Frances (film)


Theatrical film poster
Directed by Graeme Clifford
Produced by Jonathan Sanger
Mel Brooks
Written by Eric Bergren
Christopher De Vore
Nicholas Kazan
Starring Jessica Lange
Kim Stanley
Sam Shepard
Music by John Barry
Cinematography László Kovács
Edited by John Wright
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • December 3, 1982 (1982-12-03)
Running time
140 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $5,000,000

Frances is a 1982 American biographical film starring Jessica Lange as actress Frances Farmer. Kim Stanley and Sam Shepard appeared in supporting roles.

The film chronicles Farmer's life from 1930s high school student, her short lived film career in the 1930s, 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 have never happened.[1]


Born in Seattle, Washington, Frances Elena Farmer is a rebel from a young age, winning $100.00 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 its 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 being advised not to, but cheats on him with alleged Communist Harry York on the night of her hometown's premiere of 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 after leaving Hollywood for New York City and appearing in the Group Theatre play, Golden Boy, Frances learns, much to her chagrin, that the Group Theatre exploited her fame only to draw in more customers, replacing her with a wealthy actress for the actress' family's needed financial backing for the play's London tour, and Odets ends their affair upon his wife's (Luise Rainer) upcoming 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 after her multiple legal problems, result in a complete nervous breakdown. After her first hospitalization at Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, she tells her mother that she doesn't wants to return to Hollywood but instead wants to live alone in the countryside, assaulting and threatening her in the resulting argument. While institutionalized at Western State Hospital, 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 from a nearby military base and involuntarily lobotomized before her release in 1950.

In 1958, Frances is paid honor on Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life television program, which Harry York watches from his home. When asked about alcoholism, illegal drugs and mental illness, Farmer denied them all and said, "If a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one". The film ends just after a party honoring her at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with Farmer walking down a street with Harry York, talking about her parents' deaths, how she sold their house and that she's a "faceless sinner" with a slower paced lifestyle ahead of her in the future. The end credits state that she moved to Indianapolis shortly afterwards, 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.


Production notes

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?.[2]

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.


Frances holds a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews.[3]

Anthony Hopkins, after working with Jessica Lange on Titus has proclaimed that Lange's performance as Frances Farmer is the best performance by any actress. Lange has ranked her performance as Frances Farmer as the greatest part she has ever played onscreen.

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.[4]


  1. Kauffman, Jeffrey. Shedding Light on Shadowland: The Truth about Frances Farmer. 1999, 2004.
  3. "Frances rating". Retrieved 2016-03-14.
  4. "13th Moscow International Film Festival (1983)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-02-06.

External links

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