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Imprint Films Highlights Jessica Lange and Gives an Award-Worthy Blu-ray to Frances

Feature Presentations: Episode 94

Welcome to this column dedicated to my appreciation of physical media supplements called Feature Presentations. The goal of this column is not to say whether a film is good or bad and worth picking up or not- I would like to highlight the discs that go the extra mile and provide film fans with enough tasty tidbits to satisfy even the hungriest of cinephiles. Today’s article spotlights the 1982 film Frances and is part one of a four-part review of the Film Focus: Jessica Lange 1982-1995 box set from Imprint Films.

The movie poster for Frances.

I never have been or will claim to be an expert in reviewing the technical specs of a physical media release. There are plenty of knowledgeable people in this realm of commenting on the audio and video aspects of a disc with better setups than I’ll ever own. This column, Feature Presentations, is a way of highlighting the supplemental material within a given disc. With all that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff and dive into my review of Frances.

As a disclaimer of transparency for this episode of Feature Presentations, my review of the Film Focus: Jessica Lange box set and the film Frances comes from a copy Imprint Films provided for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

In my opinion, biopics are some of cinema’s most difficult films to make. It’s not because of the subject; many biographical films follow the same mold. Most tales hit particular points and have the same peaks and valleys, something the movie’s subject must overcome or struggle with. It’s a “rise-and-fall” story that works to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but why I feel movies based on actual persons are because of just that. Even if you have a subject worth bringing to the silver screen, you better make sure it’s a story worth telling and something worth remembering.

Over the years, I’d heard of Frances, understanding it was Jessica Lange‘s first Academy Award nomination, but never a film I actively sought out. Even though I’m a sucker for movies detailing the ins and outs of Hollywood productions, there was never an urge to seek out this slice of cinema. Did I never seek it out because it seemed like another run-of-the-mill biopic?

Frances is a biographical drama based on the turbulent life of the actress Frances Farmer. Director Graeme Clifford charts her life from a 16-year-old kid rebelling against the ideas of religion and God to her aspirations of seeking an acting career in 1930s Hollywood and the unfortunate circumstances that led to her darkest moments.

I won’t say that Frances doesn’t fall into the “tried-and-true” formula I mentioned before; it’s one hundred percent that. Even still, the movie doesn’t follow the safe route that certain films of this fall victim to, and Jessica Lange doesn’t shy away from making Frances a complicated figure who ends up in a situation unbecoming of her. It’s a dark portrait of a forgotten figure in early Hollywood and an even darker depiction of mental illness and institutions designed to assist those with mental health struggles.

Diving into the disc’s supplemental material, “Reflecting on Frances,” is an interview with producer Jonathan Sanger. Recalling his memories of first meeting producer Mel Brooks through a lawsuit filed by author William Arnold, there’s a lot of meat in this feature. Sanger gets into the weeds at forming a working relationship with Brooks, the emotionally tense atmosphere on set, offering his perspective into the court battle with Arnold. For myself, unfamiliar with Frances Farmer but craving behind-the-scenes production details, “Reflecting on Frances” spoke my language and touched on topics that left me wanting more.

“Goodnight, Frances” is a newly recorded interview with director Graeme Clifford. I enjoyed hearing Clifford speak; he has a calming yet inviting presence as he discusses his work on Frances and life in the entertainment business. Clifford touches on how Jessica Lange knew Sam Shepard would be the perfect co-star, how Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg were the two directors who shaped his career, and how he talked his way through Australian film school into making a Hollywood picture. One tale you must experience comes during Clifford’s discussion about his first foray into the entertainment business, involving sharks and shotgun shells.

Empty movie chairs with the names Bing Crosby on one and Frances Farmer on the other.

Next up, “Deco Dreams: The Art and Style of Frances” is an interview with art director Ida Random. “Deco Dreams” was an odd feature as Random spends the chat discussing various jobs of the behind-the-scenes crew and not as much on her duties. She does get into her accomplishments in Frances, but most of the time, Random dishes on how production designer Richard Sylbert got her foot in the door and her other projects. The feature closes nicely with a warm-hearted story about Random and her professional relationship with Kevin Costner. “Deco Dreams” is an overall pleasant interview, just not as focused on the feature film as expected.

“A Hollywood Life: Remembering Frances” is a 2002 featurette from Blue Underground and Anchor Bay, acting as a documentary on the production and a look back at the life and career of Frances Farmer. Even with a scant, by making-of standards, running time, “A Hollywood Life” walked a delicate balance of informative and personal. Featuring Clifford and Sanger, plus actors Jessica Lange and Bart Burns, composer John Barry, screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, and others, you get a comprehensive sense of the production from voices who do not appear elsewhere on the disc. Lange, especially, is terrific to hear from as she speaks from the perspective of embodying the real Frances Farmer. Her personal connection she felt towards the late actress is moving and is a highlight of this feature.

A 1983 interview with Jessica Lange conducted during the press junket for Frances‘ theatrical run is next. As with many of these puff pieces, there isn’t much here to absorb outside of surface-level detail, though Lange does give her interpretation of how she feels about Frances Farmer and her relationship with the fictional character of Harry York from the 1982 film. Even with the softball interview questions thrown her way, hearing Jessica Lange discuss her insight into the role and the real-life person is a welcome inclusion.

Imprint Films includes two audio commentaries: one with director Graeme Clifford, moderated by David Gregory, and the second, a 2023 track with film historian and critic Matthew Asprey Gear.

The track featuring Clifford and Gregory is low-key but in a good way. Both men have a casual rapport with one another as Gregory keeps Clifford on topic and peppers the director with bits of production details and questions to keep the conversation lively. Clifford gets into how the production came about: bringing Jessica Lange to producer Jonathan Sanger, how his feelings towards psychiatry drew him to the tragic tale of Farmer’s life, and his admiration for how Lange kept her child on set with her but was able to balance the emotionally-charged persona on camera and be with her kid after the director yelled, “Cut!” While the two men’s discussion never delves too far outside of the film’s production and occasionally lapses into lengthy periods of silence, the track accomplishes what any audio commentary should, both entertaining and informative.

The same accomplishments from the first track bleed over to the second, solo commentary with Matthew Asprey Gear. Whereas Clifford and Gregory kept things surface-level, Gear splits his time between production details and historical analysis. Gear discusses the themes and motifs throughout the film—the use of light and the deterioration of Frances’ parent’s houses and the lighthouse, how the idea of the Golden Era of Hollywood came about, and other adaptations based on Frances Farmer’s life. I prefer Gear’s track to the Clifford/Gregory discussion, but both offer valuable insight and are each worth a listen.

The disc comes to a close with the film’s theatrical trailer.

Frances stands and leans forward on a table.

And there you have it! What a way to kick off this Jessica Lange box set! While I had some issues with the storytelling mechanics of the film, there’s no doubt that Frances lives and dies on the lead actress’ performance and its Blu-ray on Imprint Films‘ presentation. Thankfully, Jessica Lange and Imprint Films are up to the task, and Frances lives like never before!

Written by Robert Chipman

Robert is a lifelong cinephile and has had an admiration with film for as long as he can remember. When he's not checking out the most recent theatrical release, viewing a movie on one of a 1,000,000,000 streaming services or picking up the latest physical media disc, he's trying and failing to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He also has a weird fascination with Stephen Dorff. Make of that what you will. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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