Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
In 1931, Farmer won an essay contest for a controversial work titled "God Dies", and in 1935 won a trip to the Soviet Union while working for a leftist newspaper. These deeds led to accusations that she was both an atheist and a Communist, but her first interest had always been acting, which she studied at the University of Washington.
She moved to Hollywood in 1935, where her striking good looks and distinctive voice led her to a 7-year contract with Paramount Studios. After receiving top billing in two well-received 1936 Paramount "B" films, she was cast opposite Bing Crosby the same year in Rhythm On The Range . In 1936 she gave her most acclaimed performance when she was loaned to Samuel Goldwyn to appear in Come and Get It, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Her portrayals of both the mother and daughter were well received by critics and public alike, and many critics wrote of her potential to become a major star. She married her first husband, actor Leif Erickson the same year.
Farmer was not entirely satisfied with her career progression. Her aspiration was to be a great actress and she felt stifled by Paramount's tendency to cast her in costume dramas that depended on her looks more than her talent, and her naturally outspoken demeanor became uncooperative and contemptuous. In an age when the studios dictated every facet of a star's life, Farmer rebelled against the studio's control and off-screen resisted every attempt that was made to glamourize her life.
With the intention of solidifying her reputation as a serious actress, she left Hollywood in 1937, first to do summer stock on the East Coast, and, after she was seen there by Harold Clurman and Clifford Odets, to join the Group Theatre and to appear in the Clifford Odets play Golden Boy. She embarked on an affair with Odets but he was married to the actress Luise Rainer and offered Farmer no commitment. This relationship ended with Farmer feeling betrayed that he had used her drawing power to further the success of his play, and she returned to Hollywood, somewhat chastened and willing to continue her movie career, though still on her terms. She arranged a special deal with Paramount where she agreed to stay in Los Angeles for three months out of every year to make motion pictures, freeing up the remainder of each year for her theater activities. Unfortunately her two subsequent appearances on Broadway each had short runs, and she found herself back in Los Angeles, frequently being loaned out by Paramount to other studios for starring roles, while at her home studio she was consigned to costarring appearances.
More insecure than her abrasive and self-assured persona indicated, she was also battling alcoholism and a driving offence set in motion a chain of events that led to her downfall, with Farmer seemingly determined to destroy herself. In October 1942 she was arrested for driving with her headlights on bright during the wartime dimout zone that affected the whole west coast. The police who arrested her suspected her of being drunk and she was jailed overnight. She was fined $500.00, of which she immediately paid $250.00, and was put on probation. When the remainder of her fine was not paid, a bench warrant was issued for her arrest in January 1943. She was found at the Knickerbocker Hotel, where she did not surrender peacefully. At her hearing the next morning, she behaved erratically, berating the judge, demanding an attorney, and ultimately throwing an inkwell at the judge. He immediately sentenced her to 180 days in jail. Through the efforts of her sister-in-law (who was a deputy sherriff in Los Angeles at the time), Farmer was quickly transferred to the psychopathic ward of LA's General Hospital.
After she was found mentally incompetent, she was sent to a private sanitarium where she received insulin shock therapy. After nine months at this institution, she was released into her mother's care, and went to live with her. Three subsequent stays in a state mental institution followed, the longest from April 1946 to March 1950. At the state institution she was subjected to electro-convulsive shock treatment (ECT). In 1950, her parents made a request that the state review her case, declare her competent and parole her. Farmer stated in her autobiography that they had done so in order to have her take care of them in their old age. At this time she believed that she could be institutionalized again on her mother's instruction, as had happened in the past. Later she ascertained and secured competency for herself.
In 1954, after a brief second marriage, she moved to Eureka, California where she worked anonymously for almost three years as a secretary/bookkeeper at a photo studio. In 1957 she was finally recognized by a radio promoter and talent agent, who arranged for her to move to San Francisco to work as a receptionist in a hotel where he had planned for a reporter to recognize her and write an article about her. This led to a renewed interest in her and a couple of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show where Sullivan treated her with dignity. This was followed by an appearance on the TV show This Is Your Life, where Farmer was questioned over her alcohol abuse and mental illness. Farmer stated that she did not believe that she had ever been mentally ill, and even at the time had not believed it, but that "if a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one". Reviewers of the program described her responses as highly intelligent, and also noted her brusque but forthcoming reactions to some of the more personal questions and suggested that on occasions she seemed to be on the verge of losing her patience. She appeared in several live television dramas and one mediocre film that exploited her famous name, but Hollywood quickly lost interest in her.
During this time she made friends who treated her as family, something she claimed never to have experienced before, and she lived the remaining few years of her life in contented obscurity before her death from esophageal cancer in 1970.
Frances Farmer is interred in the Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.
Her autobiography Will There Really Be A Morning was published posthumously and previously unknown details of Farmer's hellish life became public for the first time. Although Farmer had worked on it until her illness overwhelmed her, much of it was written by a friend Jean Ratcliffe. Actress Jessica Lange played Farmer in the 1982 feature film "Frances" and was Oscar-nominated for her role. Lange has maintained her compassion and empathy for Farmer's plight and in interviews remains an ardent supporter. Susan Blakely also portrayed Farmer in a television production which used the title of the autobiography.
Arguments against widely reported aspects of Farmer's medical treatment
In the years since Farmer's death, her treatment in institutions has been the subject of serious discussion and wild speculation, such as the sensationalized chapter relating to her breakdown, in Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. Her own ghostwritten autobiography published after her death described the brutality of her incarceration, and claimed that she had been raped, beaten, doused in freezing baths, and forced by a warder to eat her own feces. The book's author, Farmer's friend Jean Ratcliffe, admitted that she had written the book specifically with the view to creating a saleable and filmable property. Ratcliffe later admitted that she had deliberately exaggerated Farmer's torment, and that much of the finished work was not contributed by Farmer.
A further biography Shadowland by William Arnold , published in 1978, asserted for the first time that Farmer had been the subject of a transorbital lobotomy. This statement was widely accepted as factual, and scenes of Farmer being subjected to the procedure were used to shocking effect in the film Frances. Arnold stated several years later that his intention had not been to create a true biography of Farmer, and that much of his story had been "fictionalized". Debunkers of this aspect of Farmer's representation have stated that medical records for Western State Hospital, where Farmer was a patient, show that lobotomies were practiced during her time there. Considered a ground-breaking medical procedure at the time, the hospital did not attempt to conceal their work, and on the contrary had kept extensive records. Although a number of patients have been recorded as receiving the procedure, there has been no evidence presented to support the claim that Farmer was among them. It has been further stated that former staff members have confirmed in interviews that Farmer did not receive a lobotomy. Medical records also show that Farmer had no surgery of any kind while at Western State Hospital.
Associates who knew Farmer during her later years in Indianapolis have described her as a woman capable of unreasonable or temperamental behavior, who could sometimes be confrontational and difficult. They describe emotional outbursts similar to those attributed to Farmer during her Hollywood years. They also describe a woman who was able to establish a comfortable lifestyle and a successful career, (albeit hampered by alcoholism), in which she was required to display creativity and intelligence, and to communicate and interact effectively with a variety of people, especially during her 6 year role as a television presenter. These comments do not support the biographical description of her as a "lobotomized zombie".
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