Frances Farmer was a 1930s movie star, a celebrated Broadway actress, a communist sympathizer, and an intellectual. Best known for her mental health issues, she was possibly the reason mental health laws were changed after her involuntary incarceration in a mental institution. According to some reports she was lobotomized in that hospital, while others have stated that such claims were nothing more than tabloid fodder.
While there’s no way to verify what really happened to Farmer while she was under lock and key, one fact remains certain: nearly a decade of her life was stolen from her in what can only be called a grave miscarriage of justice.
Farmer became a bona-fide movie star in 1936 with the release of the drama “Come and Get It”. Based on
the best-selling book by Edna Ferber, the film was a huge hit in its day. Farmer, who took acting seriously, saw the film as an opportunity to play more serious roles in movies and to perform on Broadway, which she did to great acclaim.
Though she loved the art of acting, Farmer was not pleased with the Hollywood studio system, in which women were told to smile, look pretty, and do as they’re told. Her frustrations at finding herself caught up in such a non-supportive environment may have led to her becoming an alcoholic, which may in term have led to her increasingly erratic behavior.
Farmer threw on-set tantrums and behaved belligerently when stopped by a police officer for speeding. She paid half of her fine but declined to pay the rest, claiming that her civil rights had been violated. After a studio hairstylist accused her of assault, Farmer’s contract with Paramount Pictures was cancelled. In 1943 her mother had her committed to Western State Hospital in Washington State, where she remained until 1950.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Farmer regained her full civil rights. She abandoned the entertainment industry, working as a secretary and bookkeeper in Eureka, California.
In 1958, after moving to San Francisco, Farmer attempted a comeback. She co-starred in the film The Party Crashers (1958), made numerous television appearances, and hosted Frances Farmer Presents, a daytime talk show which ran on an Indianapolis TV station for six years. She also returned to the stage. Farmer died of cancer in 1970 at age 56.
Today Frances Farmer is remembered more for her hospital stay than for any of her film roles. While the details of what happened to her at Western State remain unclear, (there have also been reports that she was raped by orderlies, claims which, like the lobotomy, have yet to be proven) most historians agree that Frances Farmer should never have been incarcerated.
Did Frances Farmer need help? Yes, she did. She would have greatly benefited from outpatient talk therapy and a stint at rehab. But it’s highly unlikely she was insane and should never have been locked up. She lived during a time when judges, police and family members could have people institutionalized on the flimsiest of reasons, and so Farmer had nearly a decade of her life stolen from her.
The tragedy of Frances Farmer is a cautionary tale, a sobering reminder that everyone, including people with mental health issues, are entitled to enjoy the same rights as everyone else.