Monday, September 26, 2005

David Denby

"Sexy and sweaty in her cheap wrapper, hair falling in her face, Jessica lange was the only thing to look at in last year’s glum remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and she’s the only thing in Frances as well. This painful, almost masochistically honorable movie … never really engages our emotions the way it should, but that’s hardly Lange’s fault.

"The actress Frances Farmer (1914-70) was a beauty devoted to art who loathed Hollywood and was destroyed by it, a woman congenitally incapable of uttering those diplomatic evasions we all rely on every day. Lange gives her an unsettling harsh candor, a desperate perversity. She puts her back into the role—literally—propelling Frances in and out of the disasters of her life with frightening force. Moving toward her antagonist with a lewd smile on her face, she tilts her body one way, her head the other, and she’s doubly off kilter. She makes Frances borderline crazy but also noble, game, always in there fighting and always losing. There isn’t a trace of self-pity anywhere in this performance….”

"....Frances Farmer’s descent was fast, brutal, hideous. By the early forties, she had fallen into the clutches of the police, the courts, and psychiatrists. Her mother finally committed her to a state mental hospital, where she was subjected to electroshock, raped by soldiers from a nearby base, and finally, she claimed, lobotomized, before being released, in 1950. Dead at 56, in 1970, [she] has been taken up by a culture eager to celebrate female martyers…

"Was Frances Farmer the victim of a conformist country that hated outspoken women, or did she do herself in out of sheer bullheadedness and stupidity? Perhaps both. The writers of Frances … dramatize the peculiar currents of loathing and malice that flowed under the adoration accorded a beautiful young star. For a few years, the world lay at her feet, but Frances’s left-wing sympathies, her publicly expressed contempt for movies, and her abrasive candor left her vulnerable to envy. When she was down, everybody kicked her—in that sense, she was a victim. Yet the filmmakers don’t take the easy way out by making her merely a victim; they also show her spitting in the eyes of judges, psychiatrists, her mother—anyone who could possibly have helped her. Over and over, that lewd smile comes onto Jessica Lange’s face, and Frances says the most self-destructive and often the most hateful and obscene thing she can think of. She does seem a little crazy.

"Indeed, the filmmakers are so fixated on Frances’s self-annihilating courage that they forget to bring out any other sides to her character. Why, for instance, did Frances want to be an actress? To create a character, every actor must finally yield to fantasy, to fiction. Could the truth-telling Frances ever have done that comfortably? We have to take her abilities on faith, since the movie doesn’t show her acting at all—not even in Golden Boy, her triumph. France is monotonous and depressing, not because the heroine is a loser but because she never enjoys a moment of fulfillment. Miserable Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is at least shown boxing his wahy to the crown. The doomed Janis Joplin-type singer in The Rose at least has her exhausting, magnificent concerts. Frances has nothing—the filmmakers turn her into the queen of disaster.”

"…. [W]ith the exception of Lange, Clifford has trouble with the actors… Kim Stanley is almost unbearably intense ….”

"Once Frances goes into the bin … the movie becomes unwatchable—a frenzied snake-pit extravaganza, with screaming hags, brutal orderlies, medical callousness, ignorance, and hypocrisy. Frances’s ordeal was indeed nightmarish, but material like this is dramatically and morally impossible—we feel nothing about what we’re seeing except distate, and possibly dismay over an earlier era’s barbaric practices. By this time, we may feel so battered that we stop caring about the hapless Frances. When she emerges from the hospital, eerily becalmed after her lobotomy, we’re not sure what we’ve lost. Frances doesn’t allow us a full measure of grief. We come out of it baffled, frustrated, and angry in a hopeless way.”

David Denby
New York, December 13, 1982

Carrie Rickey

“The structural problems of the script are further compounded by the movie’s peculiar empasis on the latter part of Frances’s life. Frances livens up halfway, once she’s institutionalized, stressing the madwoman convolutions of the story rather than the tragedy of a wasted talent….

“Despite the disappointing pitch of the script and its innocuous realization by first-timer Graeme Clifford, Frances should be seen for Jessica Lange. Though she relies on props to convey Framer’s unchanneled energy and Queeg-like quirkiness (she’s never without notebook, cigarette, orange, or paperclip—her hands are more active than a needlepointer’s), Lange has a rare intelligence and intensity that beam through the bushels of bullshit the filmmakers pile before her. As a Farmer impersonator, Lange’s voice (babyish rather than husky) and posture (head coyly curled toward her shoulders rather than brisk, erect) are all wrong but perfectly right. Like Tuesday Weld, Lange has a brittle tenderness, combining the fluffy alertness of a kitten with the prickly defensiveness of a porcupine. Lange—forever the consummate dazzler in uneven efforts like All That Jazz, King Kong, and Postman—is getting a reputation as a girl who buoys a leaden scenario with considerable skill. If Frances has any complexity, any resonance, it’s because Lange is struggling her damndest to make us feel the heat of Frances Farmer’s pressure cooker. Though the film’s a loser, Lange manages to triumph in characterizing Farmer’s no-win life.”

Carrie Rickey
Village Voice, December 14, 1982

Stanley Kauffmann

“If an actor—man or woman but more certainly a woman—has unkempt hair, has circles painted under the eyes, is tied in a a straitjacket, and is hauled screaming down thehall of a mental hospital by two burly guards, you can make book that his/he performance will be called marvelous. It may indeed by marvelous, of course, but it doesn’t need to be: the cheers will come, anyway. So they have come, without much reason, for Jessica Lange in this film derived from the life of Frances Farmer.

“Lange, who was in Tootsie and The Postman Always Rings Twice, is pretty, I suppose. I put it that way because, like Julie harris, she just doesn’t seem to have enough face: it looks like a pastry that has shrunk a bit. She tries hard in the part, but the best that can be said of her is that she is not bad. I was never taken. I was always watching her do her best. Sam Shepard, the premier American playwright who occasionally acts in films, fills the screen more with his mere presence—as a loyal hometown newspaper pal—than Lange does with all her strained Sturm und Drang.”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, February 7, 1983

Postscript. With Country in 1984, Kauffmann began to admire Lange, continuing through Far North, The Music Box, and Blue Sky.

Molly Haskell

“Frances Farmer, the Hollywood actress of the tragically aborted career, and Sophie Zawistowska [in Sophie’s Choice]… are not only the biggest and most important roles for women to come along in some time, they are also the darkest. Jessica Lange’s gallant but reckless Frances and Meryl Streep’s ill-fated Sophie may reflect a new mood of pessimism among women, the future seen as a series of impossible choices rather than as one of limitless possibilities.

“Nonetheless I urge you to overcome your misgivings and see and savor these films for—if nothing else—two astonishing performances. Utterly unlike as they are, Lange and Streep are uncanny in the way they evoke existing legends while creating new ones of their own….

"Frances is a distinctly inferior film—a wearying dirge to ugly Americana in which a succession of gargoyles do in a beautiful woman, yet Jessica Lange grabs one by the short hairs in a way Streep never does.

“’Frances Farmer, you’re going straight to hell,’ a Seattle woman warns the young rebel in the beginning of the film, and she does ….

“It would be a mistake to see Frances as a classic martyr, a woman-as-victim. She was a creature of uncontrollable violence, who couldn’t make her way through a cocktail party without offending someone. Yet there was something emblematic about her too, and Jessica Lange, blonde, nervy, witty, with great huge restless hands, captures, without self pity, the haunting quality of the eternal misfit. Farmer wasn’t a great actress, but she was too talented, too smart, and too beautiful to fit into any of the less-than-great roles that life had made available.”

Molly Haskell
Vogue, date?

“Except for a great female performance at its center—Jessica Lange as the legendary Frances Farmer—Frances is the antithesis of Sophie’s Choice [which had the effect of “walking through a museum in which Styron’s images have bben placed under glass: exquisite, faithful to the letter, but without a life of their own”]: broad, flat, obvious, a waxworks gallery of American Gothic types trotted out to show how terrible life was to poor Frances. Her life was hideous, a series of bouts with pills, alcohol, jail and loony bins, but who’s to blame?….

“All of this would make a depressingly banal story of victimization were it not for the magic, the charm, the airy recklessness of Jessica Lange. As haunting in her own way as Frances Farmer was in hers, she conveys the inexpressibl poignancy of a woman who never quite fits in—who is too smart to be a beautiful plaything, and too beautiful to be just smart. Thanks to Lange and Sam Shepard…, Frances is not only worth seeing, it is a must!”

Molly Haskell
Playgirl, March 1983

See Haskell’s other reviews of Frances in Psychology Today