Friday, August 7, 2020

Recasting 1982: "Frances"

Last Saturday, I decided to watch the film I've chosen for reacasting 1982: Frances. It had probably been six or seven years since my inaugural viewing of the movie, apparently having made Joe join me in assessing what many consider Jessica Lange's greatest screen performance. Had it not been for Meryl's performance in Sophie's Choice the same year, Lange likely would've come away with a Best Actress Oscar. 

Only a few minutes into the movie the other night, I found myself Googling the person on whom the movie is based, actress Frances Farmer. I was immediately taken aback to learn that I just so happened to be rewatching Frances on the 50th anniversary of the eponymous woman's death.

Holy crap it's a depressing film. Granted, the character of Frances requires an actor to showcase the very extremes of human emotion, from light banter to absolute loss of control. The role tends more toward the latter, and I've learned that some of the items from the book on which the movie is based (such as the scene where Farmer receives a frontal lobotomy), are in fact fabricated. 

The story basically follows Farmer as she makes her way to Hollywood (she wants to eventually end up on the New York stage). Her tendency to question certain artistic choices doesn't exactly ingratiate her to the big studio bosses. She turns to drinking and is sort of gaslighted as a "crazy" person, ending up committed to institutions against her will. It's a great study in the often-volatile relationships between stars of the Golden Era and their vicariously living mothers (here deftly portrayed by Kim Stanley).

It's easy to see why Lange was nominated. While a performance exploring the pendulous behaviors of someone suffering through mental illness has become something close to a calling card for her, in '82 she wasn't necessarily known for it yet. I admit I wondered a few times watching it again if I could really see Meryl doing it. Lange is singular in her portrayal, and it would be a huge stretch. But again, that's sort of why I'm choosing many of the roles I'm choosing in this recasting; it's fun to speculate on how Meryl would negotiate a few more risky parts. 


There were a great many actresses interested and ultimately considered for the role, Meryl included apparently. According to IMDb, Lange won out in the end over Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn. The film was decently reviewed by critics but did not make back its budget. 

Meryl was likely better off with Sophie, of course, but Frances would've been a wild ride. 

4 comments:

  1. Hi Jeff, thanks for this really interesting series, it's been fascinating to see this era through an alternate lens. I was looking forward to seeing what you'd do with a powerhouse year like 1982 (and I am waiting with great interest for 1992/3).

    I watched 'Frances' again earlier this year after not having seen it for a very long time, and read widely about the making of it.

    What particularly interested me was the manner in which the screenplay drew on many storytelling strands. I'd always assumed the Harry York love-interest (played by Sam Shepard) was fictional; and I'd come across the backlash/litigation around the book 'Shadowlands' on which 'Frances' was partially based... so like most people, I was deeply disturbed by what appeared to have happened to Farmer at a time when there was very little understanding of mental ill-health and addiction.

    In the end I this it's clear the filmmakers opted for a blend of several myths about Frances Farmer, seen partly through Harry York's eyes, which matched the perspective of the real-life Stewart Jacobsen. He was interviewed at the time the movie was released, claiming to have been Farmer's confidant and lover.

    On reflection I think it was an excellent rationale for this subject, whose entire life was picked over and 'spun' by the media, because this screenplay aims at capturing universal truths. There would have been no way, for example, to tell this story without references to lobotomies being 'refined' at the same institution Frances was in. It would have been very strange, too, to portray this life story without the tussle between several influences (parents, fans, critics, Hollywood, Broadway, press, doctors) because of all the elements of her life, that seemed to be the strongest.

    For a glimpse of how Streep might have portrayed Farmer, I reckon the Susan Traherne role in 'Plenty' gives us a strong idea. If Meryl gets Frances Farmer, then in your world we could give Susan Traherne to Jessica Lange, as she would have nailed that role too.

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    1. Great insights, Michael. Thank you for sharing. I completely agree that Traherne gives us a potential glimpse of what we may have seen from Streep in the role of Farmer. In this movie I couldn't help but think how much of a victim of circumstance Frances seemed to be...in that it felt like she wasn't destined for some emotional breakdown, more that she was unable to participate in the medium of acting she desired, namely the theater. The Hollywood machine ate her up and she was ill-equipped to manage the feeling of being trapped and stifled that she did.

      I wonder the same about Traherne a bit as a character. Her spiral was the result of life feeling meaningless and inconsequential following the exhilaration of the war. I suppose we consider both to have mental illness, but I wonder if either would truly have experienced the anguish they did had their circumstances and life experience been even just a little bit different. It's wild to think how little it may take for any of us to lose our way.

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  2. That's a very apt point, and probably why people are drawn to this type of film/character (I know that's why I am). It's certainly among the reasons why David Hare wrote 'Plenty' and much of his work, with all those female protagonists squeezed unhappily into the mean little alleys life delivers.

    Farmer's drive for theatre work was very clear, although 'Frances' didn't cover her later work on stage and in live TV drama (a form of theatre that rebooted many Hollywood careers). It would have made for a happier ending with a less bleak outlook, but I guess the male production team might not have seen it as enough of a comeback story?

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  3. Jessica is my second favourite actress after Meryl and I'd love to see them collaborate but with every passing year, I lower my hopes just a bit.

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