Artisan // 1982 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // June 26th, 1999
Her story is shocking, disturbing, compelling and true.
This film is filled with terrific performances and a few surprise ones as well. Artisan has delivered a terrific film to DVD, albeit a bare bones one.
The best parts of Frances on DVD are obviously the acting and the story. Written by Eric Bergren and Christopher DeVore, Frances tells the story of Frances Farmer. I don't know enough of Miss Farmer's life to gauge the authenticity of the story, but this film is said to be based on her true story. If so, then it was a sad life indeed.
Frances begins her travels by winning a nationwide high school essay contest with her essay that denies the existence of God. Naturally this makes her an outcast in her hometown of Seattle back during the Depression. She takes up acting and travels to Communist Russia, which further alienates her from the town-folk. She is then gobbled up by Paramount Pictures and signed to a lengthy contract. She takes a leave to go to New York, stars in a play about the downtrodden and has an affair with the play's author Clifford Odets.
All along the way the studio system and her mother manipulate her, attempting to break her spirit. She does not obey or comply. As a result, she is eventually arrested after striking a makeup woman who was verbally abusing her, for which she is taken to a rest home. After a few more outbursts and assaults, she is committed to a mental institution. The story speaks volumes about the nature of power and how people will do whatever they can to control the actions of others.
Jessica Lange (Tootsie, Country, Crimes of the Heart) gives a powerful performance of Frances. She is at times vulnerable, powerful, curious, loving, spiteful and always, always strong willed. Frances is given a certain three dimensionality that only our finest actors can generate. Miss Lange is certainly one of those, which is why this performance was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
Powerful supporting players surround Miss Lange. The most important is Kim Stanley (To Kill A Mockingbird -- Narrator), as Frances' mother Lillian. Stanley's performance was also nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. The supporting cast also included standout performances by Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, Country) as a local Seattle political worker named Harry York and Jeffrey DeMunn (The Shawshank Redemption, Phenomenon) as Clifford Odets. Also of interest are two very small roles as virtual extras for Angelica Huston and Kevin Costner. Huston plays one of the mental patients and Costner part of the Group Theater. I never really picked out Huston, but I did Costner, in chapter 13 as they are exiting the stage door, look over a few shoulders and you will clearly make him out.
The audio here is as good as it needs to be. This is clearly a dialogue driven film, from the days back when Hollywood actually told stories in film, rather than giving us 50 situational vignettes tied together with special effects. The Dolby Surround track was clear and easily understood. It certainly will not win any awards for sound, but it doesn't need to. It does its job just fine.
The picture is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for widescreen TV's. The video is a bit soft throughout the film, but I attribute that to a couple of things other than the DVD authoring process. First, the film elements were a bit worn in places. Second, I do not believe that a new hi-def master was created for this DVD. Third, as we have seen before, films that are shot for a 1.85 aspect ratio are notoriously softer than those shot for 2.35, with an anamorphic lens. All in all, the video was bearable with flashes of real clarity. The colors were solid and well presented. Overall, I would have to give the folks over at Artisan high marks for this transfer, considering the limitations they were hog-tied with.
My real complaint with this film is a complete lack of extras. The only thing included on this disc is a chapter navigation system and a start movie button. This is as bare bones as it gets folks. Certainly, a powerful performance and film like this deserve some respect when presented to the masses, no? Well, not according to the moneymen, I guess. A great SE of this disc might have broadened the audience and exposed this film to a new generation of film lovers. Instead, it is relegated to the back shelf of the video store. I guess its just wishful thinking, but it would have been nice to get at least an interview, if not a commentary from Jessica Lange on this one. Oh well. We can't win them all.
This excellent film is at least worth a rent. The story is powerful and the performances are great. Don't expect a fast paced film though. This one is a slow methodical film, which builds our identification with Frances over time. Contrary to popular belief this is a strength and not a weakness of a film such as this, for it creates a link between us and the characters we are watching. All this helps us to empathize with Frances in the end, and feel for her all the more.
The film itself is acquitted. The money guys at Artisan are to be crucified at the stake for not allowing some extras to be included with this excellent film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R