Frances Farmer (1913-1970) was an American film and stage actress better remembered today for her traumatic private life than her professional accomplishments. In the early 1980s, Jessica Lange was Oscar-nominated for her starring performance in the film Frances, a somewhat fictionalized account of Farmer’s life, including the years she spent involuntarily confined to a mental hospital. Many of Farmer’s fans and supporters believe that she may not have been as seriously ill as her family believed, that she may have been mostly guilty of being an unhappy, outspoken, and volatile woman at a time when those traits were not always well-received.
Peter Shelley’s Frances Farmer: The Life and Films of a Troubled Star has two major components. The first section of the book tries to sort out fact from fiction in previous accounts of the actress’ life, as told in biographies, the aforementioned film, and a controversial memoir that Farmer authorized but may not have written. In the second half, Shelley takes a detailed look at the legacy left by Frances Farmer in her films. While she may not belong to the pantheon of great actresses, Shelley convincingly makes the case that the best of her work merits serious critical attention, which he provides here.
As so often happens when you read one book, Shelley’s led me to another. One of the long unanswered questions about Farmer’s life, which Shelley investigated in writing his book, was whether she was lobotomized during her years as a mental patient. In The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness, author Jack El-Hai wrestles with a complex question. Was Dr. Walter Freeman (1895-1972), the controversial physician who championed the widespread use of lobotomies to treat mental illness (and was long-rumored to have performed the procedure on Frances Farmer), a fearless pioneer, a grossly irresponsible doctor with delusions of grandeur, or simply a tragically misguided man who did his best to help patients who otherwise had few chances for a productive life? (If you’re a follower of the Kennedy family history, you might know that one of Dr. Freeman’s patients was JFK’s sister Rosemary, though the operation apparently did her more harm than good).
These may not be the kind of books you want to drop into your beach bag to read by the pool this summer. But if you’re in the mood to read something that will keep you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page, give one, or both, a try.