Actress Frances Farmer (1914-1970) was an individualist who marched to the beat of her own drummer and paid the price. In the opening scene of this biodrama directed by Graeme Clifford, we see her as a young girl totally absorbed in thought as she writes entries in her diary. Later, Frances (Jessica Lange) reads her prize-winning essay about the death of God to a very stunned audience. The Seattle townfolk are more upset when Frances travels to Russia after garnering first place in an acting contest sponsored by a left-wing newspaper. This young lady doesn't care what people think.
Soon Frances Farmer is a Paramount Pictures contract player in Hollywood. The studio heads want to capitalize on her beauty. She wins acclaim for her role in the 1936 movie Come and Get It. Then, bucking the system whereby female stars are expected to remain subservient to the men who hired them, Frances travels to New York and stars in the Group Theatre's production of Golden Boy. During the run of the play, she has an affair with dramatist Clifford Odets. After he jilts her, she returns to the West Coast in a rage to act in a string of B-movies.
Frances's refusal to play the game gets her in trouble with studio bosses, publicity people, and other actors. A scrap with a policeman who arrests her for drunk driving lands her in jail in 1942. This marks the beginning of an eight-year journey in and out of mental institutions.
Screenplay writers Eric Bergren, Christopher DeVore, and Nicholas Kazan have created an episodic scrapbook version of Frances Farmer's life. The most antagonistic person in the film is Frances's mother Lillian Farmer (Kim Stanley). When her daughter refuses to return to Hollywood, she punishes Frances by having her committed to a state mental hospital. There the once proud and defiant actress is "normalized" by electric shock treatments and the ultimate indignity a lobotomy.
Perhaps the most polite thing to say about the wayward screenplay is that it does not get in the way of Jessica Lange's outstanding performance. As the young Frances, she captures the character's idiosyncratic singularity. Her love affairs with Harry York (Sam Shepard), a free spirit who remains a lifelong friend, and with Odets (Jeffrey DeMunn) bring out Lange's coquettishness. In several critical scenes in mental institutions especially a vivid cat-and-mouse encounter with an officious psychiatrist (Lane Smith the actress convincingly depicts the horror of what it is like to be trapped in a nightmare of someone else's making.
Frances Farmer's independent nature in the early part of the film turns to anger and then to bewilderment as she is repeatedly manipulated by others. In the end, after release from the mental hospital, the actress appears on Ralph Edwards's "This Is Your Life" and is given an Edsel. She is no longer herself, and it is a heart-breaking scene. The reason we care is found in Jessica Lange's performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in 1983.