Theatrical film poster
|Directed by||Graeme Clifford|
|Produced by||Jonathan Sanger
|Written by||Eric Bergren
Christopher De Vore
|Music by||John Barry|
|Editing by||John Wright|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Running time||140 minutes|
The film chronicles Farmer's life from 1930s high school student, her short lived film career, her 1940s institutionalization for alleged mental illness and her 1950s deinstitutionalization and appearance on This Is Your Life. Upon its release, the film was advertised as a purportedly true account of Farmer's life but the script was largely fictional and sensationalized. In particular, the film depicts Farmer as having been lobotomized; this is reputed to never have happened.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Frances Elena Farmer is a rebel from a young age, winning $100 in 1931 from The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for a high school essay called "God Dies". In 1935, she becomes controversial again when she wins (and accepts) an all-expenses-paid trip to the USSR to visit the Moscow Art Theatre. Determined to become an actress, Frances is equally determined not to play the Hollywood game: she refuses to acquiesce to publicity stunts, and insists upon appearing on screen without makeup. She marries her first husband, Dwanye Steele, despite Paramount's advice not to, but cheats on him with alleged Communist "Harry York" on the night of her hometown's premiere of her movie Come and Get It. Her defiance attracts the attention of Broadway playwright Clifford Odets, who convinces Frances that her future rests with the Group Theatre.
But once she leaves Hollywood for New York City, Frances learns, much to her chagrin, that the Group Theatre exploited her fame only to draw in more customers for Golden Boy, replaced her with a wealthy actress for its needed backing for its London tour and Odets ended their affair upon his wife's, Louise Rainer's, return from Europe. Her desperate attempts to restart her film career upon returning to Hollywood results in being cast in unchallenging roles in forgettable B-films. Her increased dependence on alcohol and amphetamines in the 1940s and the pressures brought on her by her wannabe mother, who becomes her legal guardian in 1943 in response to her legal problems (driving bright-lighted in a wartime blackout zone, resisting arrest, assaulting a studio hairdresser and failing to appear for probation and court when scheduled), result in a complete nervous breakdown. While institutionalized in Western State Hospital by her mother, Frances is abused by the powers-that-be: she is forced to undergo insulin and electroconvulsive shock therapy, is cruelly beaten, periodically raped by the male orderlies and visiting soldiers and is later involuntarily lobotomized.
In 1950, Frances is released back to the custody of her mother, who persists in browbeating her until Frances discovers the legal means to break away in 1953. The film comes to a climax in 1958 when Frances is paid honor by the network program, This Is Your Life. When asked about alcoholism, illegal drugs and insanity, Farmer denied them all by saying, "If a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one."
The film ends with Farmer walking down a Los Angeles street with "Harry York". The screen text before the end credits states Farmer moved to Indianapolis shortly afterward, hosting a local daytime TV program (Frances Farmer Presents) from 1958-1964 before dying alone of esophageal cancer on August 1, 1970 at age 56.
- Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer
- Kim Stanley as Lillian Farmer
- Sam Shepard as Harry York
- Bart Burns as Ernest Farmer
- Jonathan Banks as Hitchhiker
- Jeffrey DeMunn as Clifford Odets
- Kevin Costner as Luther (uncredited)
- Zelda Rubinstein as Mental patient
- Anjelica Huston as Mental patient
- Pamela Gordon as Mental patient
Directed by Graeme Clifford, the story was written for the screen by Eric Bergren, Christopher De Vore, and Nicholas Kazan (son of Elia Kazan, who worked with the real Frances Farmer in several plays), based upon William Arnold's Shadowland, a fictional biography of Farmer. In pre-production, the producers reneged on their option to use the book as source material. Arnold filed an unsuccessful copyright infringement lawsuit but many of his fictional elements were incorporated into the final film. On the commentary of the DVD release, director Clifford stated, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts." Mel Brooks was executive producer of the film, but received no credit for his participation.
Many actresses were considered candidates for the role of Frances Farmer including Anne Archer, Susan Blakely, Blythe Danner, Susan Dey, Patty Duke, Mia Farrow, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Susan Sarandon, Cybill Shepherd, Sissy Spacek, Meryl Streep, Natalie Wood and Tuesday Weld. Susan Blakely went on to portray Farmer in the 1983 CBS television film Will There Really Be a Morning?.
The original music score was composed by John Barry. According to Barry, his idea of carrying the main theme using a harmonica was initially disliked by producers until they heard it fully orchestrated.
Awards and nominations
Frances was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jessica Lange) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kim Stanley). The film was also entered into the 13th Moscow International Film Festival where Lange won the award for Best Actress.
- Kauffman, Jeffrey. Shedding Light on Shadowland: The Truth about Frances Farmer. 1999, 2004.
- "13th Moscow International Film Festival (1983)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-02-06.