Frances: Woman of Passion

By Lida Prypchan
frances_frontcover_large_Bzr6G9XfOCzpibhFrances is an excellent movie from every point of view.  Directed by Graeme Clifford, it deals with the tragic life of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer, magnificently portrayed by Jessica Lange.
The life of this actress, although depressing and disturbing, leaves a valuable message, for both family and society, as well as for us as individuals.  This is an interesting message for analysis, though before starting, I must comment that I found the title rather inadequate since it does not convey the profound psychological and social nature of the subject matter dealt with in this film.
The plot evolves in the United States, in Seattle, Hollywood and Washington, and takes place around the year 1940.  Frances Farmer, a beautiful woman with an engaging personality, restless, impulsive, naïve and rebellious, spontaneous and intelligent, is the only daughter of a genial and permissive yet indifferent father and of a domineering, mentally disturbed mother who is unsympathetic in the extreme. A frustrated actress, her mother cannot stand being a “Mrs. Nobody”.  Hence, she projects her desire to become an actress on to her daughter, contributing greatly to the destruction of her life.
At the age of 16, Frances writes a paper on atheism, reads it at school and is repudiated by those present.  The only one who rises, applauding passionately, is her mother, possibly motivated by her need to stand out and be noticed through the person of her daughter.  At this time, and throughout Frances’ life, a journalist named Harry York is in love with her, ever present to share her difficulties.  We gather from this movie’s view of her life, that the one and only human being who ever truly loved and believed in her was this journalist.

Frances gets a contract in Hollywood.  Once again she is in the news.  She plays parts which, although mediocre, make her famous.  Her mother enjoys life and shines.  Frances breaks her Hollywood contract before it runs out, because she is offered an interesting part in a play.  She falls in love with the writer of the play, an intelligent man with whom she can hold a real conversation.  But he is married and abandons her, leaving only a short note with two miserable lines of explanation.  Then the director of the company informs her that she no longer has the part because they were able to get a rich actress who’s going to finance the play.  What conclusion can we draw from this episode?  That she was extremely naïve.  She didn’t for a moment stop to think that she was caught between two materialistic strangers in a corrupt medium, who did not care whom they deceived.  What could she expect, anyway, falling in love with a married man?  She could only hope to be his passionate lover on a temporary basis, without any claim on him.
She returns to Hollywood in a state of depression.  Stress, alcohol and amphetamines – this is how she passes her days.  On two occasions she is arrested.  The first, for hitting a policeman without apparent reason.  The second, for injuring a studio hairdresser who treated her with contempt.  This last episode costs her six months in prison, but before her sentence is finished, her mother gets the court’s permission to have her transferred to a private psychiatric clinic from which she flees with the journalist.  He proposes marriage to her, but she refuses.  She returns home and finds that she does not have any rights as a citizen under the law.  She tells her mother she would like to live in the country, but her mother denies her request, telling her that she must return to Hollywood.  They argue and Frances runs away.  The mother has her committed to a lunatic asylum (a state mental hospital).  There, one can see the crowding, the abuse, the now obsolete straitjacket, electorshock therapy without anesthesia, lobotomy (now no longer performed) and the inhumane trading of the sick women to sailors by the nurses.  What is important to note, is that psychiatry today does not even remotely resemble what it used to be. As it has changed drastically since 1952 with the discovery of neuroleptic drugs.  From that year, the use of straitjackets, lobotomies and insulin shock therapy declined.  As for electroshock, this continues to be used, but only in cases of endogenous depression which do not respond to treatment by antidepressants.  Nowadays, however, it is only used under anesthesia.
As a result of her lobotomy, Frances leaves the mental hospital deprived of her former passion for life.  Even though her mother has died, she returns to Hollywood, perhaps fulfilling that woman’s fateful intent.  She makes one last movie and at the age of 56, with nobody at her side, she dies.
Her life story demonstrates how family, instead of helping, may destroy a person such as Frances, who evidently suffered from behavioral disorders, possible an abnormality inherited from her mentally disturbed mother.
We see the error in her mother’s attitude toward life – to vehemently desire that her daughter should be what she herself could not be – an attitude which is certainly not uncommon in parents.
Frances’ life shows us that one can indeed be oneself, but that one must be intelligent about it and know the hows, the whens and the wheres.  Inexplicable, impulsive behavior and lack of control are in no way beneficial.
Such was Frances, a product of her heredity, of her frustrated and unsympathetic mother, and the hostile and harsh environment of Hollywood.  Frances, a hypersensitive, defenseless, unbalanced, troubled woman…a woman who died as she was born, alone.

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