Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Strange Fame of Frances Farmer

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.")

18 comments:

Flickhead said...

Jessica fared better than Susan Blakely!

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flickhead said...

Something of a rarity: Committed, though not particularly memorable.

operator_99 said...

From the NYT 1936 review of Come and Get it.
Frances Farmer, first as Lotta Morgan, the cabaret singer, and then as her daughter, is not merely a delight to the masculine eye, but an actress of more than usual merit, and Mr. Goldwyn is to be congratulated for having recognized it.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, love the user comment on Committed: "Frances Farmer gets slugged again." I have never seen the Blakeley version, but one disadvantage she must have had (in addition to the talent disparity) was that Lange's physical resemblance to Farmer was so strong. Actually, the resemblance goes beyond strong and well into absolutely freaky. Lange has a girlish voice and Farmer's was low-pitched and throaty, and Lange was taller and skinnier. But otherwise it is pretty much the most uncanny physical match I have ever seen in a biopic.

Operator_99: great review! But ironic. According to Goldwyn's biographer, he wasn't convinced Farmer could play the part. Hawks had to lobby for her.

Flickhead said...

Siren, for an interesting take on Frances see David Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film"...

Good post, btw...I was knee-deep in Frances Mania back in the late 1970s, after shoplifting a copy of "Shadowland" and seeing the reissue of Come and Get It in Manhattan.

I just saw Toast of New York a few weeks ago on TCM -- nothing to rave about. But keep an eye out for Flowing Gold (1940), a Warners working class melodrama that occasionally plays on TCM. A rather rough Frances rolling in the mud with John Garfield and Pat O'Brien.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, for some reason I imagine the rebel Frances would have been tickled at your shoplifting "Shadowland", especially since it's been so thoroughly debunked.

Did you see the the Farmer This Is Your Life episode? AMC ran it years ago (remember when AMC was good?) and it showed a rather shaky, hollow-eyed Frances, but she certainly didn't seem lobotomized.

Flickhead said...

Yes, I caught that broadcast on AMC. In fact, I may still have it on tape somewhere in my closet.

May said...

I think this is a horribly insensitive and unforgiving article toward Francis Farmer. Written and witnessed evidence to the lobotomy, gang rape, and many other tourtorous atrocities yield to the validity of the movie about her life. I applaude the performance of Lange. Her extreme emotions in her acting are but a small measure in the only known defence of this innocent woman. Her cries of justice and vindication will be heard from the grave. I will see this movie again on several occasions!!

May

Campaspe said...

May, you need to follow the links. There is no hard proof that she was lobotomized and a great of evidence that she was not. I'm not being unforgiving toward Farmer. I'm trying to dispell the myths.

Antaeus Feldspar said...

Hmmmm, why do I suspect that "May" is a Scientologist?

It's not just that the myths about Farmer's mistreatment at the hands of psychiatry are among Scientology's favorite lies.

It's not just that May is asking for people to ignore the truth and continue perpetuating the debunked lies in the name of "sensitivity", and making reference to "written and witnessed evidence" that does not, in fact, exist.

It's that in addition to the above, May's writing displays a flaw common to Scientologists and their characteristic pattern of miseducation: they use words as they might be thought to be used from looking up a dictionary definition, but not as the words are actually used. For instance, someone who looked up the dictionary definition of "yield" might think that one could say that evidence "yields" an adjectival quality of validity. But no one who actually is familiar with the usage of the word would make that mistake.

Campaspe said...

Antaeus, I really can't hazard a guess; I found May's post a long while after she made it. I'm sorry she thinks I was being insensitive toward Farmer; I think the second post in particular makes it clear that my heart aches for her lost potential. But to my mind, portraying her as lobotomized when she wasn't is another violation.

I hope that you stick around and read elsewhere on the blog, if you are an old-movie fan. It's amazing to me that people are still finding this old post! regards--C.

msspurlock said...

Even then, hospitals had to keep records. If the ablation procedure had been done on her, there would be a record. There were none. As for the rapes, she made a lot of claims like that, some of which were throughly disproved by her own friends in investigating them, and she was often prone to hallucinations. Insulin therapy is known to have long-lasting effects like that, since it alters the glucogen levels in the brain.
All in all, the people who claim her as a symbol need to look for facts and stop lapping up legends. She was a terrific talent. All this...stuff just detracts from that, as do her her questionable political alliances.

Robert said...

Read her bio and shadow land, then bought Jessica's movie. I feel for the poor woman to have gone thru all that.But man was she a fighter!

Lilly said...

Hi, where can I find a video clip of the This Is Your Life espisode with Frances?

PLEASE send me a link to my e-mail address, I would appreciate it so very much...

Lilly
Swingtimeox@aol.com

GeminiDragon said...

I'm sorry, I think I'm being obtuse. Did you say they DIDN"T lobotomise her? (BTW Your take on her performance and the movie script is on point. I watched it as an angsty teen who really listened to Nirvana's song words, and you have managed to put the exact words to what I got from the process.) So what did they do? More specifically: what negative medical procedures did they put her through in order to silence her?

The Siren said...

Gemini, I'm always so happy when people discover an old post. Basically, no--I'd say the weight of evidence at this point is that Farmer wasn't lobotomized, and that the famous picture that seems to show her on the operating table isn't her. As for silencing her, though, well, the ghastly conditions in the Washington State mental health system did quite a number on her even if you don't buy the lobotomy story. I would have to say that this old post of mine takes a considerable back seat to Kim Morgan's revised and updated take on Farmer, which is right here and which I highly, highly recommend.

msspurlock said...

I'd agree with that assessment. As the Wikipedia entry and the related research now confirms, the procedure didn't happen and some of the other claims are questionable. But she certainly wasn't the same person at the end of her life that she was before she went to the "healers." Really gorgeous woman. It's a pity she was so tortured and self-tortured.