How many people have dreamed of making it in Hollywood? You'd have to agree that it probably numbers in the millions. Few make it. Many get there only to blow it, or get dumped by the studios that no longer hear the cash registers ringing. Was Hollywood any different in the 'Golden Age'? Probably not. When Frances Farmer hit Hollywood in the 1930s she had already made a name for herself by winning a high school essay competition with her entry entitled 'God is Dead'. She also earned herself a trip to Moscow after impressive performances in local theatre, but that just landed her with the label of "Pinkie" or "Commie". What, then, could Hollywood offer? It offered Frances Farmer plenty, but delivered little.
After a successful screen test, Frances was signed to Paramount on a seven-year deal. Her first feature film of note, Come and Get It, was not a great film, but it did give her a start and a rather memorable premiere in her hometown. How folks change their attitudes when someone they once derided becomes a celebrity. Folks in her hometown may have had short memories, but Frances did not.
The Hollywood merry-go-round was not what Frances expected and the endlessly long days on set, followed by parties, premieres and pampering began to get under her skin. Like many, she turned to drugs such as alcohol and pills to help get though, but this combination only compounded the problem. Her infamous arrest and belting of the police officer that had pulled her over for a minor traffic infringement created a media frenzy that dogged the rest of her career, and is something most high profile stars of today can relate to.
Her rebellious and independent nature was utterly misunderstood by just about all those around her, including her parents and in particular her control freak mother, the Hollywood movers and shakers, and her few friends and lovers. The only person who ever remotely understood Frances was Harry York (Sam Shepherd), whom Frances first met at age 16. Harry was there for Frances through most of her ups and downs, but his love was something Frances could not reciprocate.
Frances’ run-ins with the law became more frequent, more serious and more dramatic. When the police came bursting in to her flat with a warrant for her arrest, they found her huddled and screaming for help in the bathroom. This woman who was stressed and tired was treated as bordering on mentally ill, and she was subsequently committed to a rest home, and then a psychiatric hospital. The horrors that she endured are upsetting and depressing.
Frances is based upon the life of Frances Farmer, and as such there is some controversy and debate as to how much of this movie is true, and how much has been dramatised. Either way this makes for a good film with a story that begins to evolve and build as the characters are developed. It is not in doubt that Frances was a loner, a bit of a rebel who wanted to do things her way, and fiercely independent at a time when women, especially Hollywood starlets, were expected to smile sweetly for the camera and do as instructed.
Lange is extremely good as Frances, and earned herself a 'Best Actress' nomination at the Oscars, to be pipped by Meryl Streep. The supporting cast are strong, especially Kim Stanley as Frances' controlling mother who wanted her daughter's success more than Frances did, and Sam Shepherd is effective as Harry, her life-long friend who was prepared to give her everything,
The film is short on action, but is a solid story that flows smoothly and builds to a neat climax. Frances is not a family film and some of the later scenes, though not graphic, are nonetheless quite disturbing.
This 1982 effort has not transferred very well to DVD, and it is obvious that no decent effort has gone into any form of restoration. The aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is 16:9 enhanced, but the soft image is a dead giveaway that this is not going to be a pristine print, as are the numerous white sparkles that do seem to be less frequent as the film progresses. Colours are mostly solid, but are affected by noise and colour bleeding. Black levels are fine, but shadow detail is rather poor, and the outdoor night scenes can be quite frustrating. There are some minor positive film artefacts such as dirt and grime, and there is some evidence of grain.
The layer change is placed near the end of a scene and it would have been nice to see it held off for a few more seconds until the scene actually ended.
Dull is the first word that springs to mind about the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. There are no problems with synchronisation and the volume is a little low, but there is just no fidelity to the track. The top-end frequencies have been clipped, yet the lower-level sounds don’t sound quite so bad.
Naturally there is no action from the rear channels, centre speaker or subwoofer, and the best that can be said is that most dialogue can be heard. There is some mild hiss that should deter nobody, but generally this audio leaves quite a bit to be desired. Somehow I do not see it receiving any further restoration treatment and this will probably be as good as it gets. Unless this is a film you know you will watch over and over, there is little to be gained in upgrading any VHS copy you may already have.