FORTY YEARS after her name began fading from public view and 12 years past her quiet death from cancer in Indianapolis, the entertaiment industry is at last attempting to give actress Frances Garmer a little compassionate understanding. Not many people made that attempt during her lifetime.
Her domineering mother, a stern, super-patriot, constantly frustrated Farmer by ranting against her idealistic career goals and political beliefs. The Communist party used the young actress in a much-ballyhooed attempt to gain sympathy for its cause in mid-'30s Moscow. The Paramount studio chiefs asked her to grind out one frothy feature after another, disregarding her consuming thirst for artistic growth.
The fans adored her and the columnists fed on her misfortunes as she worked her way from one husband to the next (there were three, all told) and through a series of lovers. Then there were the psychiatrists who, during her long, forced institutionalization, fed her every dangerous experimental drug on the market, shot her up, iced her down and, in the end, robbed her of her imagination--probably through a transorbital lobotomy--and hung her out to dry.
Now Hollywood has resurrected one of its ugliest episodes and finally is paying its respects in a big way--a feature film, "Frances," opens on Friday and a television movie is set for next month--which is a complicated saga itself and has already resulted in a lawsuit. Whether the time is finally right for people to hear the story of Frances Farmer when it never was during her lifetime is only one of the questions yet to be answered.
What anyone could see, when Farmer came to Hollywood just a few months out of college in 1936, was a pretty, young woman with tousled blonde hair and defiant blue eyes that no spotlight could overpower. Maybe it was her throaty, sensuous voice, or the way the light caught her cheekbones, or the peculiar cadence of her speech, but once Hollywood caught sight of Farmer, nothing around her would ever be the same again.
"Bigger than Garbo," Louella Parsons flatly predicted, and audiences seemed to echo those sentiments. Farmer completed four pictures her first year in town, from supporting roles in B-movies to her tour de force, dual performance as a mother and daughter loved by the same man in the Howard Hawks' feature, "Come and Get It."
But Farmer, who as a schoolgirl had scandalized her hometown, Seattle, by winning a national essay contest with an entry titled "God Dies," and again later, when she traveled to Russia as winner of a contest sponsored by a left-wing newspaper, could never make herself comfortable as a Hollywood "star." She had angered Paramount by refusing to change her name to something more glamorous; she favored old clothes, little makeup and a rattletrap jalopy as personal effects; and she became associated with unpopular political causes--like migrant workers and loyalist Spain.
In her ongoing battles with Adolph Zukor and the other Paramount power brokers, Farmer made up in ardor what she lacked in clout. After her success in "Come And Get It," she became increasingly critical of the fluffy roles she was offered, and candidly spoke of her disappointment to the eastern press. The only good thing about Hollywood was the money, she said.
So against the wishes of her studio and her iron-willed mother, Farmer made a go at a stage career, joining New York's politically active Group Theater and scoring big as the lead in Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy." But problems seemed always to be swirling around her, including at that time a $75,000 lawsuit brought by a former agent. After a couple of flops with the Group--partly attributable to her washed-out love affair with Odets--Farmer was in trouble.
Her marriage to actor Leif Erickson on the rocks, her energy sapped by the lawsuit (which she won on a technicality), her dependence on alcohol and the newly popular amphetamines growing out of control, Farmer was on the verge of a nervous breakdown one night in 1942, when she was stopped by the police for a minor traffic offense. "You bore me," she told the cop in typically impudent fashion, and reportedly used a few of her favorite epithets as well. She wound up, without benefit of attorney, charged with drunken driving and given a suspended sentence.
That was the start. A few months and a few bad experiences later, Farmer snapped on the set of a Monogram melodrama titled "No Escape." She got into an argument with a hairdresser and belted her in the jaw, then stormed out to have drinks at her hotel bar with some friends. That incident began a lengthy legal process which saw her railroaded into various mental wards--where she stayed for most of the next seven years.
What Frances Farmer did to bring her house of cards crashing down could not have warranted the personal hell she was forced to endure during that time. After failing to be "cured" by such since-discredited treatments as insulin shock and hydrotherapy, she was committed to a five-year stay in the violent ward of the Western Washington State Hospital at Steilacoom.
It was an ordeal that would have broken any but the strongest will to survive. In addition to the complete catalogue of psychiatric abuses, she suffered the basest sexual indignities as well--including rapes by inmates, orderlies, even gangs of drunken GIs from a nearby Army base. But survive Farmer did, somehow emerging from Steilacoom in 1950 with shreds of her personality intact and fashioning a peaceful existence for herself during the later years of her life.
Eventually, she gravitated to Indianapolis, where, after another failed marriage and a somewhat embarrassing comeback attempt, she settled into a peaceful, semi-alcoholic existence, hosting an afternoon movie program on local TV. She wrote some poetry and began working on an autobiography, but when she died in 1970, there was little indication that Frances Farmer would ever command much public attention again.
That began to change in 1972 with the publication of her "autobiography," "Will There Really Be a Morning?" The book was actually constructed by a woman named Jean Ratcliffe who befriended Farmer in Indianapolis, caring for her, managing her business affairs, even living with her off and on throughout the late '60s. In later years the book would be discredited by some as sensationalized and part-fiction, but it was a gripping account of Farmer's survival nonetheless.
Sandy Arcara, an aspiring actress, was moved by the story and, after sensitive negotiations with Ratcliffe, optioned rights to the book, hoping to star in a television version herself. She was able to swing a development deal with NBC, but when Fred Silverman came to the network, Arcara's project got lost in the shuffle.
At the same time, there was interest in Farmer from another front. Bill Arnold, a young movie buff and writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had stumbled across "Come and Get It" in one of its rare revival house screenings and was struck by the leading lady's screen presence. He found it surprising that he had never heard of Frances Farmer, and when he learned she was a Seattle native, he set out to learn more about her.
With his paper's blessing, Arnold got caught up in researching Farmer's fascinating history until, by early 1976, he had put together a book-length manuscript about her life, which he sent to agent/producer Marie Yates on the recommendation of a friend.
Yates was immediately taken with it. "It wasn't very well written," she says now, "but it was a story. I read it, and noticed that my hands would sweat, and I thought, 'What an emotional impact this would make.' "
It's here that events begin to get cloudy. Yates claims she bought the material outright from Arnold and worked feverishly over the next several months to whip it into shape. It was eventually published in 1978 as the book "Shadowland." But before publication, Yates had joined forces with an independent producer, Noel Marshall, and had given him film rights to the book in the process.
Yates says she got impatient when, after a couple of years, it seemed Marshall was too preoccupied with other things to deal in good faith on their Farmer project. So when Mel Brooks became interested and offered to let Yates produce a Farmer movie with Jonathan Sanger for Brooksfilms, she readily agreed. Later, in an apparent stroke of casting genius, Jessica Lange came aboard for the lead role.
But as might be expected from anything involving Frances Farmer, things did not go easily. Director Graeme Clifford chose to photograph the movie in sequence--so that if Lange began to look haggard form the burden of playing such a difficult role, the effect would mesh with her character's aging on the screen. This tactic, though effective, did nothing to shorten the film's arduous 60-day shooting schedule.
And then there was the matter of a lawsuit filed by Noel Marshall and Bill Arnold, charging that their material had been ripped off. "I spent five years of my life digging that story out," Arnold complains, "and that is exactly the story they are doing. Not only the facts, but the feeling you are left with is the same feeling I intended to convey in the book."
His partner in the suit, producer Marshall, agrees. "I think somebody has to stand up to these things that happen in our business," he says. "But the tragedy is, with the length of time these cases take, people are usually forced to settle out of court. I've had questions like this happen in the past, and through the years I have never taken a legal action, but this went too far."
Sanger admits, "There was a great deal of cloudiness about the rights--about who actually controlled what . . . So we did what we could to see if there was a way to resolve the legal issues, and when we found out there wasn't, we proceeded with other information."
Sanger and Yates say they conducted extensive research on Farmer's life and uncovered new data which changed the complexion of the story. Over an eight-month period, Yates met with a Seattle private detective named Stewart Jacobson who, she says, was Farmer's lover and only lifelong friend. Jacobson eventually shed some of his tight-lipped reserve and began unfolding an intricate web of politico-psychiatric intrigue that may have led to the unraveling of the Frances Farmer story.
"He's a little bit eccentric," Yates says, explaining why she and the screenwriters took pains to corroborate all of Jacobson's information with other sources. "You wouldn't expect Frances Farmer to have a relationship with a 9-to-5 man at an insurance company. But he was her soul-mate and she was his as well. The film will be true to life, but it's a love story from beginning to end."
Sanger, who earned critical and financial success with another potentially depressing subject in "The Elephant Man," says he's confident this film will find its audience. "It's about a woman who stood up to a lot of things that most people would not be able to stand up to," he says. "She got beaten down for it, and she got hurt, but she did it, and she could keep her head up. That's something that people will cheer for."
It's the same belief that fueled Sandy Arcara's drive to bring Farmer's story to the network airwaves, even though the material would have to be handled differently. "Of course, on television you can't get into the graphic violence and foul language," Arcara says, "so what we actually have is what I call a mother-daughter story, and a woman who survives a terrible, terrible thing."
After her NBC deal fell through and she realized that she lacked the name to pull off the lead role for herself, Arcara sought Susan Blakely to play Farmer in a television adaptation of the autobiography. Blakely, whose popularity soared with the success of her television movies and the popular mini-series "Rich Man, Poor Man," had to agree that a role like Frances Farmer doesn't come around too often. Her partner Steve Jaffe (whom she eventually married) concurred, so their company struck a coproduction deal with Filmways and brought Arcara's project to CBS.
But here, too, the amount of research required to establish facts, dates and figures presented a problem, just as it did in the feature project. It seems few records of the time are really reliable, including anything that came from Farmer's memory after her institutionalization.
One major discrepancy that was never settled is whether or not Farmer was lobotomized at Steilacoom in 1948. People involved with the television movie say no, while those associated with the feature--led by Yates, who claims to have seen documentary evidence--insist she was.
A TV script was eventually completed and shooting got under way in Toronto, a city chosen for economic reasons. "The cost of our film was so large," Jaffe says, "that to shoot it in the United States would have been prohibitive." The telefilm, "Will There Really Be a Morning?," with Blakely as Farmer, Lee Grant as her mother and John Heard as playwright Odets, is set to air on Feb. 22.
The coincidence of having two major films released about the same long-dead actress at the same time is downplayed by everyone involved with the television version. "We're not copying them, and I presume they're not copying us," says CBS' mini-series vice president Bob Markell. "This has been in the works long before the feature film was ever dreamt of."
And Steve Jaffe puts any head-to-head competition between the two projects in a different light: "I wish them all the success in the world," he says of the feature's producers, "but the fact of the matter is, if their film is a terrific success and has a tremendous audience, it still won't be seen by a tenth of the people who will see this picture in one evening."
Nevertheless, those involved with "Frances" see their film as an opportunity to move audiences with a poignancy that no television movie could hope to convey. "I really do believe that social or political persecution runs in cycles almost like fashion," says Jessica Lange, explaining what she sees as the message of Farmer's life. "At that time, she was a very powerful, outspoken, independent-minded woman, and that intimidated a lot of people. So therefore she alienated a whole political community, a Hollywood community, a psychiatric community, who all wanted to 'help her out' if she would be grateful enough. And because she was never quite grateful enough, they felt she was due a certain comeuppance.
"When she fell on bad luck, not only did they applaud it, they helped perpetuate it," Lange continues. "I think that happens all the time in society, but the emphasis shifts. Maybe now, that type of woman isn't quite that intimidating to merit that kind of consequence, but somebody else is."
Lange and others close to each film say they've felt the late actress' presence guiding them at times. So how would Frances Farmer feel about her life, which she always took pains to keep private, being explored in detail by millions of people in homes and theaters around the world?
"That's something I've thought about every day," Steve Jaffe admits. "I'm not a tremendously religious man, but I think about where she must be and what she must be thinking. And I have to think that she would feel, in the same sense of her words in the book, that this is a communication she wasn't able to accomplish in life. I don't think she did a hell of a lot about it, but she was never understood; she could not make herself understood. She was constantly frustrated by that throughout her life."
The film industry has changed since the days when Farmer fought her Hollywood battles, and whether she'd like it or not, the system is about to profit from her name once again. But if Frances Farmer really is as close to these projects as people say she is, she's probably pacing the heavens right now, hoping that this time, Hollywood will get it right.