Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirty-Nine

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#39 — Frances (Graeme Clifford, 1982)
Jessica Lange is magnificent in Frances. I’ve toyed around with different ways to start this entry–maybe focusing on the real life story of the film’s subject, the abused nineteen-thirties actress Frances Farmer; calling attention to the quiet ingenuity of Graeme Clifford’s directing job; even touting the always evocative cinematography of László Kovács–but it all begins with Lange. This was only her fifth film, and it’s easy to see how she may have related to the pretty blonde actress who was underestimated and discarded. Six years earlier, she’d had a disastrous coming out party with the notorious Dino De Layrentiis produced (and John Guillermin directed) remake of King King. This was followed by a careful career recovery with hints of her true talent emerging: she had a brief, icy turn in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and held her own against no less formidable a costar than Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. About two weeks after Frances opened, Tootsie arrived, and Lange’s professional path was permanently rerouted. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in that film. And she was nominated for Best Actress for Frances. Much as I love her sly, sexy, graceful turn in Tootsie, it’s remedial acting when compared to the doctoral thesis that resides in Frances.

Frances Farmer was an actress who started a movie career in the mid-thirties, getting absorbed into the studio system machinery of Paramount Pictures. Fiercely independent and fueled by great personal determination, Farmer bucked against the controlling forces in her life almost from the very beginning. It was era when Hollywood was, in its unique way, just another factory town, glamor dropping off the end of the assembly line instead of automobiles or steel. Frances tracks Farmer’s devastating descent as her notoriously challenging approach to work began to be compounded by alcohol abuse. This eventually led to her institutionalization, diagnosed with depression and other mental ailments. As depicted in the film, Farmer does seem to have little signs of cognitive struggle, but the prevailing sentiment is clearly that she was at least as much of a victim of her own fearsome strength. She may very well have needed some of the psychological assistance that widely available today, but her symptom that truly raised alarms back then was simple non-conformity.

It’s a dream role, and Lange works wonders with it. She has to go from burgeoning forthrightness to lush ascendancy to spiritual destitution, and then dance all those same steps again in freshly insightful ways. Lange digs in ferociously. She never merely showboats, always giving Farmer the integrity of being a honest, wounded person buffeted by all this high drama. She rails against the world, but can be humbled and chastened in the right circumstances, especially when facing her imperiously intimidating mother, played with high skill by Kim Stanley. Individual scenes of Lange’s performance can be extracted to marvel at the shattering intensity of the actresses dedication, but its the complex entirety of her turn that truly impresses.

When a performance is this good, it can be both a boon and distraction. Much of the impact of Frances is due to Lange’s superlative acting, no doubt, but the seismic nature of her work also somewhat obscures the striking accomplishment to found in the other facets of filmmaking. Clifford’s directing is especially good, conveying the story with a strong sense of time and place. The camera keeps catching the sort of patriotic posters that adorned every vertical surface in the run-up to World War II, all of them delivering the message that anyone who deviated from close-mouthed devotion to the cause was flatly wrong and effectively collaborating with evil forces. It’s not just period color; it invaluably establishes the culture that Farmer was born into, the culture that would grind her up. Clifford doesn’t get out of the way of Lange’s turn. Instead, he figures it out how to enhance and support it, building a film that’s a worthy home to one of the finest performances of the decade.

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