Today is the 108th birthday of Frances Farmer. There is something about her, the biopic with Jessica Lange helped push her into cult icon status for a lot of people, including me. Seattle girl, free thinker, rule breaker, and getting a raw deal from Hollywood all inspire other artists. They understand the misunderstood. She is the glamorous Hollywood misfit queen of all misfits. I think of her several times a week when I walk by the employee side entrance to to the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, a door I know that she went through hundreds of times in the early 1950’s when she took a job sorting laundry after her release from a mental hospital. How she must have felt going in that side door when only 14 years earlier, that very same hotel had held the world premier of her film “Come and Get It.” I think of that aching feeling of betrayal and abandonment and the complexities of mental instability, it must have been crippling. (It is a similar feeling that I have when I am driving home and pass Kurt Cobain’s old house and see the bench in “Kurt’s Park” covered with flowers and burning candles. Only fitting that I have connected the two, Nirvana has the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” in their catalog.) Last year, the signal box outside Easy Street Record at the West Seattle Junction has been painted with her likeness. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Frances Farmer
OCCUPATION: Film Actress
BIRTH DATE: September 19, 1913
DEATH DATE: August 01, 1970
EDUCATION: University of Washington
PLACE OF BIRTH: Seattle, Washington
PLACE OF DEATH: Indianapolis, Indiana
REMAINS: Buried, Oaklawn Memorial Gardens, Indianapolis, IN
BEST KNOWN FOR: Actress Frances Farmer starred in films in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, but was best known for her rebellious reputation and the time she spent in a mental institution.
Born September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. The daughter of a lawyer, Farmer enjoyed a comfortable childhood, during which she developed a penchant for stage acting. In 1931, she enrolled at the University of Washington, where she majored in journalism and drama. After a failed attempt to join the Group Theatre in New York, Farmer concentrated on a film career, signing with Paramount Studios in 1936. Later that year, she was cast in a bit part in the drama Too Many Parents, followed by Border Flight and the musical Rhythm on the Range, starring Bing Crosby. Playing the dual role of a saloon singer and her daughter, Farmer’s work in the 1936 film Come and Get It, was heralded as the best screen performance of her career.
Despite Farmer’s initial success, she quickly earned a reputation as a demanding and rebellious actress on the set. Displeased with her attitude, Paramount cast her in bland parts in a handful of films, including Exclusive and Ebb Tide (both 1937). By the early 1940s, Farmer was forced to appear in a succession of inferior productions, including South of Pago Pago (1940), World Premiere, and Among the Living (both 1941).
In 1942, Farmer’s career enjoyed a brief resurgence when she was cast opposite Tyrone Power and Roddy McDowall in the swashbuckler Son of Fury. However, Farmer’s efforts to improve her image backfired when she was arrested and convicted of drunk driving at the time of the film’s release. Inundated with negative publicity, Farmer traveled to Mexico. However, by leaving the United States, she was found in violation of her probation. She was put on trial and deemed mentally ill. Farmer was committed to a mental institution where she underwent shock treatments, hydrotherapy baths, and reportedly received a trans-orbital lobotomy. Over the next few years, her physical and mental health deteriorated; she developed a debilitating dependency on alcohol and suffered from a series of nervous breakdowns.
Upon her release from the institution, in 1949, Farmer worked as a hotel receptionist before making a comeback appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. The following year, she starred in her last feature film, The Party Crashers, and began a six-year run on the Indianapolis-based TV show Frances Farmer Presents.
On August 1, 1970, Farmer died after a long battle with cancer; she was 56 years old. Her intimate autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, was published posthumously in 1972. In the early 1980s, her story was captured on film in the biopic Frances (1982), starring Jessica Lange, and in the black and white documentary Committed (1983).
Farmer was married three times (to actor Leif Erickson, Alfred Lobley, and Leland Mikesell) but had no children. She converted to Catholicism in later life and is buried at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens in Indianapolis.
In Popular Culture:
- Jessica Lange played Farmer in the 1982 film Frances, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Kim Stanley was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for portraying Farmer’s mother. The film contained a fictional scene which depicted Farmer undergoing a transorbital lobotomy. In Hollywood style, the film also omitted numerous facts and added a fictional life-long, love-interest character named “Harry”.
- Susan Blakely portrayed Farmer in a 1983 television production Will There Really Be a Morning?, which was named after Farmer’s autobiography. Academy Award winner Lee Grant portrayed her mother in the same production.
- In 1984, Culture Club had a #32 hit in the UK Single Charts “The Medal Song”, which was about the actress.
- Tracey Thorn’s song “Ugly Little Dreams” on Everything But The Girl’s 1985 LP “Love Not Money” was also inspired by Frances Farmer.
- The Nirvana song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”, which was written by fellow Washington native Kurt Cobain, was named after Farmer. It appears on their 1993 “In Utero” LP.
- Patterson Hood, singer, guitarist and songwriter with the rock band Drive-By Truckers, included a song about Farmer (titled “Frances Farmer”) on his 2004 solo album, Killers and Stars. The album’s cover features a drawing of Farmer by Toby Cole.
- Carol Decker of the band T’Pau wrote a song “Monkey House” about Frances Farmer’s mental illness which was featured on the 1987 album “Bridge Of Spies”.
- French singer Mylène Jeanne Gautier, changed her name into Mylène Farmer as a tribute to Frances.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Son of Fury (29-Jan-1942) · Isabel
Among the Living (12-Dec-1941)
Flowing Gold (24-Aug-1940) · Linda Chalmers
South of Pago Pago (19-Jul-1940)
Ebb Tide (17-Nov-1937)
The Toast of New York (22-Jul-1937) · Josie Mansfield
Come and Get It (6-Nov-1936) · Lotta Morgan
Rhythm on the Range (1-Jul-1936)