Image by Claire Miskimmin
Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer (1913-1970), a rising star in the 1930s, is remembered today more for her unfortunate life story than for her once promising career. Talented and beautiful, Farmer was also wilful, troubled, and self-destructive.
At 22, Frances Farmer moved to New York City to pursue stage acting. She ended up signing a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and starring in 15 films instead. Farmer originally wanted to be a journalist and even got her degree in the field, but her mother encouraged her otherwise. Farmer decided to go with it when the contract came but always intended to be on the stage instead of the screen.
After a period of increasingly erratic behaviour, she was declared legally insane and institutionalised in 1944. Released in 1950, she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Since her death in 1970, however, she has become something of a cult figure, the subject of three books, three movies (the best known of which is the 1982 film Frances, starring Jessica Lange), several off-Broadway plays, scores of magazine articles, and a song, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" by Kurt Cobain, which includes this line: "She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground."
The standard version of the Frances Farmer story goes like this: An idealistic young actress challenges the hypocrisy of her world and becomes the victim of a spiteful mother, a vengeful Hollywood, and a cabal of callous and arrogant psychiatrists. Together they force her into a state mental hospital, where she is brutalised by electric shock and other barbaric treatments; raped by orderlies, fellow inmates, and soldiers from a nearby Army base; and eventually lobotomised. Her rebellious spirit finally shattered, she leaves the institution an atomised half-woman, only a shadow of the vibrant artist she had once been.
Whatever the true story, it has been eclipsed by the mythology. With the medical records closed and all the principal players long dead, little can be said with certainty about what really happened to Frances Farmer. Still, two things seem clear: the behaviour that landed her in an insane asylum half a century ago would scarcely raise an eyebrow today; and yet, had she not been institutionalised, she might well have been long forgotten.
Although she’s dead, something of Frances remains in her incomplete tale. There she stands, in the shadows, in the wings. She takes one last drag on her Kent, exhales, and, trailing a thin blanket of ash, steps onstage into our various incorrect versions of her life.
She’ll come back as fire
To burn all the liars
Leave a blanket of ash on the ground...
Words by Cheryl Gault
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