Frances (film)

Frances is a 1982 American biographical drama film directed by Graeme Clifford from a screenplay written by Eric Bergren, Christopher De Vore, and Nicholas Kazan. The film stars Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer, a troubled actress during the 1930s whose career suffered as a result of her mental illness. It also features Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, and Jeffrey DeMunn in supporting roles.

Theatrical film poster
Directed byGraeme Clifford
Produced byJonathan Sanger
Mel Brooks
Written byEric Bergren
Christopher De Vore
Nicholas Kazan
StarringJessica Lange
Kim Stanley
Sam Shepard
Bart Burns
Jonathan Banks
Jeffrey DeMunn
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyLászló Kovács
Edited byJohn Wright
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • December 3, 1982 (1982-12-03)
Running time
140 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8 million[1]
Box office$5 million

The film chronicles Farmer's life from her days as a high school student, her short lived film career in the 1930s, her institutionalization for alleged mental illness in the 1940s, her deinstitutionalization in the 1950s and her appearance on This Is Your Life.

Frances was released theatrically on December 3, 1982 by Universal Pictures. Lange's performance was unanimously praised and has been cited by many (including her) as her best performance. At the 55th Academy Awards, it received two nominations for Lange and Stanley as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.


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.

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 her family's needed financial backing for the play's London tour, and Odets ends their affair upon his wife's 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 where she was forced to undergo insulin shock therapy and hydrotherapy, she tells her mother that she doesn't want to return to Hollywood but instead wants to live alone in the countryside, assaulting and threatening Lillian in the resulting argument. While institutionalized at Western State Hospital, Frances is abused by the powers-that-be: she is subjected to 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 denies them all and says, "If you're treated like a patient, you're 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 to 1964 before dying-as she lived-alone on August 1, 1970 at age 56.



The film was developed by the team who had made The Elephant Man, writers Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore, and producer Jonathan Sanger and Mel Brooks. Brooks was keen for David Lynch, who had directed The Elephant Man, to direct. However Lynch signed an agreement with Universal. Sanger then suggested Graeme Clifford, who was well established as an editor, notably having made several films with Robert Altman. "He's very bright and completely in love with the story," said Brooks.[2]

The script was 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.[3]

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.

They struggled to gain finance until EMI Films stepped in.[4]


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.

"This is a role every actress waits all her life for," said Hawn.[1]

Jessica Lange had wanted to play the role since reading Farmer's memoirs in the late 1970s. She tried to interest Bob Rafelson and Bob Fosse to make the film but neither were interested. Then she says Clifford called her directly offering the role. (Clifford had edited Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice.)[5]

"She was very high-strung and had overpowering elements in her personality of self-destruction, but she was a real warrior," said Lange. "It was misguided heroics." [6]

"I began to identify with Frances Farmer's anger," said Lange. "She would release it no matter what the consequences were."[1]

Susan Blakely went on to portray Farmer in the 1983 CBS television film Will There Really Be a Morning?[7]


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.


The film originally ran for three hours and was cut down. This meant reduction of the amount of screen time dedicated to Frances and her parents, and Frances and her love interest. Clifford would subsequently claim he felt the film was too short.[4]


Frances holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews.[8] Lange received universal acclaim for her performance. Anthony Hopkins, after working with 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 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.[9]


  1. Fame rings for Lange Mills, Bart. The Guardian 23 Sep 1982: 17.
  2. Mel Brooks and the sad Seattle cinema usherette The Guardian 10 Oct 1981: 11.
  3. Hollywood's power of attorney Mills, Bart. The Guardian 12 Feb 1983: 6.
  4. CLIFFORD GETS FIRST SHOT AS DIRECITOR IN 'FRANCES' Pollock, Dale. Los Angeles Times 2 Dec 1982: j1.
  5. LANGE'S ROLE: THE INSANITY OF IT ALL... Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 17 Jan 1982: l27.
  6. 'I was so incredibly naive about...Hollywood' Lange's star grows ever brighter ALJEAN HARMETZ. The Globe and Mail21 Dec 1982: P.15.
  7. Archived 2009-04-04 at the Wayback Machine
  8. "Frances rating". Retrieved 2016-03-14.
  9. "13th Moscow International Film Festival (1983)". MIFF. Archived from the original on 2013-11-07. Retrieved 2013-02-06.
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