FRANCES—–“Everything’s going to be fine, Frances. Doctor knows best.” Beautiful, gifted and doomed, Frances Farmer was one of the great celebrity tragedies, but you could drop the showbiz connection and see it simply as another demonstration of the cold indifference held by the Universe regarding whatever we think of as “fair”. This is a fascinating drama, but crushing, nothing to watch when you’re at peace with things, tonic for those times when you need reassurance that your problems could in fact be worse.
Director Graeme Clifford takes Farmer (Jessica Lange) from her teens in Seattle and controversial essays into leftist literary territory (including a trip to Stalinist Russia), into her involvement with the Group Theater, then leaping into stardom as a movie actress at age 23. Six years later she was in involuntary retirement at the first of many mental institutions. To detail how Frances got there would reveal items best left to viewing the film.
What can be shared without spoil is that the acting, from Lange, and Kim Stanley as her mother, is some of the best you could ask for, wrenched loose with startling conviction. Lange, here 33, is breath-catching and heartbreaking. The brilliant turn here landed in the same year as her comedic score in Tootsie: a double-header that not only brought her dual Oscar nominations but gave a great big kazoo to all the critics who’d demolished her a few years before in King Kong. Way to go!
Kim Stanley’s horrid mother is flawless, the most persuasive portrait of domineering glamour lust you could ever hope to run from. She’s not a stage-mother, she’s a stage-monster. Such a pity this incredible actress appeared in only five films. She was nominated for Supporting Actress for this one, ironically losing to her co-star, for Tootsie, in the same category. Lange’s Best Actress nomination for this work was outvoted for Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. Prize-picking to the side, the scenes in Frances between Lange and Stanley are what are usually referred to as ‘shattering’.
Good support from Sam Shepard as Farmer’s lifelong friend (art meets life—Shepard and Lange stayed together for 30 years after working on this project). Bart Burns, as her ineffectual father, and Jeffrey DeMunn as a calculating Clifford Odets are both fine; Lane Smith is the patronizing, self-satisfied shrink who is a worthy rival to ‘Nurse Ratchett’.
The sequences in the insane asylums are graphic, raw and blistering, the images and possibilities suggested terrifying. Technically, the movie rates a smooth A, with a lovely music score from John Barry leading the crew, lining the unrelenting tragedy with sensitivity and restraint. Quick eyes will spot new kids Kevin Costner and Anjelica Huston peeking in among supporting players James Karen, Gerald S. O’Laughlin, Sarah Cunningham, Christopher Pennock and John Randolph. The 1982 movie runs 140 minutes.