphic to handle). At the end of it, Frances Farmer spent seven years in the mental asylum for no apparent sin. The film does not portray her as a martyr or glorify her, which made me respect it as a body of work even more. It also hints that the lobotomy made Frances 'emotionally calmer', but Lange's subtle performance post-operation hints to us that there was serious emotional and physical damage done. The tilt of her head, the way her face shifts lower toward her neck and thrusts up in spasms every time she tries to talk - these are all signs that Frances Farmer was raped and mutilated and lobotomized from within, and would never again be the same person.
Curiously, the movie does not deal with the years after Farmer's release from the hospital. Incredibly, she was supposed to have returned one last time to Hollywood and hosted her own TV show. Even her death was a mystery. Cancer of the oesophagus, it was said. Whatever the truth, we can safely say that Frances Farmer was one of Hollywoods' greatest victims, and a fine example that sometimes family can be the worst thing that happens to us.
I strongly recommend this film to all lovers of drama and serious film-making. This deserved more recognition when it came out, and needs to be made more easily available. The DVD edition is in widescreen, with stereo sound. Easy scene access is the only additional feature.
on September 6, 2006
This is a welcome re-release of one of the very best movies of the 1980s. The DVD itself is a visual and sonic delight, and it comes with extras that are actually worth watching.
Jessica Lange's Oscar-nominated performance alone makes this an unforgettable film - it is clear that she studied Farmer's personality and mannerisms meticulously. She is totally disarming in this role. Kim Stanley is also deserving of her Oscar nomination, and the chemistry between the two makes for some emotionally exhausting scenes.
Frances Farmer was not mentally ill, not by any definition. Yes, she drank excessively at times, and used over-the-counter amphetamines, which contributed to key incidents of "erratic behavior." More than that, though, her brutally honest opinions, sarcastic wit, abrasive language, and her strong sense of self-determination aggravated those who wanted to use and control her.
She inspired vengeance in the hearts of studio moguls at Paramount, right-wing vigilantes in Seattle, and even in her own mother, who still felt a need to control her as an adult, and to enjoy success vicariously through Frances. All of this converged to create her tragedy.
Several reviewers here have disputed details of this film. Names have been changed for some characters. Farmer's first husband, pretty boy Dick/Duane Steele, represents character actor Leif Erickson, who was still living when this film was made. The doctors and judges in Farmer's story likewise have false names, presumably due to legal caution.
Harry York, as an ongoing romantic interest, is indeed fictional, but thanks to the DVD featurette, we learn from the filmmakers that he is based on Stuart Jacobsen, a biographical resource who first met Frances while working for leftist Seattle congressman Marion Zioncheck - the Kaminski character. (Incidentally, the real-life Zioncheck also became a victim of mental health treatment. Not long after making a speech denouncing J. Edgar Hoover, he was briefly admitted to an institution in the Washington DC area for insulin shock treatments. A few weeks later, Zioncheck jumped to his death from a building in downtown Seattle.)
Some recent reviewers have disputed whether Farmer had a lobotomy. Near the end of this film we see a recreation of her appearance on This Is Your Life, where Farmer tolerates some extremely condescending comments from host Ralph Edwards. As Jessica Lange observes in the DVD extra, Frances would have cut him with her wit had she still possessed her entire mind. Instead, she rather sheepishly denies that anything was ever "wrong" with her.
One fact is certain - Dr Walter Freeman, the prime advocate of the procedure, performed lobotomies at Western State Hospital while Frances was there. There is no official record of Farmer receiving a lobotomy, but she was their most notorious inmate, not just for her acting fame, but for her incorrigible defiance in the face of every weapon in the mental health arsenal. In the 1940s, elements of the psychiatric profession were eager to prove that their expertise had value as a technocratic tool. The results of this were felt not only by dissidents in the Soviet Union, but in the US as well, for example, in the CIA's notorious MK-ULTRA mind control projects. No doubt, behavior modification specialists saw Frances as a special challenge.
The story of Frances Farmer is the tale of an unusually bright, creative individual seeking to explore life on her own terms, and the brutality of the response from those who wished to deny her that right. Jessica Lange put her heart into this role, portraying Frances as a deep, caring, complex and unique human being.
Her performance will haunt you.
on July 13, 2000
all at the same time is the best way to describe this film in my opinion. I have seen it now three times and I notice the small nuances of acting that I overlooked in the first viewing. This movie made me want to know more about Frances Farmer and I bought the now out-of-print book, "Will There Really Be A Morning?" which was Miss Farmer's own autobiographical account of her life.
I find that I immediately admire the strength of this woman and yet feel absolutely astonished that the things that happened to her truly did in a "civilized" society. In fact there seems to be some confusion about whether the famous "...lobotomy gets 'em HOME!" scene in which Miss Farmer is lobotomized with what amounts to no more than a fancy ice-pick really happened. I wish for less ambiguity and more clarity at certain times during the film.
In any event this movie is fine entertainment and the parts are brilliantly played by Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer and Kim Stanley as her controlling and somewhat sadistic mother. Of particular note is the small but brilliantly played part of Dr. Symington played by Lane Smith. It is too bad he didn't have more than a few minutes in this film; He crammed a tom of talent into ten minutes time.
The only reason I don't give this film 5 stars is because not enough of Miss Farmer's life in Indianapolis is covered. It was there that she hosted an afternoon movie and talk show for the years before her death. The mystery that was her life could possibly be further understood if the period from 1958-1970 had been covered. Get this and see for yourself how thought-provoking and haunting it is. This is a very powerful film so be ready to think about it long after you see it.
on July 8, 2000
Ironically, this film is yet another Hollywood slap in the face to stage and screen actress Frances Farmer. Jeers to screenwriters Eric Bergren, Christopher DeVore and Nicholas Kazan for diluting the harrowing tragedy of her story by giving her a fictional long-term support system in the guise of "Harry York". O that the real Frances had such a loving and loyal ally ... but the truth, according to her autobiography and the brilliant biography "Shadowland" by William Arnold, is that Farmer walked through the hell of her life mostly alone and uncomforted.
The conceit of the screenplay is especially upsetting because so many other elements of the film are perfect. Jessica Lange gives a devastating, powerhouse performance as the misbegotten star, and she's matched every frame of the way by Kim Stanley (who two decades earlier played a Monroe-type character in "The Goddess") as Farmer's hellion of a mother, Lillian. These two actresses, who strongly resemble their real-life counterparts, were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their brilliant acting in this film. The costumes, make-up, and set decorations are also flawless ... those who have studied photographs of Farmer's career and personal life will recognize that great pains were taken to reproduce her hairstyles, makeup - even the fabrics of her clothing - authentically. All the requisites for a great film are here ... except for the script.
The DVD transfer is fine. There aren't any extra bonus features, but the picture and sound are sharp and crisp. Recommended for fans of Lange and Stanley; Farmer devotees would be better served by reading the two aforementioned books.
on April 19, 2007
This is one of the most horrifying, heartbreaking stories I have ever seen. There are a lot of reviewers here who contest the authenticity of the storyline, but even if what is depicted is even remotely true, here is a life that no-one deserves.
I don't agree with a lot of what Jessica Lange has to say, current issues, political views and such, but I have tremendous respect for her acting ability. Her portrayal of an unbalanced, threatened, hounded woman, is without peer. In this film, she portrays the film star Frances Farmer, showing a very controversial, headstrong woman, a no-no in the day of Farmer's rise and fall. Attacking a hairdresser, being pulled over by the police, then attacking a police officer, and being convicted of Contempt of Court, yes, she needed to learn a lesson. But people in authority don't like people who make waves.
The story follows her life, so to speak, through some rough times, some happier times, and, what I would call one of the saddest, most frustrating, completely horrifying things to happen to somebody. She's happy, she knows what she wants, and is ready to begin anew, without Hollyweird. The typical stage-mother sees this as a bad idea, and a fight ensues. Since she was stripped of her legal rights as an adult, her mother's decisions count, not hers, and in one of the most vicious things one could do to another person, commits Frances to a mental intstitution a second time. Seeing her sitting there, remembering her life when it was better, in a crowded mental infirmary, surrounded with the dregs of society, drugged, hair chopped off, restrained, tied down and raped, this is an excruciating scene to watch. As with the Ice-Pick Lobotomy. Detractors of this film say this didn't happen to her, but it DOES happen. Or, at the very least, it did happen to people. Like an earlier scene, where the doctors strapped her to a bed, and injected her full of Insulin, telling her it was a tranquilizer. Watching convulsions isn't a pleasant experience, and having one, I can't imagine.
The written narration at the end of the film says, "She died as she lived: Alone."
Yes, this is one brutal film, one that can leave a viewer exhausted, physically, as well as emotionally, and will stay with you for a very long time, knowing how people tend to treat someone who is a little "different."
on February 15, 2007
Frances is a powerful movie that tells the story of a very gifted, beautiful and smart actress falling apart as she struggles to fit into the Hollywood mold of her time. It is not quite clear if she is suffering from mental illness of if she is just overwheled with rage and frustration for which she has no outlet, but regardless, like used to happen and still does at times, she enters the world of the psychiatric hospital and gradually looses her freedom, her life and her mind (literally, in the sense that at some point in the movie she is lobotomized). As she endures all of this, we begin to understand that Frances has a very sick mother, that is probably more in need of psychiatric care than her daughter. The mother betrays her over and over, not allowing her to be her true self, denying her true needs and handling her over to the butchers at the psychiatric hospital whenever she feels that Frances may be slipping away from her control.
This is a very sad and at times horrifying story. It may not be Frances Farmer's true story however, as it seems that she may have never had a lobotomy. Also it seems that she had a far bigger problem with alcoholism than was highlighted here. However, this does not detract from the movie, which tells a story that could have been true for many people of that era. Lobotomy and in particular the "icepick" style lobotomy was practiced liberally at the time by a variety of doctors and mental health practitioners, some of which did not even have any kind of surgical experience or license. Lobotomies of this kind , apparently were administered to war veterans struggling to adjust after the traumas they endured. Now they would be dignosed with PTSD and treated accordingly. Eventually lobotomy went out of fashion as it was seen for what it was: a barbaric practice that zombified people by robbing them of their essence, not a cure. I hope the same will be said soon of electroshock treatments, that, believe it or not are still used today. The history of the treatement of severe mental illness is rife with horror. In many ways we are still so very ignorant in these matters.
This is not a movie for the faint of heart. However, it is an important movie in many ways. And Jessica Lange's performance is one of the best female performances I have ever seen. It is worth watching this picture just to see her act. A disturbing yet beautiful and powerful movie.
on January 5, 2016
An all-time classic. Jessica Lange does an amazing job here. You cannot take your eyes off her. She's just brilliant. The story is heart-wrenching. Not completely accurate historically but you get the feel for what it must've been like for Frances nonetheless. The cast is fantastic. Perfectly cast. You fall in love with Frances in the first five minutes. And you can understand why she'd keep trying to have a relationship with her mother no matter how horrific the woman was. It's amazing she survived any of it. People can be SOOOO MF'n STUPID it just blows your mind. How ANY of us survive speaks to the resiliency of the human race. See it. You'll never forget it.
on December 24, 2004
There are two reasons to watch "Frances", and two reasons only--Jessica Lange and Kim Stanley. Their performances are visceral and will stay with the viewer long after the film ends. The film itself, unfortunately, is a gross misrepresentation of what really happened to Frances Farmer. The film invents characters out of whole-cloth (Harry York never existed), and sensationalizes the sadder elements of Farmer's life in a fittingly ironic slap at her memory, considering what she thought of Hollywood in real life. Frances was never lobotomized, and though her relationship with her mother had its share of drama, it was nothing like what is portrayed in the film. In the most recent DVD release, director Graeme Clifford states on the commentary "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts," and that is surely the understatement of the century. There is an in-depth web essay pointing out the many misrepresentations in the source material for this film (many of which the film duplicates) which can be found by using a search engine and searching for "Shedding Light on Shadowland."
on August 6, 2001
I give Jessica Lange the Oscar for this performance even if Hollywood did not. And I could see how they wouldn't, as it graphically shows their nature. Some reviewers call this a weak script, but it is what must be read between the lines that counts. The pivotal scene in the movie is when the Paramount executive states that they would make Frances Farmer pay for using them (instead of them using her) when she was in New York and wanting to go to England. Her life becomes a living nightmare from that point forward. "Mom" is truly despicable as one of their enablers.
One thing that I think wasn't done very well was the handling of her personal relationships with husbands/boyfriends. Too many liberties with history were taken here. However, overall this movie is superbly done and so realistic that it leaves a really strong impression on you. As an actress playing a tragic character, Jessica Lange really puts in an incredible performance. One of the most intense movies I have ever seen.
on March 21, 2013
I'm a fan of Jessica Lange. I've not seen every thing she's starred in, but almost. I think her starring role in Blue Sky is probably my favorite, followed by Rob Roy. So, when I saw the title and read a summary of the movie's story line, I knew I had to see it. I passed the DVD along to another gal so that the story would be told again. The gal never told me what she thought, but then, the movie was very unsettling. Lange was superb as always. Believable at all points. Sad as any story can be. Betrayal is the best way to describe Farmer's life. Farmer was intelligent, but yet couldn't seem to keep her calm during a storm. She couldn't outwit those who sought to destroy her. From what I read about Farmer, the movie errs from reality. In the movie she had a fellow as a support unit; in real life, there wasn't such a fellow. Too bad there wasn't, may be he could have helped to save her from her eventual end. Farmer's fate at the hands of those in charge is something that should never be allowed to happen, yet when you read history very much, especially women's history, you find these sort of things happened again and again under many governments and religious orders. It's never been very safe to be a woman, and the screen brings that fact to life. If France Farmer couldn't keep her sanity and her freedom, how can any misbehaving woman expect to stay free? All the old movies found a way to punish women who dared to express sexuality. Times have changed some, but there's still an undercurrent of control. I recommend this movie to any woman who believes she's due respect just for being a woman. I've believe it's an illusion. If a woman wants to be taken seriously, then she must work her mind as well as her body and not count on the males in this world to provide happiness and health. Keep your wits about you and read, read, read. Learn all you can. Learn to cook, learn to clean, and learn to speak clearly in a positive fashion. Frances Farmer erred because she couldn't control her own demons. Learn to control those early in life and life won't turn out as it did for Frances. Women looking to see the raw reality of the history of women in Hollywood need to watch this film.