Monday, June 27, 2011
"Frances": Biography of rebellious actress shows the horrors of our past mental health system
I remember with some subtlety my six months at the National Institutes of Health in the later part of 1962, as a “mental patient” of sorts. They would say “it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Oh, yeah. This effort had been set up specifically for college students who had been forced out, I was told; but when I got there, I found a variety of patients in other circumstances, with female patients surprisingly less intact than males.
I had been “hospitalized” in part because I had not “conformed” to what society expected, particularly in gender-related areas. I honestly think the therapists were “on to something”: that in some ways, I hadn’t learn to connect emotionally to “people as people” because I had found the competitive aspect of this humiliating.
By 1962, the worst abuses of the mental health world were receding somewhat, but that was not the case for actress Frances Farmer, the subject of the 1982 film biography “Frances”, directed by Graeme Clifford. It’s long at 140 minutes, in standard aspect, with a schmaltzy music score by John Barry, and some usual use of the opening of Mozart’s A Major Piano Sonata, which the director says parallels the music with its variation form, going into other “keys” and returning (that sounds like more like a rondo, which is not a way to characterize this movie). The film was produced by Studio Canal and originally released by Universal. The DVD has been released by both Lionsgate and Anchor Bay. Were the film made today, it would be release in the “arthouse” market, probably with a brand like Focus.
Frances (Jessica Lange) was always a rebellious girl, wanting to explore the world on her own (to the point of going to Russia), to the disapproval of her mother (Kin Stanley). Opportunities for her in both movies and stage were found for her, and she always resented being expected to play roles she saw as silly. She wanted to choose her own goals and make her life her own expression, and others would not let her. I know the feeling.
Hollywood in the 30s and 40s was a production system, where the studios micromanaged everything, and she couldn’t take that. Her behavior could indeed become boorish: she would blurt out things (“Are you the one who …?”) and insult people. She started getting into trouble, arrested for driving in LA at night with her bright lights on during a WWII blackout; she didn’t accept the idea of shared sacrifice for war. She would come home to her studio-owned house and find her stuff moved to a hotel and her contract canceled. Soon, she would be in more trouble with police and be committed to a mental hospital.
So her career ended, for a while, with a kind of blacklist, but of a different sort from what affected Trumbo.
The second half of the film chronicles the horrors of her treatment, ranging from insulin and electroshock treatments eventually to orbital lobotomy (not prefrontal). A doctor says “the fastest way to get ‘em in and out; as safe as removing an infected tooth”. It’s not clear whether she really had one, but she did return to the screen, sort of, and even appeared on “This Is Your Life” in the 1950s. But her mother insisted she was not an adult anymore, that she had to do what others said, whereas Frances insisted there was nothing “wrong” with her. She probably would not have been treated for “mental illness” today, but then neither would I have been.
The DVD includes a 31-minute short, “A Hollywood Life: Remembering Frances Farmer”, by Blue Underground and Anchor Bay, directed by David Gregory, 2002.