Frances Elena Farmer was an American actress and television hostess. She appeared in over a dozen feature films over the course of her career, though she garnered notoriety for the various sensationalized accounts of her life, especially her involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals and subsequent mental health struggles.
A movie star of the 1930′s, she made a name for herself despite interference from an unstable mother, social stigma in her teens following a poetry competition (which she won) in which she questioned the existence of God and links to the Communist Party. A trip to Russia didn't help nor did her headstrong reaction to studio chiefs who wanted to ‘glamourize' her.
Despite all this, in 1936 she hit a home run with Come and Get It, starring as a saloon singer in 19th century Wisconsin and shared top billing with Bing Crosby on Rhythm on the Range.
This wasn't enough for Farmer. Unsatisfied with being nothing more than what she considered a painted mannequin, she returned to Broadway and worked on her craft, appearing in the original production of Golden Boy. In 1939, she performed in Quiet City, an experimental play directed by Elia Kazan, and Thunder Rock, both of which closed after only a few weeks.
Needing money, she returned to Hollywood in the early ’40s and found she was blacklisted. Having broken her contract to do theatre, she was only offered supporting roles in B movies like Badlands of Dakota and South of Pago Pago and she started drinking heavily.
A routine stop by Santa Monica police in 1942 for driving with her headlights on high beam in the wartime blackout, escalated into a scuffle, nights in jail, Thrown inkwells at a judge, Unpaid fines, warrants issued for her arrest, a 180-day prison sentence and then finally transfers to a psychiatric unit in several hospitals and to the Kimball Sanitarium where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and administered insulin shock therapy for ninety days straight.
Housed in a minimum security ward, she routinely escaped/violated parole until finally, the court awarded formal guardianship to her mother, Lillian, and in 1943 she was forced to return to West Seattle to live with her parents.
Here, their relationship turned physical. After one violent physical attack, her mother had Farmer committed to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington. With the exception of brief parole or two, in which she absconded, she would remain an inmate at the hospital for the next five years, enduring daily injections, hydrotherapy baths, electric shock treatments, rapes by orderlies, and ultimately, a lobotomy.
In 1950 Farmer was paroled. She requested her mother's conservatorship be lifted and in 1953, this was granted by the Superior Court. Her parents died soon after.
Marrying several times, she returned to the stage, made a final film, The Party Crashers back at Paramount, and hosted her own daytime movie program, Frances Farmer Presents. In 1958, she was the subject of This is Your Life.
She gave up drinking and wrote a best-selling memoir, Will There Really Be a Morning? but never lived to see its publication, dying in 1970.