Thursday, February 15, 2018

Finding Frances Farmer: Fact VS Fiction

A natural beauty, Frances Farmer in a photo by the great Edward Steichen.

There are books, films, and even songs about actress Frances Farmer—always focusing on the most lurid legends of her life. About the most mind-blowing myths: Did you know there’s never been proof that Farmer was given a lobotomy during her institutionalization? Or never proven that Frances was raped by male orderlies and marauding soldiers? Or that there is proof Lillian Farmer was not a monstrous stage mother who had her daughter locked away for rejecting a movie comeback? Yet, this and much more, is accepted as fact by many people who think they know Frances’ story. And I was one of them.

Frances Farmer got her break in her first year in films, a dual role in '36's 'Come and Get It.'

I was a ‘70s teen who obsessed over old-time movie stars like Frances Farmer, while other kids were mega fans of Peter Frampton and Farrah Fawcett. I watched with morbid fascination when Detroit TV 50 played a few of Farmer’s films on Bill Kennedy at the Movies. The golden girl onscreen was impossible to reconcile with the off-screen Frances Farmer, whose career ended after a public breakdown, and who then spent nearly a decade in mental institutions.

Farmer & Bing Crosby: 'Rhythm on the Range.'
Frances Farmer became a popular starlet right from her 1936 start in films. Her third movie that year, Rhythm on the Range, opposite Bing Crosby, was a hit. Frances also starred in ’36 with Joel McCrea and Edward Arnold, in Come and Get It, with a showy dual role for Farmer as mother and daughter. Two of Hollywood’s leading alpha male directors, Cecil B. DeMille and Howard Hawks, publicly praised her star potential. Farmer went on to star opposite Ray Milland, Cary Grant, John Garfield, and Tyrone Power. Frances was lovely in the patrician way that movie makers then worshiped. She also radiated intelligence, intensity, authority, and possessed a strong, rather deep voice. Farmer should have been a shoo-in for major stardom.

However, Frances preferred the stage and seemingly disdained the conventions of movie making. Unlike fellow mavericks Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, Farmer’s fussing didn’t lead to better roles. All I can figure in reviewing her career is that Frances Farmer played the Hollywood fame game badly, which ended in disaster instead of diva-dom.
Frances with first husband Leif Ericson, a later star in 'High Chaparral.'

When I watched Bill Kennedy’s show, he read juicy excerpts from Frances Farmer’s posthumous memoir, Will There Really Be a Morning? Farmer had died in 1970 of cancer at age 56, and her story was finished by friend and companion, Jean Radcliffe. I ordered Farmer’s autobiography from my small town Upper MI bookstore and devoured The Snake Pit-like story. In 1978, Seattle film critic William Arnold wrote an even more bizarre version of Farmer’s life, Shadowland. I snapped that one up, too. Arnold wrote a damning story of her time in Washington’s state hospital, with tales of neighboring soldiers’ gang rapes, and the revelation that Farmer was given a transorbital lobotomy. A few years later, Jessica Lange played Frances Farmer in 1982’s Frances, cementing these sensational stories about the star in the eyes of the public forever, much like Mommie Dearest and Joan Crawford.
Frances Farmer with Ray Milland in 1937's 'Ebb Tide.'

Even at the time of Frances’ making, both books’ authenticity was questioned. Rumor had it that to help sell the near-forgotten Farmer’s story, Jean Radcliffe had heavily embellished Will There Really Be a Morning? And when Mel Brooks’ production company scooped Farmer’s story for a film, Shadowland author Arnold admitted in court that he made up the book’s most controversial claims. In recent years, both books have been essentially discredited as heavily fictionalized.

After Lange’s film debut in the lambasted ’76 King Kong remake, Jessica was striving to be taken seriously as an actress. Lange had a fair resemblance to Farmer, received mostly positive personal notices, and got her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. However, Frances received mixed-to-poor reviews for its rambling storytelling, fictionalized story, and bland male lead, Sam Shepard. Frances was not a financial success, either.

Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer in 1982's 'Frances.' 
Clint Eastwood offered his take on Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer: “The worst piece of ham acting I’ve seen in my life. I just see technical bullshit when I watch an actress like her.” Wonder what Clint thought of Jessica as Joan Crawford!

I was excited to see Frances, but was disappointed by the reviews and that the movie never made it to Traverse City, Michigan, where I lived as an adult. Ironically, Frances Farmer had performed at Traverse’s Cherry County Playhouse in the play, The Chalk Garden, back in the 1960s.
Famer's memoir, completed by a 'friend.'

When Frances was released, fellow Pacific Northwester Jeffery Michael Kauffman saw a double feature of the Lange film and Farmer’s Come and Get It. Kauffman was instantly intrigued by Frances Farmer. The writer/musician set off on a 20 year journey, first exploring her controversial life, and then setting the record straight on her. Kauffman befriended the Farmer family, got access to her personal and medical documents, tapes from late-life friends who had helped the star with her memoir, and much more. Kauffman deconstructs both Farmer’s memoir and Arnold’s Shadowland, exposing the inaccuracies in both, especially the obvious errors and wild accusations of Arnold’s book. Kauffman’s research on Farmer contradicts the common myths about the star. Despite his extensive ties and research regarding Farmer, Kauffman has never written his own Farmer book—the information is on his website for free. How admirable that he chose not to profit off Frances Farmer.

Here are Kauffman’s findings on Farmer:
And here is Kauffman, writing about how he first became fascinated by Frances:

This later bio was riddled with errors
and sensational claims.

Frances and Frances Farmer eventually faded from the forefront of my mind.  End of story, right?
I came across Frances recently and finally watched the film in January of 2018. My reaction? The critics were right. The highlight of Frances is the phenomenal pairing of Jessica Lange, coming into her own as Farmer, and a comeback by legendary method actress Kim Stanley, as her formidable mother, Lillian. Otherwise, the movie is wildly uneven in its pace and tone, and worthless as a biography. Also, the meandering second half causes the movie to run into overtime, at a whopping two hours and twenty minutes.

It’s fascinating that Frances came out a year after Mommie Dearest, based on another controversial life story of a Hollywood star. Frances seems diffused and drawn out, while Mommie Dearest feels like a frantic ‘sizzle reel’ of Joan Crawford’s greatest hits in misbehavior. However, both only offer the bare bones of the actual stars’ lives, with plenty of fictionalized soap opera or questionable ‘facts’ as filler. While not as cartoon-ish as the Crawford rendition, Frances’ stock clichés raises more red flags than it answers questions.
Frances Farmer & John Garfield got screwed over by the Group Theatre's production of 'Golden Boy.' 
She later lost her role to a rich actress, & they reneged on giving John the title role.

Unlike Mommie Dearest, with its composites or caricatures of real people, Frances features a fictional studio head, director, and worst of all, a life-long knight in shining armor for Farmer. The film’s doctors, lawyers, and studio figures are all villainous cartoon characters eager to take Frances down. Frances’ fictionalized version of husband Leif Ericson leaves over her affair with the totally fictitious Harry York. Playwright Clifford Odets, Farmer’s married lover, gets the blame for throwing Frances in an emotional tailspin, though their affair ended five years before her breakdown. Frances’ dramatic structure is a phony Hollywood house of cards.

Director Graeme Clifford said on the 2002 DVD commentary of Frances: “We didn’t want to nickel and dime people to death with facts.” Why, Ryan Murphy couldn’t have said it better! Recently, Murphy star Ricky Martin defended their TV series about the Versace murder, citing the show as “a painting, not a photograph.” This disingenuous Hollywood attitude is why I’ve given up on showbiz film bios. The recent Bette/Joan fan fiction that was Feud finished off any curiosity I have for seeing Hollywood history recreated—or more accurately, re-imagined.
Shepard's 'Harry York' takes Frances from the nuthouse to a roadhouse!

My biggest problem with Frances is Sam Shepard as activist/journalist “Harry York.” Shepard’s folksy, basic narration underlines the movie’s absurd storyline. And for a made-up character, next to Lange, Shepard has the movie’s biggest part! Harry is literally Johnny-on-the-spot for every one of Farmer’s crisis moments. At the film’s start, both rebels show up in movie newsreels back to back, for their activist antics. It doesn’t matter whether Farmer’s embroiled with movie moguls, lying theater types, a monster mama, or mental hospital bureaucrats—Harry is there. By the end of the movie, it feels like a running gag. After watching Frances humiliated on TV’s This is Your Life post-psychiatric hospital, Harry runs down to the TV studio to see her one last time. How did he know which studio Frances was at? Or whether the show was live or taped? The dramatic gesture is utterly ridiculous. At the movie’s finish, a post script appears that Frances Farmer died alone (not true) and that Frances and Harry never saw each other again. Now, that is true—because Harry didn’t exist! Shepard as Harry is onscreen strictly to provide Frances a love interest (well, at least Jessica got one in real life with Sam!) and to soften Farmer’s sad journey.
Frances plays Farmer as the noble victim, fighting her hypocritical hometown, phony Hollywood and Broadway, and dysfunctional family battles. All these situations are portrayed in clichéd ways that feel rote. The film never explores whether Farmer actually had psychological issues or if she was just sensitive and high-strung.

Lange & Kim Stanley in 'Frances,' 
whose performances are the film's greatest asset.

The production side of Frances provides a more convincing scene than the screenplay, through the atmospheric cinematography, set design, and John Barry score. Ultimately, the two female leads, Lange and Stanley, are who truly make Frances worth watching.  Unfortunately, their scenes hinge on the long-running myth that Lillian Farmer was determined to get Frances back into films, whereas she wanted to retire from the screen. Lillian decided her daughter must be crazy to give up stardom. Kauffman cites various interview quotes where Lillian Farmer and family demure as to whether Frances would ever be fit to resume her career. The one person quoted as expressing interest in getting back into film was Frances herself.
Frances Farmer with family and then-husband Leif Ericson. 
Contrary to myth, they didn't desert her when she broke down.

Contrary to the common story, Frances’ mother didn’t have her locked up as revenge. Frances went through a cycle of various institutions, homecomings, breakdowns or running away, before ending up at Washington’s Western State Hospital. Farmer’s parents and family visited her weekly. Also, ex-husband Leif Ericson kept in touch with Farmer and her family, and even appeared on Farmer’s movie hosting show in the 1960s.
Frances Farmer was a popular movie host and summer stock actress in the '60s,
making the claim that she was given a lobotomy highly unlikely.

It’s one thing to condense, recreate, and create composites in the name of dramatic license or coherent storytelling. Knowingly dramatizing a lie for entertainment or dramatic value is still a lie. Frances Farmer, the once-forgotten starlet is now one of Hollywood’s legendary cautionary tales. To heap further sleazy untruths upon the memory of Frances, of all people, is especially sad. It’s like the creeps who crawl out of the woodwork every few years with a “shocking” new book about Marilyn Monroe.

Frances Farmer at CBS, for 'The Ed Sullivan' show.
Some people feed on the misery myth of certain stars. They seem to get off on the sensationalized version of Frances Farmer, gone crazy, given shock treatment and a lobotomy. The same is true of movie “fans” who want to think Joan Crawford was a drunken, crazed shrew 24/7, or wallow in the Judy Garland “tragedy,” or that miserable Marilyn was murdered by the mob. I recall watching Phil Donahue’s show, when The National Enquirer’s editor, Mike Walker, was the guest. Phil asked him why the public reads scandal rags like the Enquirer. Walker’s answer was that people like to read that the rich and famous are unhappy, despite fame and fortune.

As I’ve grown older, I have learned that the truth usually falls in the middle, people deserve empathy, and that movie stars are not gods and goddesses, but all too human, too. And I think Frances Farmer deserves to be remembered for who she actually was.
Frances Farmer in 'Come and Get It,' before stardom slipped through her hands.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 


  1. I think we grew up together. A fine writing job about Frances Farmer. Wasn't Bill Kennedy the worst?! I would call him a has been, but he never really "WAS" to begin with. He pretended that he was a movie STAR. Between the dead ferret on his head and the complete fiction he spewed about every performer and his own "glory dayz" I always wondered who he continually blew to get the long running gig on channel 50. It was Kaiser Broadcasting back then. I was too young to remember his tv show from Windsor, CKLW 9. What a hack.

    1. I grew up watching Detroit's TV 50 up in the UP! I remember how neither I or my grandmother could abide Bill Kennedy when we first started watching him. But he was like that crazy old uncle that sort either or amused or drove everyone crazy! I must say watching Bill's show was where I started loving classic Hollywood movies. Cheers, and thanks for following me! Rick

  2. This was a fascinating read with many great points about those celeb-inspired movies and TV shows. That younger or less-informed people take them as the gospel truth is very disturbing. Even more aggravating is that so often the TRUTH is more interesting, upsetting and/or inspiring than the drek that some hack writer has dreamed up! Truth truly can be stranger than fiction and it can be a joy (or a shock) to become familiar with it if we bother. I learned a lot from this look at Ms. Farmer. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Poseidon!
      I ALWAYS find the truth more interesting...and it's often stranger than fiction : )
      Really went down the rabbit hole with this piece...
      Cheers, Rick

  3. The sad part about the movie is that people still believe it. Thank you for clearing it up. Too bad a book about the truth wasn't made but I will read Kauffman's findings on his website. I read so many biographies about the entertainment business. So many books will be written about a particular person you have to do the research in which one to actually read. Too many bad authors just write a book thinking we'll buy it. Like you I also was a teen in the 70's and loved old movies and actors which is how I came to know Kim Stanley from a rerun of an old movie made in the late 50's called The Goddess. Movie was terrible but boy was she a powerhouse. Years later in the late 70's she came to The Actors Studio to teach some classes. I ran over there when I saw it announced and got accepted which I couldn't end up doing because classes were in the afternoon and I had to work. Should have given up the job and worked temp. A big regret. Anyway, if you haven't already go watch The Goddess and review it. You'll have a field day with it!

    1. Hey Bizzo! I think you need to follow my blog : ) Look on the right side of my blog.
      I've written just over a 100 essays in 3 years, and you're cruising right thru them!

      Also, if you are on FB, join the Frances Farmer Forever Page. Run by her nephew and some big Frances Farmer experts there, too. Nice page, there. And of course, he appreciates Kauffman's hard work.

      And if you are on FB, I have an open group page where I always have tons of left over stuff I post. It's fun, great memmbers:

      And yes, it's hard to separate the myth from reality when it comes to stars. Writers and publishers want to push what will sell, even stars do this, too. Then, once a juicy story takes hold with the public... That's why I hated the show Feud!

      I've only seen clips of The Goddess... yes, I must check it out!

      Thanks for all your interesting comments!


  4. I'm not on FB but I am having a blast reading all your posts. You are very talented and spot on with every review! So glad I found this site. Movie reviews are my thing and to find one written so well as this is a jewel. I look forward to reading them all and I hope you don't mind if I post too much! Now go watch The Goddess! (You tube have fragments of scenes. I bought the dvd on Amazon) -- Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks for the kind words, I do put a lot of effort into my essays, especially on the research side. And I try to update them if possible or if I got something wrong. No problems on the commenting, I like hearing other people's take on particular movies! Cheers, Rick

  5. Saw this post because of your recent review of among the living. It should be read by anyone who is interested in learning the real Francis Farmer's story. It looks the real story is far less grim than the fictionalized one. After all she sort made a recovery from mental illness and acted successfully in smaller and less prestigious venues and had a faithful companion to look after. It is a lot better than some of her contemporaries' lives.