Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Frances Farmer'

When I was flipping around channels the other day, I stopped on the Biography Channel, as the bio on Frances Farmer was the bio-de-jour.

I had seen the film, Frances, with Jessica Lange, and I had read info on the real Frances Farmer, as well as reading Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon."

However, as I watched the bio, the tragedy of her life really struck me. Mental illness is so sneaky and it can rob you of so much, as well it can delude you into thinking that you are the normal one and everyone around you is an attacker.

From what I saw, and then subsequently read about Ms. Farmer, it seemed that no matter how much success or adulation she received for her acting, she would single-handedly ruin things when the going got too good.

However, she was an iconoclast, in my opinion. I had no idea that she won a trip to the Soviet Union, while she was a college student in the 1930s. Later, it would be used against her to prove she was a "Communist."

She was a rebel before rebelling was cool in Hollywood. She refused to be pigeon-holed in B-movie exploits that only capitalized on her looks. She worked with some of the best playwrights and writers of the day. Odets, Hemingway, but she was often combative and paranoid.

As well, she became a major alcoholic.

This began her real descent into madness and exploitation because of it.

According to Wikipedia:

On October 19, 1942, she was stopped by the police in Santa Monica for driving with her headlights on bright in the wartime blackout zone that affected most of the West Coast. Some reports say she was unable to produce a driver's license and was verbally abusive. The police suspected her of being drunk and she was jailed overnight. Farmer was fined $500 and given a 180-day suspended sentence. She immediately paid $250 and was put on probation.

By January 1943, she failed to pay the rest of the fine and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. At almost the same time, a studio hairdresser filed an assault charge alleging that Farmer had dislocated her jaw on the set. The police traced Farmer to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Getting no answer, they entered her room with a pass key. They reportedly found her in bed (some stories include an episode involving the bathroom) and made her dress quickly. By all accounts, she did not surrender peacefully.

At her hearing the next morning, she behaved erratically. She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge. He immediately sentenced her to 180 days in jail. She knocked down a policeman and bruised another, along with a matron. She ran to a phone booth where she tried to call her attorney, but was subdued by the police. They physically carried her away as she shouted, “Have you ever had a broken heart?”

Newspaper reports gave sensationalized accounts of her arrest. Through the efforts of her sister-in-law, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of L.A. General Hospital.[1] There she was diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis".

I think the worst, however, was being institutionalized against your will. Basically, it happened to Frances twice, once at the hands of her own mother. Can you imagine being thrown in a mental hospital by your own mother, or parents?

As seen in the film, she received ECT treatments, but what is disputed is whether she actually had a lobotomy, as the film suggests.

Years of trying to fight her mother's legal guardianship over her, her mother re-institutionalizing her, took its toll on the woman. However, she never gave up.

At the same time, toward the end of her life, she told others, "I blame nobody but me for my downfall."

I don't know if I believe that or not, but Frances Farmer's life is a good case study for what untreated alcoholism and mental illness can actually do to the person and their family, friends. As well, it is a good cautionary tale about the dysfunctional family unit, period.

The relationship with her mother, as portrayed in the film, is part factual and part dramatic license, but I do think it shows how our sick parents can influence our own sickness.

Erratic behavior, impulsive decision-making, violent outbursts can stop the most creative, intelligent minds. Add to that, involuntary hospitalization in a mental hospital will either make you or break you.

The last part of the program focused on the "This is Your Life" on Frances Farmer. It was bittersweet.

If you get a chance to catch her bio, it's well worth the look. May she truly Rest In Peace.

Here is one of the most pivotal scenes in the film, and it is a chance to see the phenomenal Kim Stanley as Frances' mother.


1 comment:

Colleen and Lenore said...

What a Great Post!!!!

I think we know someone who's life has the same story line...Geeze and almost the same name too!!