The life of actress Frances Farmer has been subject to dramatic fictionalization. But the truth of her life is much darker.
Born in 1913, a native of Seattle, Washington, Farmer began acting in stage productions while a student at the University of Washington. After graduating, she began performing in stock theater before signing a film contract with Paramount Pictures on her twenty-second birthday in September 1935.
Farmer made her film debut in the B film Too Many Parents (1936), followed by another B picture, Border Flight, before being given the lead role opposite Bing Crosby in the musical western, Rhythm on the Range (1936).
Unhappy with the opportunities given to her by the studio, Farmer returned to stock theater in 1937 before being cast in the original Broadway production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, staged by New York City’s Group Theatre. She followed this with two Broadway productions directed by Elia Kazan in 1939, but a battle with depression and binge drinking caused her to drop out of a subsequent Ernest Hemingway stage adaptation.
Farmer returned to Los Angeles, earning supporting roles in the comedy World Premiere (1941) and the film noir Among the Living (1941). In 1942, publicity of her reportedly erratic behavior began to surface, and after several arrests and committals to psychiatric institutions, Farmer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At the request of her family, particularly her mother, she was relocated to an institution in her home state of Washington, where she remained a patient until 1950.
Farmer attempted an acting comeback, mainly appearing as a television host in Indianapolis on her own series, Frances Farmer Presents. Her final film role was in the 1958 drama The Party Crashers, after which she spent the majority of the 1960s occasionally performing in local theater productions staged by Purdue University.
In the spring of 1970, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, of which she died several months later, aged 56.
Farmer has been the subject of various works, including two feature films and several books, many of which focus heavily on her time spent institutionalized, during which she claimed to have been subject to various systemic abuses.
In 1982, Jessica Lange portrayed Farmer in the feature film Frances; the film depicts Farmer undergoing a lobotomy, the validity of which has been disputed in subsequent years. The following year, a television adaptation of Farmer’s autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning, was released with Susan Blakely portraying her. Another feature film based on her life, Committed, was produced in 1984.
In music, she is portrayed in the songs “Ugly Little Dreams” (1985) by Everything but the Girl, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (1993) by Nirvana, and “Frances Farmer” by Patterson Hood. Additionally she is mentioned in “Lobotomy Gets Them Home” (1989) on the Silvertown album by The Men They Couldn’t Hang. She was also the subject of a stage play by Sally Clark titled Saint Frances of Hollywood (1996).
Take a look at these glamorous photos to see the beauty of young Frances Farmer in the 1930s and 1940s.