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Film / Frances

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"You know, if you're treated like a patient, then you're apt to act like one".
Frances Farmer

Frances is a 1982 film directed by Graeme Clifforc. Jessica Lange stars in the titular role as Frances Farmer, a fiery, headstrong 1930s actress poised on the verge of stardom before her alcoholism and declining mental health led to a highly publicized involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital of horrors. It is Very Loosely Based on a True Story and also features music by Sam Shepard and Kim Stanley.

Since childhood, Frances Farmer is a rebellious and outspoken young woman whose first taste of notoriety is a prize-winning high school essay entitled "God Dies!" A few short years later, a twenty-ish Frances travels to the USSR to study acting, seriously damaging her chances of Hollywood success during the Red Scare. But Frances is determined to make her way without kowtowing to the Hollywood machine...only to find that the machine won't let her.

Her frustration leads her to a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol, until her overbearing Stage Mom has her involuntarily committed to a borderline Bedlam House where she is subjected to a Trauma Conga Line including rape, sadistic therapeutic treatments, and ultimately a lobotomy. Eventually she is discharged from the hospital but finds herself ostracized by the specter of her mental illness.

Frances contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Frances is rarely without a drink in her hand after her career flops, and her dangerous drunk driving is what ultimately lands her in the hospital.
  • Bedlam House: The hospital where Frances is sent is a nightmare where patients are alternatively tortured by the staff, giving unnecessary and dangerous treatments by doctors, and completely neglected.
  • Break the Haughty: Frances is no angel, but forces in her life conspire to break her spirit.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: Frances's perfectly reasonable anger at being involuntarily institutionalized is seen as a symptom of her mental illness, and thus as a valid reason for keeping her institutionalized. The longer she stays, the more angry she becomes at being kept, and thus all the more reason why she should remain. The only way be freed is to "get better" by essentially giving up her strong-willed, stubborn personality...which for someone like Frances would itself drive her crazy.
  • Double Standard: A theme of the whole film. Frances's mercurial, uncompromising personality, heavy drinking, and occasional outbursts might have been seen as just another temperamental actor if she were a man. As a woman, however, they're taken as a sign that she's mentally ill.
  • Downer Ending: Frances' promising career never recovers after her ordeal, and she eventually dies alone, anonymous, broke, and broken.
  • Driven to Madness: The film suggests that Frances wasn't mentally ill before she was institutionalized, but that the traumatic experience drove her insane.
  • Dying as Yourself: Toward the end of her life, Frances must decide between expressing her true personality and adopting a quieter one for fear that one step out of line will make people believe she is still mentally ill.
  • Go Among Mad People: While she's definitely suffering from substance abuse, she's not nearly as mentally ill as her fellow least, not until she's been trapped there a while. As Frances puts it, "If you're treated like a patient, you're apt to act like one."
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Frances can snap at people at the drop of a hat, frequently to the point of physically attacking them.
  • Harmful Healing: Frances is subjected to hydrotherapy (forced icy-cold baths meant to shock the patient to sanity), insulin therapy (a regiment of insulin injections until she falls into a "therapeutic" coma meant to reset her mental functions) and ultimately lobotomization. All of these were standard treatments for mental illness in the age before psychiatric drugs.
  • Institutional Apparel: White scrubs for the orderlies, grey nightgowns (and straitjackets!) for the patients.
  • Lobotomy: Depicted as fact in the movie, though it probably didn't happen to Frances in real life.
  • Rage Breaking Point: When a movie set hairdresser starts giving Frances "advice".
  • Rape as Drama: Frances is subjected to sexual assault both from employees at the hospital and from soldiers at a nearby air base to whom the hospital staff regularly pimps their patients. (This is another dramatic aspect that probably didn't happen in Real Life.)
  • My Beloved Smother: Frances's mother Lillian alternates between this and a Stage Mom, going so far as to underhandedly obtain legal custody over her adult daughter in order to control her behavior.
  • Stage Mom: Frances' mother mentions she likes to think that Frances got some talent from her. The mother used to have acting aspirations as well.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Frances' golden hair is forcibly cut to "prevent lice." She kicks and screams all the way.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Quite a few aspects of the film have been said to be fiction. Frances' lobotomy is the most notable example.
  • Where Are They Now: Frances sinks into such obscurity after her release that she is literally the subject of an episode of "This Is Your Life" once the public starts wondering whatever happened to her.