Frances Farmer Biography

Film Actress, Film Actor/Film Actress, Actress (1913–1970)
Actress Frances Farmer starred in films from the late 1930s and early '40s, but has received more scrutiny for her rebellious reputation and the time she spent institutionalized.


Film actress Frances Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. The 1936 film Come and Get It is considered her best work, but shortly after the film's release, she gained a reputation for being difficult on set. Matters worsened when she was arrested for drunk driving in 1942. She was later deemed mentally ill and institutionalized, undergoing a number of painful treatments. Farmer made a comeback in the 1950s with the television show Frances Farmer Presents. After a battle with cancer, she died in 1970.

Early Career

Frances Elena Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. Her father, Ernest, was a lawyer and her mother, Lillian, a boardinghouse operator and dietician. Farmer enjoyed a generally comfortable childhood although her relationship with her mother would become extremely difficult and adversarial. She developed an early interest in stage acting, in addition to being a prize-winning writer and an honors student. In 1931, she enrolled at the University of Washington, where she majored in journalism and drama.

After a failed attempt to join the Group Theatre in New York, Frances Farmer concentrated on a film career, signing with Paramount Studios. In 1936 she had a bit part in the drama Too Many Parents, followed by Border Flight and the musical Rhythm on the Range, starring Bing Crosby. With the actress playing the dual role of a saloon singer and her daughter, Farmer's work in Come and Get It (1936) was heralded as a sensational breakout performance.

Arrested and Institutionalized

Despite Farmer's initial success, she quickly earned a reputation as a demanding and rebellious actress on set. Displeased with her attitude, Paramount cast her in bland parts in a handful of films, including Exclusive and Ebb Tide (both 1937). By the early 1940s, Farmer was forced to appear in a succession of inferior productions, including South of Pago Pago (1940), World Premiere and Among the Living (both 1941). She had also starred on Broadway in productions including Golden Boy (1937) and Quiet City (1939).

In 1942, Farmer's career enjoyed a brief resurgence when she was cast opposite Tyrone Power and Roddy McDowall in the adventure film Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake. However, Farmer had developed a dependency on alcohol and amphetamines, and her efforts to improve her image backfired when she was arrested and convicted of drunk driving that year. Paramount Pictures canceled her contract because of her erratic behavior, and then she escaped Hollywood by accepting an offer to star in a low-budget, independent film in Mexico. 

In 1943, Farmer returned to California where her personal life continued to spiral out of control. She got into an altercation with a hairdresser on a film set, who accused Farmer of dislocating her jaw, and then the actress was arrested because she had not fully paid her bail for the drunk driving charge. She spent the night in jail and had not been allowed to make a phone call or contact her attorney. In court, she had a contentious appearance before a judge claiming her civil rights had been infringed. The judge sentenced her to 180 days in jail, but she was transferred to the psychiatric ward of Los Angeles General Hospital where she was declared mentally incompetent. 

Over the next few years, Farmer was committed to several mental institutions where she underwent shock treatments and hydrotherapy baths, as well as reportedly receiving a trans-orbital lobotomy. (Her family, nursing staff and Farmer herself have denied that she ever received a lobotomy, despite other media claims.) Over time, Farmer's physical and mental health deteriorated as she suffered a series of breakdowns.

Career Comeback

Upon Farmer's release from a state hospital in 1950 to take care of her ailing mother, she worked as a secretary and hotel receptionist before making a comeback appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. The following year, the actress starred in her last feature film, the Connie Stevens teen drama The Party Crashers, and began a six-year run on the Indianapolis-based TV show Frances Farmer Presents. She was fired in the spring of 1964 when stormy behavior resurfaced and she was later arrested twice for drunk driving. The same year as The Party Crashers, Farmer also appeared on This Is Your Life? On the show host Ralph Edwards prodded Farmer about her substance abuse and mental state and she attempted to respond to all media gossip about her, “I wasn’t in a position to defend myself at the time these stories were published. And I’m very happy to be here tonight to let people see that I am the kind of person I am and not a legend that arose.” 

Death and Legacy

On August 1, 1970, Farmer died after a battle with esophageal cancer; she was 56 years old. Her intimate autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, was published posthumously in 1972. In the early 1980s, her story was captured onscreen in the biopic Frances (1982), starring Jessica Lange (who received an Oscar nod for the role), and in the black and white film Committed (1983).

More than two decades after Farmer's death, the alternative rock group Nirvana recorded the single "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle." Written by lead singer Kurt Cobain, the tribute appeared on the band's In Utero (1993) album. 

Farmer was married three times: to actor Leif Erickson (from 1936-42); to Alfred Lobley (from 1953-58); and to Leland Mikesell (from 1958 until her death), who had helped orchestrate her television comeback.

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