Frances (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 he used to feign in his early stage career, that stopped the show many times because the audience thought it was an actor having an epileptic fit, and not part of the play, so people in the audience would try to help.

Unfortunately, Brando got lost after about five great performances, and has had nowhere near the career his talent merited. How many great performances has he given since 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 serious actor. Missouri Breaks and 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, and never did anything creditable before she was 32. 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. 


Jessica Lange did rear shots in two scenes, full-frontals in two scenes, and one scene with a clear look at her bosom.

Various naked women appear briefly in uncredited extra roles as asylum inmates. 

The Frances Farmer biopic, Frances, 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). 

Frances Farmer was a rebellious intellectual actress in the late 30's, early 40's, who didn't much like the system, and just didn't fit in. If she had been born in 1949, she would have been Jessica Lange. This is a true story about that rebel, whose individuality was seen in Hollywood as emotional instability, and even as mental illness. Viewed through the prism of today, she seems more like us than the others of her day who kowtowed to the system. Frances was sympathetic to Communism. She was an Athiest. She was an intellectual who had been a top student. 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.

Oh, yes, she had some anger to work through, and she had a difficult time with her mother, enough so that I suppose one might call her deeply troubled. She didn't have her emotions in check, and she was an alcoholic. But frankly, 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. Yet in those days her mental condition was viewed as serious enough that she was held against her will in mental institutions for a decade, and eventually lobotomized. 

A disturbing story.

The details shown in the Jessica Lange film are true, but one-sided. Frances was a troublemaker, treated everyone badly, and was universally disliked in Hollywood. "The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable", as William Wyler put it. Although people in Hollywood knew Frances wasn't really crazy, and knew what was happening to her was extreme, there was very little sympathy for her plight. 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" 

That incident was only the kick-off. From that, she received a suspended sentence, and was supposed to report to her parole officer.

Frances was hauled into court a second time for failing to report to that parole officer. This time, the police broke down her door in the dead of night and hauled her, kicking and screaming and stark naked, to the station. In fairness to the lawmen, there was more to it than a parole violation. Prior to the arrest,  Frances had broken her hairdresser's jaw in a fight, and had streaked topless through traffic down Sunset Strip.

As shown in the film, she listed her profession as "cocksucker" at the police station.

When she came to court, she threw another 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 they got her into a straightjacket, she floored a police matron and slugged an officer.

Then when she got into the calaboose, she refused to do her work detail, and 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.

Remember that this all began with a traffic violation!

Frances certainly did need professional anger counseling and alcohol rehab. However, that isn't the same as insanity.

Unfortunately, Frances had proven so completely detestable and smart-alecky in Hollywood that nobody wanted to come to her aid. While in Hollywood she had claimed that the directors and scriptwriters were morons, and that the producers were exploiters. She was often quoted as saying she hated everything in Hollywood except the money. Frances was a serious actress who wanted to appear on stage in the classics, and she had had an extended affair with leftist intellectual playwright Clifford Odets. When she got into all that trouble in 1942-1944, many in Hollywood saw it as deserved comeuppance for her arrogance, her Communism, and her Atheism. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no features

  • currently out of print, but available used

By the way, the director of the film, Graeme Clifford, never directed a theatrical film before this one, and never really did much else in the theatrical realm. The rest of his career has been primarily focused on television. He hasn't done any theatrical films at all since the critically lambasted Ruby Cairo. Frances is rated a solid 7.2 at IMDb, and received two Oscar nominations, but Clifford has no other film rated 6.0 or higher, and Ruby Cairo is at 3.6.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Maltin 2.5/4, Apollo 70/100.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Six articles on file

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, Apollo users 89/100
  • With their dollars ... it grossed only $5 million
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B- or  C+. Lange is terrific, but the movie leaves you short of a good understanding why it all happened.

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