The tragic, horrifying life and times of actress Frances Farmer (played here by Jessica Lange), a beautiful young woman ascending the ladder to stardom – until she fell apart and lost it all in a mental asylum.
The movie begins when Frances, a golden-haired Seattle sixteen-year-old, wins a prize for writing a passionate essay on the death of God. She was feisty, gorgeous, and smart as blazes, but her mother, Lillian Farmer, was a publicity-seeking anti-Communist crackpot and frustrated nobody who grabbed newspaper space by throwing herself on the ground in hysterics at a railroad station and labelling her daughter an atheist and a “pinko sacrifice. ”
Poor Frances never had a chance. With her crazy, hatchet-faced mother fanning the flames, Frances made enemies everywhere she turned.
When Paramount signed her up for stardom, she alienated the press, the moguls, the fans, and especially Louella Parsons, who did her level best to destroy the independent young starlet.
Frances wore pants, smoked cigars, drove a jalopy, cursed like a sailor, and turned up her pretty nose at the superficiality of the big box office.
After Hollywood stardom at 23; Broadway stardom in Golden Boy at 25; a love affair with Clifford Odets (who used her to make himself famous then kicked her out of his life); punishment by the studio moguls; self-punishment with alcohol and amphetamines; railroaded sanity hearings; and incarceration for years in hellhole asylums (subject to electroshock therapy, vats of ice, rats and gang rapes) – after all that and a climactic ice pick lobotomy forced upon her by a maniac doctor, it ends with Frances Farmer discharged from this chamber of horrors in 1950 as a glassy-eyed zombie.
She died of throat cancer twenty years later, a broken and forgotten symbol of Hollywood’s past.
This realistic rendering of a true story is sometimes painful to watch, thanks in large part to gripping performances from Lange and Kim Stanley.