• Golden Globe Awards

Jessica Lange, 1982 on Frances Farmer – Out of the Archives

Jessica Lange, winner of five Golden Globes for her acting out of 16 nominations, received a special award as Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture for King Kong (1976), won as Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie (1982) directed by Sydney Pollack starring Dustin Hoffman, was nominated as Best Actress in a drama for Frances (1982).  She talked to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1982 about playing actress Frances Farmer.  Lange acted with Liam Neeson in Marlowe (2023), directed by Neil Jordan.
Lange said that she never met Frances Farmer, who acted on Broadway and in movies from 1936 to 1941, before being committed to psychiatrist institutions and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia: “She died in 1970 so I never knew her. I was aware of her for the last ten years and then I saw all of her movies before we started shooting, I screened every film that she ever did. The only one that impressed me for the quality of her work was Come and Get It (1936). The other ones impressed me on a negative side of what awful movies this poor talented woman was forced to do. From the later years I saw the This Is Your Life program and the movie The Party Crashers (1958) that she did.”
In those institutions Farmer received treatments that were common at that time to treat mental illness, like hydrotherapy and insulin shock therapy. This is what Lange found out during her research:  “I don’t believe Frances was ever crazy and I made an effort not to play her as a crazy woman, but the research I did into the mental institutions was very important to me, simply to find out what the atmosphere was, what happens to the human soul in one of these places; and especially if you are sane, as I think Frances was, it really was quite frightening.  When we went to do research at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, we asked if we could spend time in the violent ward, because that was where Frances was incarcerated for the longest period of time, but they no longer even have a violent ward. Nobody is shackled, nobody is in straitjackets, so it is quite a bit different than the way it was in those institutions in the 1940s.”
Lange explained why she was intrigued by the idea of playing Frances Farmer, and why the actress kept going back to her mother Lillian, despite the fact that, as her legal guardian, she had her daughter committed to Western State Hospital in Washington State: “I became interested in her in the early 70s, when I was in acting class in New York. I was watching a scene that two girls were doing between a mother and a daughter and it happened that they took it from Farmer’s book Will There Really Be A Morning? That was the first time I became aware of her and then that triggered off years of research into her life. Nobody has ever been able to explain why Frances kept going back to her mother, to this woman who ultimately destroyed her; but I found from reading letters that she wrote to her mother and from talking to people who knew her that it’s not as black and white as it might appear, that mother and daughter had a tremendous relationship together.  There was so much love between them, and it’s the same with any child who is raised by a very magnetic, powerful parent, that your whole identity somehow is caught up with the existence of this parent. Therefore, whatever affirmation, whatever denial you have in life is directly related to this other human being, and the way I understood it is that Frances could never really quite get on with the rest of her life until this situation with her mother was somewhat resolved.  So she kept gravitating back to her, hoping that somehow, they could solve this relationship that they had together, but, of course, it never was so.”
As depicted in the film, Frances Farmer refused to play the Hollywood game, moved to New York in 1937 to act on Broadway in the play Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, had an affair with the married playwright. Lange elaborated: “The affair with Odets ended the way we show in the film, it wasn’t a letter, it was a telegram, but the words were exactly the same, ‘My wife returns from Europe. This affair is now ended.’  He was the great love in Frances’s life, so that was the beginning of a series of events that led to her nervous breakdown, and that was true.  She was a woman ahead of her time, in the sense that she was such a powerful individual, which was all right for men, but not necessarily okay for women. She would not succumb, she would not quiet herself on any issues that she felt strongly about. She was very outspoken politically and I guess you would say morally; from a personal point of view, she never compromised herself.  Women now in the 1980’s are able to speak their mind and live their life pretty much the way they would like to, but in the 1930’s a lot of people were angered because of the way she was living.”  
Lange did not believe that Farmer was a victim, but she was persecuted and labeled as a crazy person: “It gets into difficult areas, because to me the term victim implies something passive, but Frances was never passive in her life, she was a warrior in the sense that she took everything on, she made everything a personal issue, she never let anything just ease by.  So in that sense she was her own worst enemy, because there are times in life when you cannot make an issue of every slight incident that comes your way.  People tried to victimize her, but she was never passive, so it wasn’t a masochistic thing, but in a greater sense, I guess you could say that she was certainly a victim of persecution, but, personally, she was not a victim in her heart.  She was persecuted politically, socially and from a professional point of view, so, in that sense, she was a victim. It was convenient for people to think she was crazy. It is a very good way to put away people, if you say so-and-so is crazy. If they can believe in their hearts that you are an irrational or dangerous person, they are somehow able to deal with you.”
Lange thought that in the 1980s actresses were allowed to be more outspoken in Hollywood: “Now people are protected somewhat more, because they are allowed more freedom, they are allowed to be stronger and more powerful individuals outside of any kind of studio system. You have actors like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, for instance, who are extremely outspoken politically and socially, and seem to be working quite well in Hollywood now. The studio system has changed, the individual is now a more powerful presence in Hollywood than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when people’s lives were dictated by the head of the studio.  So I do believe that the whole atmosphere of Hollywood has changed, and I don’t think that a story like Frances could happen in the 1980s. But Hollywood is still a business, it’s a huge industry that revolves around money, and whenever you have that as the driving force, you also have people who suffer a great deal, so basically the human spirit is a commodity in Hollywood.  I always have been interested in people who live outside the law or outside of conventional society, I think those are the interesting people in history.”