As biographical drama, the estimable new CBS television movie "Will There Really Be a Morning?" makes the woozy "Frances" look even more derelict. Tonight at 8 on Channel 9, "Morning" brings a welcome, murk-dispelling accuracy and illumination to the harrowing story of actress Frances Farmer, exploited for luridly incoherent impressions in the current theater counterpart. It also boasts the legitimate sensation of a brilliant performance, Lee Grant's marvelously inventive and intimidating embodiment of Farmer's domineering mother, Lillian. Perhaps she's nailed down another Emmy, since Lillian is certainly the most fascinating and powerful (and sneaky-funny) performance of Grant's career.
Based on an autobiographical memoir assembled a few years after Farmer's death in 1970, "Morning" never loses sight of the primary source of the emotional turmoil that eventually drove her into years of confinement in nightmarish mental institutions: a mother-daughter struggle of peculiarly maddening intensity in which the mother's will proved lamentably tenacious, ruthless and inescapable. "This is where the war between Mama and I began," Frances declares in the scene-setting passage of voice-over narration read by Susan Blakely, the conspicuous weak link in this otherwise sound production. Writer Dalene Young keeps that profoundly intimate form of psychological combat in unwavering focus.
Among other virtues, Young's teleplay recommends itself as an almost textbook rebuke to the dithering exposition inflicted on "Frances" by a trio of male screenwriters. Apart from one scrambled sequence of events during Farmer's initial, promising stay in Hollywood, when both fame and dissolution seem to be overwhelming her prematurely, Young's scenario unfolds with a refreshing purposefulness, laying the groundwork for what proves to be a structurally sound and emotionally convincing portrait of filial submission to an irresistibly manipulative maternal will.
The movie begins with a scene of Lillian Farmer hogging the limelight at a patriotic rally in the family's native Seattle. While her youngest daughter, Frances, looks on from the grandstand, Lillian enjoys one of the eccentric triumphs that made her an incorrigible provincial "character," introducing her "Bird Americana," a red, white and blue chicken bred as a patriotic gesture during World War I. Several years later notoriety comes to the teen-age Frances, who wins a national essay contest for high school students with a precociously complacent little atheistic meditation on the Death of God. The glare of publicity alarms the schoolgirl but delights her doting, publicity-hungry mother, who eagerly pinch-hits when Frances refuses to talk with local reporters. "Very well, I will talk to them myself," Lillian announces with a show of civic-minded decisiveness, blissfully oblivious of her true motives. When her daughter complains, "You're turning this into a circus," the mother's outraged "I? I?" sets a pattern of recurrent egotistic obliviousness.
Young combines a clear-sighted characterization of Lillian as an insatiably vain domestic tyrant with an uncanny flair for expressing her real drives indirectly through self-righteously defensive dialogue. Grant gives a mock-offended sting to Lillian's scolding and remonstrating that consistently stuns the viewer, as if the lines had administered physical slaps. Moreover, she insists on asserting her authority in relentless, petty ways. When Frances seems inclined to drag her feet when commanded to dry the dishes, for example, Lillian reminds her emphatically, "I dry them immediately!" and this arbitrary accusatory note goes on echoing and intensifying throughout the story. Ultimately, Frances recognizes the pathological nuttiness and selfishness behind it, but by that time her life has been grotesquely distorted by her inability to liberate herself from its intimidating influence.
Young's straightforward continuity also allows the subsidiary torments to take their proper place in the Farmer tale of woe. In the television movie the celebrated lover who betrayed her, playwright Clifford Odets, emerges as Intimate Enemy No. 2, evidently a fair assessment of his contribution to her sorrows. As the self-important, arrogant young Odets, John Heard gives a velvety modulation to the hateful, troublemaking tone he sustained so impressively as the crazy Cutter in "Cutter's Way." His Odets isn't believably Jewish, but he is a believably sophisticated monster, and his style of abusing Farmer's trust echoes the domineering treatment she already has cause to dread in Mama. Given exploiters as insidious and imaginative as these two, it's not particularly surprising that their mutual patsy would end up an emotional wreck.
Sticking close to Farmer's own account of her tribulations, "Morning" avoids most of the dubious elements that tended to falsify and clutter up "Frances." Dalene Young merits additional praise for being scrupulously fair to Farmer's first husband, Leif Erickson, who was treated as an ornamental nincompoop in the theatrical biography, and for avoiding the pitfalls of nonexistent characters (like the baffling phantom lover played by Sam Shepard in "Frances") and unsubstantiated atrocities (notably the lobotomy Farmer may or may not have been subjected to in the depths of her institutional helplessness). As a matter of fact, Young and director Fielder Cook demonstrate a remarkable capacity for resisting sensationalism to concentrate on the fundamental evidence of psychological dependence and surrender suggested by the subject herself.
The stark contrast between "Morning" and "Frances" favors the latter in only one respect--Jessica Lange is a far more attractive and resourceful wrong choice for Frances Farmer than is Susan Blakely, who seems too old for the role in its youthful stages and barely adequate to the dramatic occasions after Farmer undergoes a breakdown.
Young has invented some ingenious acting moments--Frances muttering to herself in her apartment or calling the police in alarm and then losing track of her reason for calling--that Blakely can't seem to seize upon. Meanwhile, Lee Grant is seizing upon every stray prop (she's fantastic brandishing a string bean during one hair-raising domestic squabble) and every tic of body language to authenticate Lillian's grandstanding craziness.
Moreover, it's only her agitating presence that evokes occasionally effective and forceful responses from Blakely.
When Blakely gets in the same ball game with Grant, there's a curiously comic undertone to the awfulness of the mother-daughter bickering that ensues. Lillian and Frances evoke memories of Vicki Lawrence as Mama and Carol Burnett as Eunice, and the relationships do indeed share a hideously funny authenticity in the psychopathology of family life. Finally, Frances' Mama is as impossible to contend with as Eunice's Mama. There are only two conceivable escape routes from submission to this sort of obdurate maternal will--total separation or matricide--and neither is easily taken. In perhaps the most inspired moment of terrifying domestic comedy in "Morning," Royal Dano as the cowardly Mr. Farmer, the father who never dared assert any authority in his wife's domain, is caught in the crossfire of another argument between his wife and daughter; sitting between them on the front porch, he ducks his head in concealment behind the newspaper he's reading while the womenfolk unload on each other across his pitiful little camouflage blanket.