Discovering Frances Farmer. (moving-picture reviews)
Working Woman, Feb 1983 v8 p118(2)
Patricia Bosworth

Review Grade: B+
Full Text: COPYRIGHT Working Woman Inc. 1983

Frances Farmer was a willful, troubled woman--an outspoken woman--a big risk taker, too. That's why I had to play her on the screen," Jessica Lange explained not long ago in her suite at the Hotel Pierre. Lange was in New York promoting the EMI Films/Brooksfilm production of Frances, which is based on the life of Frances Farmer. Farmer was the rebellious, beautiful actress of the 1930s and 40s who went through alcoholism, jail, deportation from Mexico, and involuntary commitment to a mental hospital where she had shock treatments and possibly a transorbital lobotomy. In 1970 she died of cancer at age 57.

Before Frances, Lange's only major film roles had been in remakes of King Kong and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but she reportedly won out over both Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn for this plum role. Lange says she first became aware of Farmer seven years ago. In an acting class, she saw a mother/daughter scene adapted from Farmer's autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? "The scene was absolutely shatterring--like an extreme version of Mommie Dearest. I got the book and read it in one sititng." From then on, Lange campaigned to get someone interested in the project as a movie. "I asked Bob Fosse to direct it while I was doing All That Jazz for him. Then I aksed Bob Rafelson, who directed Postman. Neither one was interested. But then Graeme Clifford, who'd been film editor on Postman, asked to do Frances for his directorial debut, and he phoned me to see if I wanted to play her. I was thrilled."

Lange did an enormous amount of research before filming. She read all the books on Farmer and every magazine and newspaper article that had been published about her. She talked to scores of people who had known her, and the only ones who refused were members of the Group Theatre company of the 1930s, "like Lee Strasberg. Maybe it was because Frances was so political. She stood on the reviewing stand at the Moscow May Day parade, and she campaigned for the Spanish Loyalists. No, I don't think she always knew what she was doing, in that she wasn't calculating, but she was highly principled."

Lange found that the most valuable material she read was in Margaret Brenman-Gibson's mammoth biography of playwright Clifford Odets. "Odets was one of Frances's lovers. She starred in his play Golden Boy, the triumph of her career. She fell madly in love with him, but he was a demanding, sadistic lover who eventually drove her to drink and self-destruction by alternately loving her and rejecting her. It helped me understand how a woman can be sexually and emotionally victimized by a man. Frances, like many women, never developed a strong sense of her own identity and worth."

Lange also saw all the films Farmer made. "The only good movie she did was Come and Get It, for Sam Goldwyn. She was terrific in that, but the rest was grade B stuff, trash. She was forced to act in them--no wonder she was always so angry!"

Farmer was part of the 1930s movie age that glorified the strong-willed women portrayed on the screen by Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn but punished the actresses who incarnated that strength. Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland both were suspended for refusing to play mediocre parts. Moguls such as Jack Warner and L.B. Mayer wanted their female stars to act like proper ladies. Frances Farmer wouldn't do that. She drove a beat-up car around Hollywood and refused to date the men the studio flacks set her up with. "The Hearsts hated her because she became too politically active. She was constantly under pressure," Lange explains. "That's why she was so edgy and high-strung. That's why she drank too much. But I don't think there's any real proof she was crazy. More than anything, I think she needed a good rest!"

The 14-week shooting schedule of Frances was so rough that Lange admits she needed a rest when it was over. "I lost a lot of weight and had huge black circles under my eyes." But she says she loved doing the movie--particularly the scenes she had with Sam Shepard, playing Farmer's friend and lover, and with the great Kim Stanley, who plays Farmer's mother, Lillian. Lillian Farmer apparently was a monstrous woman who became so convinced that the Communists were driving her daughter crazy that she had Frances locked up in a state institution.

After making Frances and another movie, Tootsie, costarring Dustin Hoffman, Lange drove across country in her "beat-up Mercedes." Her destination: a ramshackle cottage she's built on 120 acres in the wilds of Minnesota "where my roots are. I have a 25-acre lake with trout, a birch and pine forest, and I've just planted a vegetable garden and flowers and some crab apple trees." Lange is one of four children, and her cottage is ten minutes away from her parents, with whom she is close.

While Lange was growing up, her father switched from being a salesman to a teacher to a sports coach. "So we were always on the move. My upbringing was firm and provincial," she says. "My folks raised me to have a great sense of self. They always encouraged me to get out and live the way I saw fit." And so she did. She went to the University of Minnesota on an art scholarship: "I was very much of an activist then. I was in all the antiwar demonstrations."

At college she met and married Spanish photographer Paco Grande. Subsequently they led a nomadic life, driving in a van from New York to San Francisco, and in Europe. In Paris, Lange studied for two years with the famous mime Etienne de Croux before returning to New York, where she studied acting, worked as a model and supplemented her income by waitressing. She landed the part of the dreamy, fast-talking blonde in the 1976 remake of King Kong. She was seeing Bob Fosse at the time and she found herself caught up in a flurry of publicity. Lange recalls the shooting of King Kong as "nightmarish." She spent close to ten months emoting inside a gigantic mechanical gorilla's hand: "I was totally isolated from the rest of the cast."

Behind the scenes, her private life has been tempestuous. She and Grande were divorced. Now legally blind, he sued her for support, maintaining that he had helped her get ahead when she was a struggling actress. Today Lange spends all her free time with her baby daughter, Alexandra. The 2-year-old child is the spitting image of her father, the famous Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Lange refuses to talk about their future together, and they have no plans to get married. The afternoon I interviewed her, she kept me waiting in the lobby while she finished lunching with Baryshnikov, and that evening he took her to the opening of Cats and the party afterward at the Waldorf. "Jess is constantly driving him places in her car," an observer says, and both Lange and Baryshnikov are very caught up in caring for their child.

Lange doesn't know what she'll do next. "It'll be a long time before I get a part as good as Frances." But this doesn't bother her. She plans to go back to her cottage in Minnesota, get her fields plowed and buy more land. She doesn't want to raise Alexandra in either New York for California. "Neither place feels like home. Minnesota is home to me."

"I plan to take each day as it comes. There is so much to experience in just one day, if you experience it fully." So saying, Lange waves her arms around the hotel suite where sunshine streams onto bowls of oranges, piles of books, the ringing phone. Just then Alexandra toddles into the room and presents her mother with a sprig of fresh broccoli. With that, Lange swings her up into her arms and hugs her tight. And Alexandra gurgles with happiness.

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