“She’ll come back as fire
To burn all the liars
And leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”
— Nirvana, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”
It’s her birthday today.
When Nirvana’s album In Utero came out in 1993, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the 5th track was called “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” I was already well-versed in Frances Farmer. I saw as many of her movies as I could get my hands on, and watched the Jessica Lange movie many times. I read her autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning? I read Real-Life Drama, Wendy Smith’s exhaustive history of The Group Theatre (which everyone should read: it’s such an important part of our shared cultural past, particularly what happened with all of these individuals as the 20th century limped on). Seattle was Farmer’s hometown, but I hadn’t considered the connection, that she would be on Kurt Cobain’s radar … but of course it makes perfect sense. Seattle, the small-minded unforgiving community, ran the teenage Frances out of town on a rail for having the AUDACITY to write an essay about atheism, and for being a TRAITOR to her country by traveling to Communist Russia. Hollywood wasn’t the first to ostracize her. Seattle was the first. Hollywood was the LAST, And here Kurt Cobain was, the biggest rock star in the world at the time, resurrecting her as an avenging angel. She was coming back to Seattle and she was PISSED.
The year before In Utero came out, Cobain and Courtney Love had a daughter. They named her Frances.
Immortalized by Jessica Lange in the 1982 film Frances, the real actress deserves to be remembered in her own right. She never got the chance to really show her stuff … and was frustrated with both the roles she was given and how Hollywood soft-pedaled or white-washed reality.
Frances Farmer cared deeply about reality. After all, when she was a teenager she won a contest by writing an essay about how God was dead. The prize was a trip to Russia. Even as a kid, Frances Farmer did not give a fuck what people thought. She was a rebel and an outlaw.
People like that are often labeled mentally ill, are often marginalized, stigmatized, outright punished. The rumors and speculations around Farmer’s mental diagnosis have clouded the conversation for decades. In the film, she is shown getting a lobotomy. This “fact” has been called into question. So. It would be great if it could be cleared up – just so “lobotomy” is not the first damn thing you think of when you hear Frances Farmer’s name. But the fact remains: she was hounded and persecuted and dragged naked out of hotel rooms and thrown in jail and put into institutions – horrifying places – where all kinds of shit was done to her. The “treatment” of mental illness was often worse than the illness itself.
Farmer was such a talented actress (watch Come and Get It, if you haven’t already), but she wasn’t a people-pleaser. This brought her a lot of problems. She was well-read, tough, thought for herself. Her temper was ferocious and often terrifying. She was an alcoholic. A witches’ brew of volatility. Considering all this, her belief in reality – her insistence on it – may seem like a contradiction.
An important side bar about this “reality” thing, because if we want to de-stigmatize mental illness, like “we” keep saying we have to do, then “we” have to actually do some work to understand it. (Well, I don’t. I already know.) Trust me: it is often the “mad” who have a better grip on what is REALLY going on than so-called sane stable people. The “mad” KNOW reality’s solidity because they have experienced solidity’s dissolution. They don’t take solidity for granted. Mental suffering can lead to a willingness to look reality head-on and face harsh truths. Those muscles are well-flexed in the “mad,” not as much in the “well.” This is one of the great observations of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Justine, incapacitated by mental illness, is not afraid when the end of the world comes. She stares at it dead-on. Her sister, so stable, so sane, falls apart.
I have always sensed this dynamic was true, just from my own life. People called me pessimistic or fatalistic. Nah. I’m a realist. I am better equipped for actual reality because I have no illusions. Thank you, Lars von Trier: I have never seen this portrayed. So many narratives about mental illness have the ill person working their way back to sanity, finding the ability to feel joy again, to live in the moment, to blah blah zzzzzzzz. How about we look at what the SANE can learn from the INSANE?
This is not to say that Frances Farmer didn’t have challenges and that she didn’t put other people through hell. Her self-medicating was advanced, her drunkenness was acute. The more trapped she felt, the worse she got. If you are trapped, you will try to escape. The more you “misbehave”, the more people treat you like you’re bad and “crazy” and the cycle continues.
Farmer believed strongly in Left causes (consider her teenage visit to Russia). She questioned authority, she questioned consensus. Seen in this light, her involvement in the Group Theatre – taking Broadway by storm in the 1930s – makes perfect sense. She wanted to be a part of that dynamic: art that meant something, art that reflected people’s actual lives and hardships. She got cast as Lorna Moon in the Broadway premiere of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, opposite Luther Adler as Joe, the boxer/violinist. Elia Kazan played Eddie Fuselli, the gangster who sucks Joe into the criminal underworld, for probably homoerotic reasons (Kazan played it that way, at any rate). Farmer loved being a part of something she believed in, being part of a collective. She was so isolated in Hollywood. Nobody understood her out there. Nobody liked her (and sometimes they disliked her for very good reasons!) Lorna Moon is a dream role, particularly for someone like Farmer, hungry to show her stuff. Lorna is a tough-as-nails “kept” woman, a gangster’s moll, who – when she does fall in love – experiences it as PAIN, since it is so unfamiliar and her life has been so harsh, particularly in regards to men who have used her, probably from the moment she developed breasts. She was prey. She grew up fast. This is Lorna Moon. Lorna Moon was a realist too. No illusions. Farmer understood this woman. She got good reviews. I wish I could have seen her in it.
Luther Adler and Frances Farmer, “Golden Boy”, 1938
The Group Theatre was well up and running when Farmer joined the cast of Golden Boy. Its successes changed the course of American theatre, introducing new voices and structures and styles, making everything else seem outmoded and stuffy, but, sadly, it had only two more years left in its existence at the time of Golden Boy. Farmer stepped into a well-oiled and extremely complicated group dynamic, filled with rivalries, hatreds even, disillusionments, bruised egos, ideological/political disagreements … These entanglements would follow the Group Theatre members through the decades, when they went their separate ways, many of them becoming the legendary acting teachers who brought “the Method” – and its offshoots – to American acting training. People like Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg.
Elia Kazan and Frances Farmer, “Golden Boy”, 1938
My sense from what I’ve read is that Farmer adored the process, loved every second of it – collaboration, in-depth rehearsals, a feeling of camaraderie – but also … she wasn’t quite a “part” of it. The group was so much a group, it didn’t do well with outsiders. All of this was complicated by her hot and heavy love affair with Clifford Odets.
My deep thanks to Benjamin Dreyer (author of Dreyer’s English) who sent me this screengrab of a book which Odets inscribed to Farmer, in 1937, thanking her for her work in Golden Boy. I gasped when I saw this.
Odets was a womanizer. I think Farmer thought their relationship was more than it was. And I think she harbored somewhat reasonable hopes that she would continue on with the Group Theatre, becoming a company member for real. This is not how it played out. Odets dumped her. The Group dropped her after the closing of Golden Boy in New York, and chose another actress for the London run. Farmer was crushed. The company was in death throes at the time … And of course there was some resentment among long-time company members at Farmer’s presence, an “outsider” brought in to play a plumb lead role. They were supposed to be a repertory company, they were supposed to cast plays from their ranks. It was the whole POINT. Maybe Farmer felt a little bit used, like they only “let her in” because she was a movie actress who could bring in an audience. I don’t blame Farmer for feeling used and hurt.
Whatever was really going on (and everyone has a different story), Farmer was devastated twofold: by the end of the affair with Odets as well as losing the opportunity to take Lorna to London. She did a couple more plays in New York with the Group, directed by Kazan, but the plays didn’t go over well (The Group folded in 1940) and her alcoholism was pretty severe by this time. She was not reliable. She was losing control.
I love this portrait of her by the great Edward Steichen. It captures something about her, her essence, her spirit.
Things went downhill at a rapid pace. Back in Los Angeles, the arrests piled up, for driving drunk, for disorderly conduct, for assault even, for resisting arrest. There is the infamous story of her being dragged out of the Knickerbocker Hotel kicking and screaming, hauled off to jail, all as the paparazzi snapped pics. When asked at the police station to state her profession, she said, “Cocksucker” and then winked at the cameras. She laughed. In the photos, her hair is wild, uncombed. She looks feral, furious, formidable.
Dammit, I LIKE that woman, seething, staring at the camera dead-on. Unrepentant. Trapped. Furious. I fucking get it.
These pictures of Farmer went everywhere, and they are still the first images in Google results. This event was the end of her career, really, and the beginning of her harrowing race to the bottom.
If you don’t know her story, and you haven’t seen the film Frances, then of course you should go and see the film – just to witness Lange’s tremendous performance – but go into it with the understanding that it takes liberties with the facts (as most biopics do).
The best thing you can do is seek out Farmer’s actual work in film, and see what she was like onscreen. She was luminous. She was an adult woman, not an ingenue. Watch her in Come and Get It, her best role (half directed by Howard Hawks – the better half – and half directed by William Wellman). In it, her toughness was present, and you get the sense of a woman who can take care of herself, a woman with a sense of humor. A Howard Hawks woman, in other words. It’s a very attractive mix. This is a Lorna Moon kind of character, so Come and Get It is a glimpse of what she must have been like in Golden Boy.
I came across a poem Farmer wrote in 1957 called “The Journey”. The quotes heading each section add up to Philippians 4:11.
“Not that I speak of want…”
If in Seattle then, the rain still
Mingles in the trees mixed with the dank and dearly loved grey spume off Puget Sound
Who will remember?
I feel the source but I long since have torn myself away
Against the rock and rain of other shores
My roots are breaking
Oh mother who closely clung and fiercely fought the native years, How can it be that only in defeat you found your strength?
Retreat, retreat in peace and grieve
The gray sky covers all and still it rains on Puget Sound and still the tree lies shattered.
“But I have learned..”
Along the rim of Hawks Nest Bay
A growth of trees drop shade
The red ant swarms green water hisses over reef
And I walk naked on the shore
As smooth as white as snow
The sand stretched under the sun
Black aching shoulders of rock rise in silence
Where is the island of peace?
The green hill with grasses?
Deep in the dangerous sea the shark fin passes.
“in whatsoever state I am..”
Now richly droops wisteria bloom
While elegant bugs on separate flourishing leaf
If we are silent while we feel
How quiet is the night with jasmine
If we but hold our breaths one second
while the wind is busy out to sea
How sharp will seem the sting
Of slug and ant attacking blossoms.
“there with to be content…”
The day breaks out of infinity
And across the stunning fire blue sunrise
Now I deny the dream
Now I see how pitifully I fail
Let the earth rising up to greet this landing
Let the winds move in and out of space
And claim me
Let it cease let it finish
let me not face this mystery
But the plane landed
Goodbye she said
into the day’s brightness
The plane departed.
Frances Farmer’s story is one of the most tragic in Hollywood history because the bare bones of it suggest so strongly it didn’t HAVE to go that way. If everyone just calmed down and took a BREATH … if she quit drinking, if she had a little bit more support, if, if, if … she might not have been so wild, her career might have been more fulfilling, she could have been spared demonization, ostracization. There’s something haunting about her. Kurt Cobain knew the score. Frances Farmer lived many years after the terrible period of the 30s-40s. She continued to work, albeit sporadically – television, theater … although she was mostly forgotten by that point. She stayed busy with hobbies. But … what if?
She was difficult, brazen, she acted out, she was not always in control. I wonder though: who the hell IS? Rigid people are always in control! No thank you! Social media turned up the heat under the control-requirement. You must perform yourself perfectly at all times. You must always watch what you say. You must be completely packaged. This is not a normal way for human beings to live. (Not for celebrities and not for normal people, and social media blends those categories.) People crack under the pressure. When people crack under the pressure, onlookers bust out their pitchforks, ready to drive the cracking person out of town. (I always think of the South Park episode, where Britney Spears, clearly in the midst of a full-blown psychotic break at the time, is offered up as a human sacrifice. The South Park episode – and Craig Ferguson’s heartfelt monologue about Britney were two of the most biting critiques of not just the media’s feeding frenzy, but the public’s. (And listen to how the audience starts laughing when Ferguson brings up Britney. A mental crack-up is FUNNY, get it?) This is why I give a side-eye to a lot of the platitudinous “we need to de-stigmatize mental illness” commentary. I have gone on about this for years, most recently in the wake of Sinead O’Connor’s death. Okay. If you say shit like “let’s de-stigmatize mental illness”, good for you, and if you back it up with commentary showing you know what you’re talking about: I am all for it. But you best believe I will be watching you very very closely for what you say and do during a public crack-up like Britney – or Amanda Bynes – or Elizabeth Wurtzel – or etc. What happens when people behave badly? Or do you only de-stigmatize mental illness when someone DOESN’T behave badly? Do you factor in mental illness’ tendency to “present” in bad erratic behavior? Like, this is what it looks like. It’s not pretty. Do you de-stigmatize it THEN? Or are you being judgey about bad behavior? Are you making fun? I’ll be watching. Not sure what these people think a crack-up looks like. Do they think it looks socially acceptable? I always say, if I was world-famous in 2009, I would have been made fun of relentlessly, mocked, hounded, criticized, for my outrageous behavior, when what was happening was … I should have been in a hospital, not wandering the streets. This is not an EXCUSE for terrible behavior, but it is an EXPLANATION. De-stigmatizing mental illness means knowing what it looks like when someone goes off the rails.
The more you are required to be in control, the more you are dominated by society/peer pressure/intersecting pressures – the harder it is to stay within the lines.
The more you are required to follow a given script, the more irresistible it is to say “Cocksucker” when some judgmental bitch asks you what you do for a living. And you say it just to see the shocked look on her face. And her shocked expression makes you laugh. You light a cigarette and grin at the camera. Just to remind everyone – and to remind yourself – that you are free.
That’s Frances Farmer.