This film is biographical, based on the life of the actress Frances Farmer (1914-1970), who was briefly successful in Hollywood in the early 1940’s and was then institutionalized for mental illness. She was "cured" by a transorbital prefrontal lobotomy.

The film begins with Frances (Jessica Lange) winning a high school writing competition with an essay criticizing God. This outspoken intelligence characterizes her. As a young actress, she wins a trip to Russia in a competition run by a Communist newspaper, performs on Broadway, and ends up in Hollywood. Quickly, however, it becomes clear that her unconventional behavior and attitudes make her vulnerable to people, including her overbearing and vicariously ambitious mother (Kim Stanley), who demand that she conform to more passive forms of femininity.

When Frances is arrested for drunk driving, her mother puts her in a "convalescent home," where she is given insulin injections in the guise of "vitamins." She escapes and, deciding that the pressures of the film industry are causing her drinking problem, tells her mother that she won’t be returning to Hollywood. Her starstruck mother, appalled, has her committed.

After undergoing the closely filmed experiences of the strait jacket, the padded cell, and shock treatment, all in the frighteningly bedlam-like atmosphere of the asylum, Frances submits to psychiatric surgery. This is perhaps the most disturbing part of the film. She is lobotomized in front of an audience by a mallet-wielding surgeon who boasts he can do ten patients per hour because "lobotomy gets ’em home."

Sure enough, Frances is allowed to go home. The film ends several years later in 1958, when Frances Farmer really did appear on the television show, "This is Your Life." We watch the show through the eyes of Harry York (Sam Shepard), the journalist who has always loved her, and he goes to meet her afterwards.

She has been transformed: composed and seemingly serene, but fundamentally blank, she has become a chilling shadow of herself. Early on in the film, she refuses to cooperate with a psychotherapist, saying "I don’t want to be what you want to make me: dull, average, normal." By the end of the film she has been reduced to the hollow appearance of all these things--and is grateful for it.


This film reveals the difficulties of defining, diagnosing, and treating mental illness in the historical context of the first half of this century. Norms of accepted behavior, especially for women, were much narrower than they are now, and Frances is considered to be--and possibly driven--mad because of her unconventionality. As an actress, this is particularly unfair, since the emotional responsiveness which makes her so successful in the first part of the film is what later makes her behave in ways which ensure that she will be seen as psychologically ill. As she says on the television show, "If you’re treated like a patient you’re apt to act like one."

The film’s representation of psychiatry is one-sided and profoundly critical. This is necessary for the narrative, and does not diminish the important questions it raises about the fine lines that divide passion and madness, intelligence and illness, and about the ways in which society marks out these lines and acts on them.


Jessica Lange was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for Frances in 1982. While the film does not acknowledge these sources, it is probably based at least partly on Frances Farmer’s autobiography, Will there Really be a Morning? (New York: Putnam, 1972) and William Arnold's biography of Farmer, Shadowland (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

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