Frances Elena Farmer (born September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington and died August 1, 1970 in Indianapolis, Indiana) was an American film actress.
At the age of 16, Frances won an essay contest for a controversial work titled "God Dies" and traveled to the Soviet Union as part of her prize. This 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 1936, where her striking good looks and distinctive voice led her to a 7-year contract with Paramount Studios. Starting at the top, she was immediately cast in leading roles, making her debut opposite Bing Crosby the same year in Rhythm On The Range. 1936 also brought her the best and most challenging role of her career 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 Frances was a bone fide movie star. She married her first husband, actor Leif Erickson the same year and her future looked bright.
She was not entirely satisfied however. 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 demeanour became unco-operative and contemptuous. In an age when the studios dictated every facet of a star's life, Frances was determined to be her own woman, and off screen resisted every attempt that was made to glamourise her life.
With the intention of solidifying her reputation as a serious actress, she left Hollywood in 1937 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 actress Luise Rainer and offered Frances no commitment. This relationship ended with Frances 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. The quality of her parts dropped dramatically as she was regarded as difficult and she found herself playing supporting roles.
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 Frances seemingly determined to destroy herself. Dragged from her hotel room to face a charge, she threw an inkwell at the judge and swore at him, and found herself sentenced to 180 days detention. Her behaviour during incarceration was erratic and confrontational and she was transferred to a state mental institution when her mother had her declared incompetent.
For 8 years she endured the hell of the institution, where by her own testimony she was raped, subjected to beatings, doused in freezing baths and given insulin shock treatment, and it has been speculated that she also underwent a partial lobotomy. Finally paroled in 1950, she cared for her ailing parents, while living with the fear that she could be institutionalised again on her mother's whim.
By 1953 she was working as a receptionist in a hotel when a reporter recognised her and wrote an article about her. This led to a renewed interest in her, and an appearance on the TV show This Is Your Life, where a humiliated Frances was questioned over her alcohol abuse and mental illness. She appeared in one mediocre film that exploited her famous name, but Hollywood quickly lost interest in her.
Farmer finally found security in Indianapolis where in 1958 she was given her own afternoon show Frances Farmer Presents but by 1964, her alcoholism had made her unreliable and she was fired.
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.
Her autobiography Will There Really Be A Morning was published posthumously and the details of Frances' hellish life became public for the first time. Actress Jessica Lange, who closely resembled Frances, played her in the 1982 feature film "Frances" and was Oscar-nominated for her role. Lange has maintained her compassion and empathy for Frances' plight and in interviews remains an ardent supporter.
Farmer was the subject of a song by the popular grunge band Nirvana entitled "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle". The song is featured on the band's album In Utero.