FILMS… Frances (1982)



Come and get it, the tragic true story and the shocking biopic life of Frances Farmer…


Jessica Lange gives a truly empathetic performance in this screenplay of Frances Farmer, the Hollywood star. After research, it seems this biopic was more fictional than fact. 


FRANCES (1982) trailer S.T.Fr. (optional), Nich Dub


In 1983, Jessica Lange won a double nomination at the 55th Academy Awards. She was nominated for both the Best Actress for a then believed true biopic, Frances (1982) and Best Supporting Actress for a comedy, Tootsie (1982). Lange won the award for Tootsie and her Frances co-star Kim Stanley was also nominated for this category. In Frances Lange played the actress Frances Farmer and Stanley played Farmer’s mother Lillian.

This “biopic” was based on the tragically true tale of Frances Farmer, an actress who began her career in the 1930s and lasted until the mid-1960s. Frances Farmer was lauded as an insightful, strong and extremely talented performer. But when compared with her actress peers as more outspoken and unconventional. During her career, Frances was treated as a compulsory (involuntary) patient for apparent mental health problems in the 1940s and early 1950s, and at times arrested for her volatile behaviour.

The behind the scenes story regarding the veracity of this film screenplay is a complex one. As the film was made, Frances’ biography writer, William Arnold’s then unpublished biography was used. Arnold was then dropped from the production for unknown reasons. Arnold later apparently unsuccessfully took Universal Pictures to court and claimed infringement of copyright, arguing this film had used “100%” of material from his book, Shadowland.

Arnold disputed the presence of the Harry York on-off love interest character in this biographical screenplay. He was supported by the New York Times which called York; “a figment of the writer’s desperation”. Universal Pictures claimed Harry York was based on interviews with the real-life William Jacobson, an on-off lover and lifelong confidante of Frances. They added that Jacobson had provided much of the material used which was added to the facts they had found in the public domain in this screenplay.

It was reported that when Arnold was involved in the project, he apparently asked Frances co-producer Marie Yates to check out Jacobson’s claims. But Arnold had dismissed these as “outlandish”. After Arnold left the project, Frances co-producer Marie Yates then insisted that the screenplay was original adding that;

“Jacobson provided the love story,” insists Yates, “and the viewpoint that we wanted to present.”

However, Arnold adds he believed;

 the resulting Frances screenplay is “a complete adaptation of my book”

This full story is found in a People article from 1983, where reporter Joshua Hammer writes on both sides about this then an upcoming court case and found online in full HERE via Oocities.

During this court case, Arnold stated that much of his biography, including Frances’ lobotomy, had been fabricated. This he now claimed as a fictional take on her life, despite previously marketing it as an autobiography. Much of Arnold’s book was also debunked by writer and journalist, Jeffrey M Kauffmann who published a well-researched essay online, which makes a passionate case for the truth and corrects the incorrect material from Arnold’s book. This information can be found in the full article here at Shedding Light on Shadowland

However, this film screenplay – and Arnold’s book – both showed that Frances Farmer was given a lobotomy, as part of her treatment. This event is now confirmed as a fictional event according to hospital records, staff and Frances’ family. However, at the time of filming Frances, Farmer’s apparent lobotomy was sensationally believed as a true fact. Its presence in the film was at first added to Arnold’s biography and this “fact” was also supported by Jacobson.

In the film, the lobotomy apparently successfully treated her then “mental health” difficulties and enabled her successful discharge. This lobotomy treatment was further disputed by her family in another biography on this actress, Look Back in Love, written by her sister Edith.

With this knowledge, and in a bid to do the right thing for these three actresses, I’m now going to compare the facts – from Wikipedia, Kauffmann and other sources – with the fiction in this film. Where fiction occurs, the true story will be added in brackets.

The film tells of Frances Farmer from the age of 16 until her appearance on This is Your Life (1958). Jessica Lange, in this titular role, plays the actress throughout and the plot is narrated at times by the character Harry York (Sam Shepherd) (you can decide on the truth of this character).

The film tells that in 1931 the 16 year old Frances Farmer shocks the God believers – but makes her mother proud – as she makes the newsreels. This after she wins National High School Essay Competition in Seattle (Wikipedia states it was from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards). Her award-winning essay, God Died eloquently and candidly outlines her now atheist views and was believed to be written for her, by an anarchist. (Frances stated her beliefs were influenced by the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche).

The now publicly shunned, Frances meets Harry York, who in a friendly manner advises her to “keep her trap shut”. He tells her that she may have indirectly damaged Martoni Kaminski’s chances for Congress. York and Frances later become a couple, and he follows her life and career. (you decide on York, and I was unable to find information on Martoni Kaminski).

Frances again hits the headlines as a “Pinko sympathiser”. This is after she wins a trip to Moscow in a competition run by a leftist newspaper, with a stop off in New York. Her mother is adamant she doesn’t go to the Soviet Union. But Frances goes to the then Communist country, only as a way to get to New York. Her decision starts ill feelings between these women. Frances stays on in New York where she gets work as a contract player for six months.

After a glamorous photoshoot, she is spotted and given a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. However, this talented actress doesn’t follow the mould of her fellow more conforming and conventional actresses. Frances is believed to be challenging as she is concerned with more authentic storytelling and she is told to concentrate on her acting, rather than making it real.

For the film premiere – of her breakout role – in Come and Get It (1936), she returns to her home town for this honour. Her mother is superproud of her now married daughter, and Lillian approves wholeheartedly of her son-in-law, “Dwayne” Dick Steele (Christopher Pennock) (based on actor Leif Erickson). Frances speaks out about those apparent two-faced Seattleites who now “adore” her and she challenges them regarding their now phoniness. This causes a stir.

Frances sneaks out of the film showing and accidentally meets York while she is taking a walk on the beach. She confides in him about her guilt about making films while others starve, and how her mother loves the Hollywood lifestyle. He asks about her marriage, asking if it was arranged by the studio. This marriage appears to have been a bad choice, as she adds this time she should have listened to the studio who told her not to marry him. (She and Erickson did appear loved up according to this article, HERE). Frances and York are flirty yet comfortable in each other’s presence and they frolic on the beach.

She suggests to Steele that they take a break from their marriage. Steele lashes out after he learns about her fling with York, and their marriage is over. (This biography film HERE states this marriage reportedly ended after Erikson demanded she had an abortion, which left her unable to have children). Her mother is disappointed in this decision.

Frances takes a role in the summer stock production at the Group Theatre. She accepts a gritty role in Golden Boy, after hearing the director and writer Clifford Odets (Jeffrey DeMunn) passionate and altruistic motives. She is seen as more than a “pretty bauble” and she begins a torrid relationship with Odets. (True) She decides to end her contract with Paramount which apparently angers Bebe.

An undercover reporter tricks Frances into talking badly about Hollywood. This newspaper article makes the press and it reportedly upsets her fans. But she then is broken-hearted after Odets returns to his wife, and she learns he approved another actress to take over her role in Golden Boy. This woman funds the project for its London production. (All true). Frances feels hurt and used, and she calls York who gives his unconditional support.

Frances returns to Hollywood. Her publicist Bob Barnes (Jack Riley) takes her to a party where she accepts a pep up drug from him, and she mixes this with alcohol. (Unsure how she obtained this drug initially, but she was apparently taking unprescribed drugs at this time.)

After she accidentally meets the reporter who tricked her, she takes off in a car alone. She is arrested for drunk driving by a motorcycle cop. She becomes defiant and attacks him physically after he stops her for driving with her lights on in a dim out zone (all true). On York’s advice, the apparently lost and insecure Frances goes to Mexico for a while, after this scandal.

York reports in the narration of her apparently drinking and taking amphetamines in Mexico. (you decide about “York”‘s part). On her return, she is made homeless by the studio (Kauffmann reports that her family moved her belongings to the hotel), and her letters are read and diaries were stolen. She stays in a hotel apartment. Frances sleeps in for work on the set of No Escape. She breaks the studio hairdresser’s jaw in a fight between the two of them (true) after this woman criticises her. Frances then storms out.

After the hairdresser presses charges and due to her parole violation, Frances is woken up – in the nude – by the police who enter her room. She lashes out hysterically, physically and verbally at the police. She barricades herself in the toilet, and then the police arrest her. She is given a jail sentence of 180 days, for not seeing her parole officer and she causes disruption in court as she fights for her rights (true).

Her mother (Kauffmann reports it was her sister-in-law) advocates that Frances go to a mental health hospital for treatment and rest. This is the first of several compulsory admissions to mental health facilities for Frances. In this admission, she appears to be in a volatile mood during the interview, and during her stay, Frances is given then treatments of vitamins and insulin shock treatment (Kauffmann again reports there was no evidence found of her receiving these treatments).

However, the hospital refuses to discharge her after her mother makes the doctors believe her daughter is still unwell, after a visit. She apparently misrepresented what Frances said and told untruths about her daughter’s conversation and behaviours. York visits and she escapes the hospital with his help on this occasion after he fights a nurse.

York suggests they marry, and he proposes but she returns home still believing in her mother. Frances discovers that her mother was given legal guardianship of her (true). It’s clear she thinks her daughter should return to Hollywood and she calls her daughter selfish and tries to make her feel guilty when she disagrees (this appears to be inaccurate). However, Frances is seen as still unwell when she doesn’t agree with her and her mother arranges for her daughter to be recommitted to hospital. This is with the doctor’s approval.

A then straight-jacketed and understandably defiant Frances is taken to the State Hospital after she attacks her mother, Lillian. This after says she will kill her mother, for not giving her choice and responsibility for her own life. Frances is given Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy (not shown correctly as muscle relaxants were given at this time) and she is put in an overcrowded ward with more unwell patients. She is apparently raped by soldiers and male staff members on the wards at night (these facts are believed to be untrue).

York breaks into the ward with another doctor at night. This doctor injects her with something to help her think clearly. Frances gives a lucid speech to the doctors, which allows her to return home. However, at home, her mother has arranged a Press conference. Lilian says her daughter has now miraculously recovered and now wishes to go back to her Hollywood career.

Frances spends time with York, who again asks her to marry him, but she hitchhikes home after she turns him down. She is arrested by the police and returned to the hospital, and the film shows that she was given a lobotomy. (Again York’s part in this story is questioned and the lobotomy was then believed as true but has since been discredited.)

It is implied this treatment helped her, and that she was discharged soon after. After appearing on This is Your Life, she appears distressed but talks honestly and tries to mask her feelings as her life story is told (true). She denies taking drugs and alcohol.

York talks to her after she leaves a party in her honour,  and she tells how her parents passed away and she is now a “faceless sinner”. The film in its epilogue, states she moved to Indianapolis and made a TV show, and she died alone in 1970. (However, her autobiography and the documentary suggest a more on-off happier life for this actress after her parents’ deaths).

After seeing this film, and then comparing this with the now known truth of Frances’ tragic life, I felt that this film was then based on believed events, and therefore this was a blameless adaptation. The director Graeme Clifford HERE, states

“I wanted to make this film as factual as possible,” he later said. “Also, I wanted to get a true feeling for Frances’ personality, which could be achieved only by talking with people who knew her intimately.”

However, throughout her defining performance, leading lady Jessica Lange gives a heartrending, truthful and honest portrayal of Frances, as she innately believed in this actress. Lange’s performance was based on her own research of those true events relayed in the script, by studying Farmer’s films and real-life footage and after she spoke with significant others in Farmer’s life.

Her truly insightful and compassionate performance was alternately praised and panned by critics and fellow actors, in this actress’s dream role. Lange talked about this role HERE, saying that on reading about Frances and her relationship and her mother in Frances’ autobiography, Will There Really Be A Morning? that;

“It stunned me. I got the book and read it in one sitting,” she said. Then she watched Farmer’s most famous film, Come and Get It. “I was struck by her physical presence,” Lange said. “I was struck by what I saw in her face and body.” The identification was emotional, “nothing intellectual or rational, more a sympathy or empathy. She’s a very identifiable character. She was a willful, troubled woman – an outspoken woman – a big risk taker, too. That’s why I had to play her on the screen.”

In a documentary, Frances’ nephew believes that Lange inhabited his aunt’s personality perfectly throughout this movie.

After this film was released, in the following year, Farmer’s “autobiography” was made into the television movie, Will There Really Be a Morning (1983). This starred Susan Blakely as Frances and Lee Grant as her mother and was based on Frances’ now-discredited autobiography (of the same name).

It seems that Frances’ autobiography was claimed to be only partly her own writing. It has been suggested that his book was partly ghostwritten after Frances’ untimely death by her then-friend, Jean Ratcliffe. Radcliffe claims only to have written the epilogue after Farmer’s death. This allegation was supported by her nephew, who believes there are two voices in this book, in the previously mentioned documentary of Frances’ life.

In 1984, Frances was the subject of a British documentary, Committed (1984), but I was unable to discover if this was a reliable account. But, I truly hope one day, a biopic or biography will centre more on the facts, than the fictional stories about this actress. So one day I can honestly, I can truly say, Frances Farmer, this was your life.


The Biopic Blogathon 2021 No 30

This review was added to the For Hometown to Hollywood‘s  Biopics Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Vow, All that Jazz, Tootsie (also HERE),  and Sweet Dreams. Sam Shepherd is tributed HERE, Steel Magnolias, and in The Notebook. Bart Burns in Columbo, The Man from UNCLE, One Step Beyond and The Twilight Zone. James Karen in Beverly Hills 90210 and Wall Street. Woodrow Parfrey in The Fall Guy, The Streets of San Francisco and Charlie’s Angels. Sarah Cunningham in Jagged Edge and Dallas. Gerald S O’Loughlin in Fame, MASH and Murder She Wrote.




4 thoughts on “FILMS… Frances (1982)

  1. I read Will There Really Be a Morning years ago but haven’t seen the films based on Frances Farmer’s life. Nonetheless, I was very pleased to have read all of the information and research you gathered to try and untangle the mess of falsehoods and misinformation. Surely, truth would be more satisfying than fiction in this case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sad that biopics are always based on especially in cases like this. I really feel for her family and friends as well as those who acted believing it was true. Surely they could cut the scene now with this new knowledge. When I reviewed Gable and Lombard some of the storyline was equally factless.


  2. Poor Frances Farmer – as if her own life wasn’t tragic enough, parasites have to juice it up even more. I remember when “Frances” came out, which prompted me to read “Shadowland.” I’m so happy to read that the most harrowing stories appear to be untrue. Seeing her later appearances, she seemed subdued, but certainly not like a woman who had a lobotomy. Great, informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

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