A review dedicated to Nick Davis (who made no request with his donation, and it is my pleasure to offer this review of one of his favorite films), with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

We're all familiar, I am sure, with the spectacle of a truly amazing, bravura performance at the heart of a movie that is, beyond that performance, not actually all that good. Every time I encounter such an object, I find myself questioning anew what we should make of it: if the film exists to facilitate a world-class performance and world-class performance is exactly what it showcases, does that make it a great film? A worthy film? And there's possibly not a more perfect embodiment of this conundrum than the 1982 biopic Frances, a film that I chiefly associate with two very different things. One is a screenplay by Eric Bergren, Christopher De Vore, and Nicholas Kazan which is so structurally deficient that it almost feels like a parody of the biopic form, telescoping years into the space of cuts, failing to show entire subplots where much of the drama takes place and only vaguely assuring us that they happened, and making all the wrong choices about where to be scrupulously faithful to the life of Frances Farmer versus when to lean heavily on myth, which means among other things that we get an entire false third act because, hey, it happened in reality. And yet they're fine with inventing out of whole cloth the second-largest role in the entire movie (the screenplay's flaws are all the stranger given than Bergren and De Vore had collaborated just prior to this on The Elephant Man, possibly the very best biopic of the era).

The other thing, of course, and I apologise for making her wait till the second paragraph, is Jessica Lange in the title role, giving what I believe might very well be the best performance by a woman in English-language cinema in the 1980s (I make the gender distinction solely on behalf of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, which was shot in the 1970s and perhaps does not count). It is all but beyond description, what Lange does in Frances. I can only imagine what it must have been like to encounter this performance fresh in 1982, six mostly empty years after she'd made her big-screen debut as the utterly insipid female lead of the wholly useless King Kong remake; December 1982 was quite the coming-out party for Lange as a previously untested world-class talent, between this and Tootsie (she was nominated for both films at the Academy Awards, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively, winning for Tootsie; I would have happily seen her win both awards, but of course that was never going to happen). As the title character of Frances, which is accordingly about that character's thoughts, feelings, reactions, and absolute singularity as a woman of profoundly aggressive ideological passions, Lange's astronomically great work is the movie, the reason that it's incontestably essential viewing. And yet I'm not certain that she actually makes Frances "good".

Before we go any deeper into that rabbit hole, I suppose I should address what is potentially the elephant in the room: Frances Who? Indeed, Frances Farmer - born in 1913, died in 1970 - was by no means a household name in 1982, and while I suppose that Frances briefly brought her astonishing life and career back into the spotlight for a while, we're far enough away that Frances itself hardly counts as a well-known touchstone; it's subject could hardly be more obscure. The short version is that Farmer was an actor, starting her career in Hollywood at Paramount. She quickly determined that the artifice and glamorous triviality of that industry were too much to bear, so within two years of her movie debut, she inserted herself into the world of New York theater, including Clifford Odets, who cast as the lead in a new play he was staging with the Group Theatre, and with whom Farmer struck up a love affair. Odets betrayed her shortly thereafter, and she returned to Hollywood resentful and bitter, which led her to alcohol, which in turn made her even more notorious and unpleasant to work with. In 1943, Farmer was institutionalised with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, and spent much of the remainder of the '40s in and out of the hospital, fighting all the while with her domineering mother, who was by this time her legal guardian. She did not receive a lobotomy, but in this particular case, the legend makes for such a more robust and ripe melodrama that I think it's worth gently whisking the truth under the rug.

I cannot begin to say whether the historical Farmer was as captivating an artist and as bullish a life force as the movie's Frances (not a single one of the fourteen films she starred in between 1936 and 1942 has lived on as a classic, and only Howard Hawks's 1936 Come and Get It, her fourth movie, has remained particularly visible, thanks mostly to Walter Brennan's Oscar win), but the movie, or Lange, at least, mounts a hell of an argument in her favor. The film's main gambit is to primarily represent Francis as a first-rate thinker, beginning with its opening montage of quiet natural and domestic environments over which we hear Lange deliver the text of Farmer's 1931 award-winning essay about the death of God; it's a stunningly bold-faced introductory gesture to present the protagonist as a ruthless philosopher, and it sets us off to always wonder, through the many travails of the next 140 minutes, not, "How does Frances feel about this?", but "What does Frances think about this?" The tragedy of Frances is not at all the tragedy of the artist who can't make the art she wants (one of the screenplay's biggest flaws, which Lange can't really do anything to counterbalance, is that it never gives us a hint beyond Group Theatre boilerplate as to why Frances wants to act), and it's not even as-such the tragedy of an innocent thrown in the hellish snakepit of an asylum, lobotomised into becoming the docile, respectable bourgeois that she so greatly loathed for her whole life. It is the tragedy of a supremely sharp intellect who is trapped not only by a culture that greatly mistrusts her both for reasons of politics and of gender, but also by the self-damaging choices she herself makes as a way of lashing out against that culture.

Lange plays this all with incredible sophistication and ease; there are never fewer than two layers to her performance (Frances's physical behavior, and what she's thinking at the time, which very frequently does not inform her actions but always remains clear to us), and very often more. When she stands trial, we're simultaneously watching a very tired and probably hungover woman who is simply annoyed to be there, a poltical savant who recognises with ice-cold fury that the judge is giving her a harder time than he must because of how "unwomanly" she's behaving, a trained actress who can't help but enjoy the grandeur of the courtroom as a stage and throws some melodrama at it, and an abashed alcoholic who understands that she is, in fact, quite guilty, and lashes out defensively. Lange has carefully mapped out how which words and which gestures need to be emphasised in order to make us aware of each of those different emotional registers, and she does it without foregrounding her choices and business above her raw emotions so that we're admiring the clockwork elegance of the acting rather than the character, as for example Meryl Streep, God bless her, would have done (I understand that I'm in the vast minority of humans for disliking Streep in Sophie's Choice, but my Christ, it galls me that she beat Lange for the Oscar).

Not everything has to be that complex. Sometimes, Lange allows herself the simple pleasure of just responding with one nice blast of a single focused emotion. I am particularly fond of a scene where Frances confronts a woman who insulted her as a teenager, now fawning over her movie stardom; Lange plays gracious socialite charm up to the hilt, and then springs the truth of their past relationship upon the unctuous sycophant like a cat going from asleep to poucing at a mouse in the blink of an eye, and the best thing she does of all is to wait two or three beats past the moment you expect it to happen to turn frosty as she stares daggers into the woman, making her prey hang in the awkardness for a moment before clamping down on her.

The film's eagerness to present Frances as a primarily intellectual figure does mean that, ultimately, we're never quite inside her; there's always at least a slight layer of detachment. In fact, our identification point isn't Frances at all, but the fictional romantic Leftist Harry York (Sam Shepard, uncharacteristically charmless), who keeps crossing paths with Frances and eventually falls in love with her; and with that, the time has come to deal with the fact that for all of Lange's powerhouse acting, Frances makes, just, so many mistakes. Lange is not the only good thing: Stanley is a strong co-star as the combination loving mother/diabolical antagonist who magnifies all of Frances's woes and is the originator of some of them, and John Barry's score, unexpectedly carried primarily on harmonica, offers a reflective, nostalgic veneer that ages the film without sentimentalising it.

But boy, I just don't know about that script. Completely skipping past Frances's adolescent trip to Russia, the formative event of her life in this telling, is so crazy that it kind of works, as though the trip exerted such a profound gravitational pull on the young woman that we can only see it by measuring its effects, like a black hole. But given how many other developments the film breezes past, it pretty quickly becomes obvious that this isn't a strategy, but merely the first incarnation of a very bad habit. Even more troublingly, it's clear that the filmmakers were so excited to present a new version of the hoary old "throw the dipsomaniac in the loony bin" genre that they make Frances's hospitalisation the focal point of the back half in a manner that verges - not on exploitation, which was the first word I wanted to use. It is melodramatic and showy in a way that Frances herself, with her deep attachment to aesthetic realism, would undoubtedy have scorned as sensational Hollywood crap. Lange plays the material well: after an hour of keeping everything tightly packed in, she can rant and tear up the set like nobody's business. But it's kind of shabby that the film asks her to do so much of that.

It's also more or less indifferently made: director Graeme Clifford handles the material with little sense of urgency, letting scenes go on and redundancies to pile up. It's not a short movie, and it's easy to imagine it coming in under two hours without losing too much: there's hardly a passage of the film that couldn't stand a little nipping and tucking, which makes it all the more annoying that so much of the plot seems to take place offscreen. And while I hesitate - oh, how I hesitate! - to say anything against the great cinematographer LΓ‘szlΓ³ KovΓ‘cs, his work here is gloomy, and not to any clear effect. Somebody was a little drunk on too many Gordon Willis movies, I think, but hadn't quite figured out why Willis did what he did.

It's not all a wash: the pre-stardom scenes are packaged gracefully and efficiently, elegantly capturing the sense of old Seattle as a quiet, comfortable place that would drive someone like Frances made with boredom. And melodramatic bunkum or not, the scene of Frances's lobotomy is just beautifully done: chilly and clinical, taking place entirely outside of Frances's emotions and POV in a way that makes it almost unbearably horrifying in a way that a straight-up horror-style approach couldn't possibly achieve. I do not think Clifford is without talent; I just think he was mostly without inspiration. But sometimes it all clicks into place, and we get, for the length of a scene, a Frances that is at least worthy of Lange, if never her equal (as it almost couldn't be). On the whole, though, there's too much that's slack and lifeless in the filmmaking. It's all the more credit to Lange that she's able to extract something so titanically powerful from material so limiting.