Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reexamining Frances



As a closeted gay teen, loaded with angst, I gravitated to the film Frances on cable Tv in the 80s. It was poetic and tragic (with a haunting score by John Barry) starring the radiant Jessica Lange -- and I ate it up. In the Oscar-nominated film, Frances doesn't take any shit from anyone (how very punk rock). She writes an atheistic essay at 16 and pisses off the locals. She then becomes a movie star, pops pills, fights police at The Knickerbocker Hotel, and has to be forcibly restrained before she'll play the 'Hollywood game'. Oh! and she also tells off her parents. Atta girl.

Well, imagine my surprise, 20 years later, when a friend clued me in to the TRUE story behind that 1982 film.

Frances Farmer was most likely what they would call bi-polar these days. With a defiant and independent streak, Frances had a difficult time playing the 30's submissive starlet role and eventually became a hard-drinking feisty lesbian.

She WAS institutionalized in Washington State Hospital for a time -- but was NOT icepick/transorbital-lobotomized into submission as the book Shadowland by Seattle film critic William Arnold claimed. As fate would have it, Mel Brooks' Production Company stole the "research" on FF from that book for his 1982 film Frances. Nobody checked the facts. Embellishment made for better drama. Kim Stanley's monster mother characterization of Lillian was Hollywood hype. The real Lillian Farmer was directly quoted several times defending Frances' decision not to resume her career.

The biography Shadowland was written with Arnold's Scientologist anti-psychiatry agenda. The controversial "church", that some say is simply a cult, still uses FF as their poster child for their "horrors of psychiatry" campaign. While in court for the Mel Brooks copyright infringement case, author Arnold admitted his FF bio to be "fictionalized."

The tagline on the movie posters read: "Her story is shocking, disturbing, compelling... and true." (that's showbiz!)

Frances got out of the hospital eventually, did a horrificly humiliating This is Your Life episode, and continued to get into more public drunkenness trouble. She settled in Indianapolis with her lady lover (who ghost-wrote FF's autobiography), hosted a local movie matinee TV show for 6 years, and died of throat cancer in 1970 just shy of her 57th birthday.

Unlike the very dramatic movie which ended with the caption "Frances Farmer died as she had lived...alone", I am telling you it looks like Frances actually lived and died as a woman full of piss & vinegar!

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