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March 04, 1983 - Image 28

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1983-03-04
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Starring: Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley,
and Sam Shepard
Written by Eric Bregen, Christopher
Devore, and Nicholas Kazan
Directed by Greame Clifford
Campus Theater
By Christopher Potter
W AS THERE ever a life more
astonishingly sada than Frances
The late star scarcely appears
nowadays except as a kind of divine
oversoul of the 3 a.m. Late Late Show;
yet whenever her old films grace the in-
somniac's TV screen, the event blasts
away all time barriers. Frances Far-
mer may have been the most
charismatic actress Hollywood ever
bestowed upon a star-worshipping
nation: A breathtaking blonde syn-
thesis of beauty and talent, she seemed
radiantly capable of accomplishing
anything as a performer.
That was nearly 50 years ago. Today,
Frances Farmer reigns as thedeceased
darling of Hollywood ghouldom; hers is
the ultimate Tinseltown horror story, a
Cinderella reversal worthy of De Sade.
At age 24 she was universally ac-
claimed as the next Greta Garbo; by
age 30 she was, in the words of writer-
director Kenneth Anger "consigned to
Hell" - legally condemned to rot in a
string of madhouses so hideous they
might make Dachau seem preferable.
For years a shamed Hollywood was
content to leave details of Farmer's
torments shrouded in mystery. In 1972
her alleged autobiography (Farmer
died of cancer in 1970) pierced the wall
of silence; six years later, William Ar-
nold's startling inquiry, Shadowland,
shockingly rattled skeletons in the
closets of both the movie and
psychiatric communities.
Suddenly, Frances Farmer's life and
death have turned wide open to
dramatic embrace and exploitation. At
least two full-length plays have recen-
tly circulated, and now a pair of motion
pictures both claim to reveal the "true"
story of Farmer's wrenching existence.
One, a shrill and shallow TV biography,
can be dismissed with little comment;
the other, Frances, is superior enough
to its low-budget competitor that its
ultimate failure, of both documentary
and artistic nerve proves unforgivable.
The problem facing any Farmer
biographer is how to narrate a tale of
such unrelenting misery without
scaring away audiences. Frances
Farmer seemed born to adversity:
Born in 1913 an only child in Seattle, she
suffered through dozens of upheavals of
career and soul, all orchestrated by a
gruesome, unresolvable struggle with
her unstable,iron-willed mother - who
would eventually become her agent of

Frances faithfully chronicles most of
its heroine's torments, then softens
them just enough to render them poin-
tless. Brainy and toughly principled,
Frances (played by Jessica Lange)
sparks controversy from the start: At
17, she scandalizes Seattle's conser-
vative citizenry by composing, then
publicly reading a high school essay
titled, "The Death of God." A few years
later in college, she further outrages
town fathers (and her mother) by ac-
cepting a free trip to the Soviet Union,
thus branding herself a "Red."
Journeying to Hollywood, Farmer
proves such an artistic sensation it
becomes a foregone conclusion she'll be
the next great star in American movies.
With the world at her feet, the actress
abruptly chucks the silver screen (and
an ill-advised marriage) in favor of her
first love, the stage; she joins New
York's left-wing Group Theater, stars

to hundreds, perhaps thousands of
"treatments" of electroshock, insulan
shock, hydrotherapy and other
techniques (now by and large
discredited) in a concerted effort to
remold her into a "conforming"
For the next six years, Farmer's
sanity is assaulted under conditions of
progressively descending barbarity.
Her individualism and stubbornness
are held against her as evidence of
"sickness;" she's shunted from
hospital to hospital, interspersed with
brief parolings to the care of her
mother - who then capriciously re-
commits her. Farmer is eventually
deposited into the filth and dementia of
the hospital backwards, where she's
subjected to gang rapes by orderlies
and groups of soldiers who bribe their
way into the hospital. When she still
resists, she's given a lobotomy (by a

stances than of conscious plotting. The
disastrous love-hate relationship bet-
ween daughter and mother is also
muted; instead of the hectoring mon-
ster she evidently was, Lillian Farmer
(played by Kim Stanley) is cast as a
loving but misguided hayseed, twisted
more by the evil influence of her lawyer
and by Frances' doctors than by any
malevolence in her own heart.
Which leaves the film with no point of
view, its subject matter no more than
tepidly lurid melodrama. Though direc-
tor Cliffor offers Frances' lobotomy as
given fact (actually, it's never been
proven she had one), he nonetheless
softpedals the indignities of her long in-
carceration - a nightmare of rape,
starvation and hideous medical
assaults. Though her film confinement
is grisly, the reality was much worse.
In effect, the film is itself
lobotomized. It just sits there prettily
(Lazlo Kovacs' gauzy cinematography
is woefully mismatched to the
starkness of its subject matter),
casting no judgments, raising no
The screenwriters' have even con-
jured up an entirely fictitious character
named Harry York (played by Sam
Shepard), who functions as protector,
soulmate and occasional lover of our
heroine (he also narrates her story).
York's inclusion is a pure sop to the
audience, presumably inserted to make
an otherwise unbearable story
Harry's mysterious presence throws
Frances' plight into illogic; had our
protagonist actually been blessed with
such a guardian angel, she'd likely
have been spared much of her life's
agony (in her autobiography, Farmer
expresses her futile longing for just
such a person). Harry bails Frances out
again and again as the years go by -
even springing her from asylums - yet
it never seems to help; he proposes
marriage more than once, yet Frances
inexplicably demurs. In the process,
she seems less and less a victim than
she does a willful masochist.
All of which leaves one shrugging in
puzzlement. Was Frances Farmer a
political hostage? Was she a brainy
psychotic who brought her destruction
upon herself? Frances remains so arid
that only Jessica Lange's convulsive
performance even attempts to grope
for an answer.
A virtual Farmer look-alike, Lange
manages to radiate the same charisma
which sent '30s movie audiences into
paroxysms of lust and jealousy. She
goes far beyond the screaming
histrionics sucha role might induce in a
less talented actress (witness Susan
Blakely's shrieking, eyeball-rolling
hysterics as the recent TV Frances).
Lange proves she can bellow with the
best of them, yet she's at her most won-
derful in Frances' quiet moments: As
her character slides toward disaster,
Lange's face mutates frighteningly
from angelic loveliness into a blighted
mask of pain, always tempered by her
fury to remain human.
Lange's is an amazingly subtle per-
formance, supplying practically all the
passion this otherwise sterile motion
picture lacks. Would that her presence
were-enough to obliterate the
overriding timidity of this lavish,
cringing fraud of a docudrama. It
seems Hollywood has, alas, destroyed
Frances Farmer once again.


The Conservatory
516 E. Liberty
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Sunday
By Jerry Aliotta
U PON ENTERING the vestibule at
516 E. Liberty St., one is confron-
ted with a tough decision: either to open
the door at Second Chance and get
blown off your seat from the rever-
berations of heavy duty rock 'n roll
music, or hang a left and spend a
pleasant evening dining and listening to
Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the aptly
named Conservatory restaurant.
Those who pick the Conservatory
may be in for an enjoyable dinner. The
mood is just right for couples on their
first date looking forward to a relaxed
and casual atmosphere amidst soft
lighting and excellent music. The
restaurant is long and narrow, however
nowhere near claustophobic. And in
case a couple runs out of things to say,
there are all sorts of attractive in-
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struments (old banjos, mandolins,
baritone sax) on the walls which make
for interesting conversation pieces.
With a different food special every
evening, the Conservatory offers a
variety of food topics in which to in-
dulge. The Baked Atlantic Cod, about
$7, served with your choice of potatoes
or a side of Italian spaghetti and a
vegetable, was a generous portion of
food, Buttery tasting, the cod was a
seafood lover's delight. However, the
spaghetti, flavored in butter and garlic,
was disappointing. With the ends burnt,
the spaghetti was almost crispy. But
the bit that was cooked right was surely
"Italian." And the sauteed zuchinni and
tomatoes are certainly a change from
your standard peas or corn - try it,
you'll like it.
The basket dishes (on the standard
menu) are the Conservatory's
specialty. They include a main course
of clams, shrimp or a burger with
natural fries and a biscuit with honey.
Crispy, chewy, and delectable, the
clams are a must. The natural fries are
slices of potatoes with the skins left on
- not your ordinary fries soaked in
shortening, but with a fresh unrefined
taste. This filling meal costs around $5.
For those hamburger lovers - take a
break from McDonalds. The Conser-
vatory serves some dazzling steak
burgers ($3.50) that make your mouth
water. The English burger, topped with
strips of bacon and covered with ched-
dar cheese, is definitely a mouthful.
Other steak burgers with tasty topping
ranging from mushrooms to chili, are
both plentiful and delicious.
Also available are side orders of deep
fried breaded mushrooms, and gargan-
tuan onion rings, both of which are ex-
The Conservatory offers a different
soup each day. The creamed vegetable
soups are especially flavorsome. And
the Conservatory chowder, with chunks
of vegetables, was creamy and savory.


For non-soup lovers, chili (when in
season) is available topped with a slice
of cheddar cheese. Although slightly on
the tomatoey side, the chili was thick
and zesty.
There is an assortment of desserts
($1.50) for sweet tooths.The cheesecake
topped with strawberries was nothing
less than superb, and so rich it was hard

to finish.
With sic
dessert, di
out of the
The food is
tions are p
usual 2,00(
off 'the wal
left - you'

* ** * ** ** * **

Jessica Lange: Command performance

in Clifford Odets' huge hit, "Golden
Boy," and plunges into a torrid affair-
with playwright Odets himself.
Farmer is soon summarily dumped
by the Group and by Odets;
disillusioned politically and roman-
tically, she limps home to find a vindic-
tive Hollywood thirsting for revenge
over her act of desertion a year earlier.
Forced to accept humiliating roles in
low-budget cheapies, she slides in-
creasingly into states of violent, liquor-
ridden depression.
A brisk shoving match with a traffic
cop leaves Farmer with a resisting-
arrest conviction; subsequently, she
slugs a makeup woman on a movie set,
and is sentenced to six months in jail.
Re-enter Frances' mother who, in the
words of writer Anger, "could have
stepped out of the Brothers Grimm." In
a swift legal swoop, the elder Farmer
has her daughter declared emotionally
incompetent and committed to a men-
tal hospital.
The actress is abruptly plunged into a
horror beyond a screenwriter's most
diabolical imaginings. Stripped of her
civil rights, Farmer literally becomes a
prisoner of the state. Her existence is a
dark montage cataloging the most
ghastly depravities of Americanm
psychiatric hospitals: She's subjected

surgeon later discredited as a medical
maniac), which leaves her a wobbling,
dull-witted semi-zombie. She is only 37.
Considering the jarringness of its
subject matter, it's astonishing just
how uninvolving Frances is. The movie
pays lip service to the catalog of
horrors battering its abused
protagonist, yet remains emotionally
neutral. Frances Farmer had the
ghoulish misfortune to be a performer
30 years ahead of her time: Method ac-
ting, social nonconformity and buck-
the-studio independence were unheard
of in the Hollyood of the '30s and '40s -
openly left-wing political views were
an even more criminal taboo.
There's ample evidence (elucidated
in Arnold's Shadowland) that Farmer
was essentially a political prisoner -
that her mother and organized
psychiatry acted in open conspiracy to
bludgeon her into meek acquiescence.
(Mother Lillian Farmer used to tell
reporters that her daughter was a
"dupe of the Reds" and thus had to be
cured of her delusions).
Frances director Greame Clifford
and screenwriters Eric Bergren,
Christopher Devore and Nicholas
Kazan largely ignore this issue, casting
Farmer more as a victim of circum-

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6 Weekend/.March 4, 1983 x. -.....................-.....

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