There is a strange sort of screen fame, where the pitiful fate of an actor is far better known than anything in the artist's filmography. Marie Prevost is one of these, thanks to a misspelled serenade from Nick Lowe; others include Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Maria Montez, and Jayne Mansfield.
The queen of this sad category must be Frances Farmer. She made only sixteen films, and most ordinary people haven't seen any of them. Only about three are still known to even the most ardent movie buffs (in descending order of repute, Come and Get It, The Toast of New York and Son of Fury). Her fame was kept alive via a largely bogus "autobiography," a lurid chapter of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and a wildly inaccurate biography. In this, Frances is in keeping with her company, too. Much of what you hear about these Bad-End Actors isn't true. Fatty Arbuckle was almost certainly innocent of rape; Jayne Mansfield was not decapitated in the car crash that killed her. (And the Ur-Source of much of the bad information is Hollywood Babylon, so much so that you start to wonder if this bilious man got anything right except the crime-scene photographs.) Farmer's brutal fate needed little embellishment, but the legends printed by various writers became the facts. And the "facts" eventually led to a Hollywood biopic, and the finest performance Jessica Lange ever put on film.
Frances as a whole isn't a particularly good movie. It is more of an endurance test than anything else--over two hours of watching a beautiful, sensitive and intelligent woman destroyed by the sorriest collection of gargoyles you ever saw in your life. Roger Ebert's review maintains that no one thing is blamed for Farmer's downfall, but in fact Farmer herself largely gets a pass. She does drink a lot, but sheesh, who can blame her? Her life is one betrayal after another, by Seattle, by her mother, by the studio, by reporters, by Clifford Odets, by her ghastly mother again, by the mental health system, by the local military, by a glory-hound doctor and finally by Ralph Edwards and This Is Your Life. There is a fictional "Harry York" character, played by Sam Shepard, who keeps popping up at times when Farmer or the script seems to need him. The device came in for a lot of criticism, but at least he gives the audience time to breathe before the next catastrophe befalls Farmer.
That this horror show is watchable at all is almost entirely due to Lange, who is believable, charismatic and sympathetic. She takes Farmer from her fiery, idealistic teens to hollowed-out middle age with seamless honesty. The false notes are in the script, never in Lange's characterization. It is quite the tribute to Lange that many scenes are as clear in the Siren's memory as the day she saw the movie, for the first and only time, in 1982. Lange's line deliveries are so perfect. I can still see her, radiantly beautiful at a Hollywood party, and hear her quiet but lacerating riposte to a conniving yellow journalist: "You seem like an intelligent young man. Can't you find a more dignified way of earning a living?"
Few people can sit through Frances more than once, although critic and blogger Kim Morgan recently managed it. It is a shame, though, that the movie advances the central myth about Farmer's life, that she received a lobotomy in a Washington state mental hospital. All available evidence indicates it never happened. Another indelible scene in Frances, almost as horrifying as the lobotomy, has her being gang-raped by soldiers from the local military base. This is also a highly dubious tale. And while the movie does portray her drinking, it elides Farmer's other contribution to her own destruction, amphetamine abuse. (She started taking Benzedrine to keep her figure, which tended to be a bit more corn-fed than even 1930s Hollywood preferred.)
So the Siren, like most people, knew Frances only through the 1982 biopic and the myths it enshrines. Until this month, the Siren had never seen a single Farmer picture. The one thing all sources agree upon, however, is that Come and Get It, the odd little logging epic begun by Howard Hawks and finished by William Wyler, was the best movie Farmer ever made. Jessica Lange has said it was the only film of Farmer's that wasn't a chore for her to sit through. The Siren recently sat through this one herself, and finally saw the real Frances at work. The through-the-years film gave Farmer a chance to play mother and daughter, tramp and trueheart. Everybody says Farmer was a loss to the screen, that she had great potential, but is it true, or just another story?
(Look here for part two of "The Strange Fame of Frances Farmer.")