If not for Jessica Lange, Frances (1982) would have been yet another studio mangling of the life and legend of Frances Farmer, the gifted but notorious actress of the 1930s. A chance to really tell her story was clearly at hand when the film was conceived, but through script problems, studio requests, and one strange association with the conspiracy-obsessed ex-convict and proven liar Stewart Jacobson (played in the film as "Harry York" by Sam Shepard), Frances veers into fantasy a fantasy Frances Farmer surely would not have appreciated. Many fine films based on real lives or events stray from facts, add characters, or even re-invent history (JFK and Nixon are supreme examples), but the problems with Frances are twofold. First, suffering from a weak script, it's not an entirely focused picture, and it never creates a strong case about just why Farmer had to endure such torment. Secondly, the picture soft-pedals a harrowing tale about one woman's fight against both the indignities of Hollywood and the abuse of the mental profession. It's the ultimate irony that the story of "the bad girl of West Seattle," the troubled non-conformist Hollywood star who rarely censored her thoughts, was under the control of a major studio who deemed her real life too depressing. As director Graeme Clifford states in the commentary on this DVD, you don't want to "nickel and dime the audience with facts." Too bad Farmer's facts were never boring. That said, in the hands of Lange Frances is a thoroughly watchable picture an almost traumatizing experience that showcases Lange at her finest. Lange not only looks like Farmer, but also embodies everything we've ever read about the talented star: The understandable drinking (who didn't tear it up in Hollywood?), the rage (how many stars were under studio control? Farmer was just too strong-willed to take it), and the desperation to find freedom. But the powers that be Mother, Hollywood, and the Mental Institution helped keep this intelligent woman from reaching her goals.
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Frances begins in 1931 when a 16-year old Farmer writes a high school essay entitled "God Dies." This is just the first of many cases where she enrages Seattle's moral majority, who later branded her a communist. A talented stage actress in college, Farmer lands in Hollywood, where she declares "I'm not glamour girl." Nevertheless, she marries a young actor and makes movies (mostly to her chagrin), including Howard Hawks' Come and Get It (a film she was proud of, despite what this movie wants us to believe). Exasperated with Hollywood, Farmer ventures to New York and finds a home in the Group Theater, and (to her downfall) has a torrid affair with the married playwright Clifford Odets. After he dumps her, she returns to Hollywood and gets into the legendary trouble that would land her in horrifying mental institutions where she underwent experimental medication, shock treatments, rape, disgusting facilities, and finally a lobotomy until her release in 1950. Lange carries us through this hell with brilliance, but Frances decides to shift the focus of the relationship with Farmer's deranged mother (played by Kim Stanley) to the more romantic overtures of Harry York. According to the film, York tried to reach out to Farmer after her inconceivably unfair and colorful court appearance (well-documented in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon). He also was responsible for Farmer's first escape from the sanitarium and the reason she was presentable for a hearing that excused from her first asylum (the film contends Harry sneaks into her ward and gets a doctor to inject her with a drug that would make her more lucid). He also asked her marry him when she was under the legal guardianship of her mother, and he loved her until the end of her days. Yes sir, Frances wants us to believe that despite everything written to the contrary Farmer may have had a decent life had she just ran away with this Prince Charming. It's an ill-conceived cinematic conceit, and an insult to Farmer's memory at that. As discussed in his commentary, director Clifford still believes Jacobson's version of events, but he fails to mention any of the charges against the man. Jessica Lange should have directed this film she's the real auteur of it anyway. Anchor Bay's DVD release of Frances presents a pristine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround (a monaural French track is also on board). Supplements include a commentary with director Graeme Clifford, as well as the 30-minute doc "A Hollywood Life: Remembering Frances," which features Clifford, Lange, and other principals, as well as some clips of the real Frances Farmer's film work and some beautiful stills. Trailer, keep-case.