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Anchor Bay presents
"It'd be better for all our sakes if you kept your trap shut."
DVD ReviewThe word "tragic" is thrown about with abandon these days, but it is seldom meant in its classical sense of a fatal character flaw that results in the character's destruction. However, it's perfectly applicable to the frankly horrifying true tale of what happened to Frances Farmer, who was mostly guilty of being a freethinking, modern woman trapped in 1938.
While still a teenager, young Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) was already scandalizing 1931 Seattle with her essay about the death of God and taking trips to Soviet Russia. A beautiful woman with acting ambitions, she quickly garners a Hollywood contract, but her rebellious and leftist ways make her studio bosses resentful. When she goes to New York to be in Clifford Odets' (Jeffrey DeMunn) Group Theatre production of Golden Boy, the suits are determined to make an example of her. Her return to Hollywood results in cruel treatment and she turns to the bottle as things spiral out of control. Her stagestruck mother, Lillian (Kim Stanley), eventually has Frances declared incompetent and takes control of her life, trying to force her back into Hollywood against Frances' wishes. When Frances attempts to defy her mother, she winds up in mental hospitals, subjected to the most cruel and inhuman treatment possible, leading to heartbreak and disaster.
At this point in her career, Lange was primarily a joke and eye candy, having appeared as the love interest of a giant ape in the notorious remake of King Kong, and as a leggy personification of Death in Fosse's All That Jazz. However, with Frances, she garnered the attention of critics and audiences alike with a tremendously powerful performance that is often harrowing. She captures Farmer's personality beautifully, with her rebelliousness and fire, tempered by self-pity and self-destructiveness. Both she and Stanley were justifiably nominated for Oscars®s for this film (while not winning here, Lange won the same year for her supporting role in Tootsie). Stanley, a stalwart of the Actors' Studio, both produced an unforgettable picture of the well-meaning but highly destructive Lillian Farmer and helped get the best performance possible out of Lange, who acknowledges she learned a great deal from Stanley. The scenes of the two of them together are emotionally charged and difficult to watch in their intensity. In support is Sam Shepard (who later married Lange) as Harry York, a leftist who is in love with Frances but is rebuffed despite his attempts to help her escape from her downward cycle. His down-home earnestness gives the film an everyday grounding that provides a focus for audience identification. Also, in bit parts are Kevin Costner and Anjelica Huston.
While the film is emotionally centered on Frances, and we're clearly meant to sympathize with her, it also serves as a bleak cautionary tale. In essence, the message seems to be that opening your mouth to express atheist, leftist beliefs and a sense of independence can result only in disaster. It's probably no accident that several productions centered on Farmer's life all started shooting in the early years of the Reagan regime, as the country was violently swinging to the right. Indeed, it's hard to say that things have improved much, with a President who believes that atheists are not citizens. The clear message is that it's not safe under any circumstances to be different. Of course, Farmer didn't help her own case by mouthing off to judges and psychiatrists, lending a complexity to the situation that transcends black and white.
The scenes in the mental institution are particularly harrowing, with insulin and electric shock treatment and amateurish brain surgery as centerpieces, with forced prostitution as a garnish. Certainly such places were calculated to make one mentally ill if one wasn't in the first place (shades of Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor). Even after 20 years, these things still pack a hugely powerful punch.
Even though Frances was director Graeme Clifford's first film, his background in editing and apprenticeship as assistant director for Robert Altman served him well. Although lengthy, scenes flow well from one to another and the running time feels much shorter than it is. The film looks great, and the production design is meticulously evocative of the 1930s and 1940s. John Barry's score, with a haunting theme delivered in even more heartbreaking manner on harmonica, gives the movie a mournful edge. Powerful and bleak, Frances is one of the most memorable pictures of the 1980s.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture generally looks quite good. However, many of the New York scenes feature white backgrounds, and the heavy grain visible here makes the white look distractingly alive and roiling furiously. This seems to be due to the difficulty of compressing areas that have such prominent grain. Colors are faithful, with a good period look. Shadow detail is usually quite good. Some minor ringing is visible, and in a shot of the Farmer family fireplace there are scan lines visible. The source print is quite attractive with little visible damage. But overall it's acceptable though certainly not reference material.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 English track is billed as Dolby Surround, but for much of the running time it's hardly distinguishable from mono. The surrounds occasionally come alive with music, but the dialogue is very much center-oriented. No hiss or noise is present, and no significant distortion was audible. Not quite immersive, but it's quite satisfactory.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Graeme Clifford and documetary director David Gregory
Extras Review: Anchor Bay provides a nice array of extras for this film, which had previously been released in a barebones edition by Artisan. In addition to the expected trailer, there is a substantial new documentary, Remembering Frances (30m:52s). This features interviews with Lange, Clifford, director of photography Laszlo Kovacs and others. The careful visual design is emphasized, as well as the lead performances and how hard they tried to hew to the true story of Farmer. The documentary unfortunately suffers from a great deal of combing. I would also have liked to have seen more of the real Frances Farmer, but I suppose the rights for clips of her films weren't available for such a project.
A feature-length commentary from director Graeme Clifford is hosted by David Gregory, who directed the documentary. This commentary generally supplements and expands on information in the documentary, and Gregory gets Clifford to comment on some things mentioned there. There is a brief bit of confusion regarding Farmer's "autobiography" that's never quite resolved, but there's otherwise a good deal of useful comment that doesn't degenerate into narration or duplication of the documentary. Using Gregory as the host was a brilliant stroke, since he's certainly knowledgeable and manages to bring Clifford out and get him talking frankly about the production. Since Lange was so central, appearing in nearly every scene, it would have been nice to have an additional commentary from her, but this will do. Wrapping up the extras are lengthy text biographies of Lange, Shepard and Clifford, combined with selected filmographies. A very good package indeed.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsAlthough the heavy grain results in a somewhat problematic transfer, the film remains a powerful statement and the substantial extras are definitely worthwhile for fans of the film.
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