I read a review of Frances that said it was a pedestrian movie that was only saved by Jessica Lange’s performance. I disagree. This is a biographical film that doesn’t try to play off the main character as a perfect hero, a saint or a slightly damaged hero. Frances has no moral to teach, and it offers no easy answers about her life and personality. That is not a pedestrian film, that is a brave one. In a world where we demand that our biographical films make an entire life digestible and provide a happy moral this one refuses. And it couldn’t more perfectly fit in with its heroine’s life story. But Jessica Lange’s performance is a great one. One of the greatest of all time I believe.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are numerous flaws with the film. For starters it plays fast and loose with the reality of Frances Farmer’s life. Did she really endure and accomplish much of the things that she did in this film? Yes. Was she really institutionalized against her will? Yes. Was she lobotomized? No. Was there really a man named Harry? No. he was an invention of the writers to give her a continuous love interest. He is another one of the problems with the film. There was no need to fictionalize so much of her life story when the reality was so rich and fascinating. And Harry proves more distracting than a heart warming constant love interest. His presence becomes distracting since he only appears when it is convenient for the writers to reintroduce him. There is no organic growth for his constantly appearing at random intervals.
Two performance keep Frances moving and watchable though. One is Kim Stanley as Frances’ stage-mom from hell. She hides behind a caring façade but reveals how sharp her fangs can be whenever Frances threatens her with independent thought and actions. She wants to vicariously live through her daughter. And Jessica Lange gives a career defining performance as Frances Farmer. Prior to this was she eye candy to King Kong and Jack Nicholson’s plaything in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Frances gave her a big showcase for her immense talents. She ages, she fights for her right to free thinking and living. It is one of my favorite performances.
Was Frances crazy? No, I don’t believe she was. She was a woman who needed some therapy and some very low doses of medicine. She didn’t need to be institutionalized or have her entire life removed and placed in questionable hands. This is a story of darkness, but also of one woman’s struggle to survive and maintain against all odds.