By People Staff
January 10, 1983 12:00 PM

With a superb lead performance from Jessica Lange, this is a horror story based on life, not nightmare. Willful, beautiful, fiercely talented, Frances Farmer was a 1930s star of film (Come and Get It) and stage (Golden Boy). She was also an atheist, a leftist, a druggie and an alcoholic and ended up in a series of mental institutions. There she was subjected to brutal experiments in electroshock and perhaps even a lobotomy and to countless assaults by men who paid hospital orderlies for a chance to rape her movie star’s body, Institutionalized for five years (many insist she was never insane), Farmer was 36 when released n her mother’s custody in 1950 and 56 when she succumbed to cancer in 1970. She ended her life hosting a B-movie afternoon TV show in Indianapolis, the seemingly complacent pawn of hucksters who exploited her past fame. Farmer’s persecution, perhaps because it suggests a collusion of family, psychiatry and government to repress dissent, has inspired two books (one her own), two recent off-Broadway shows, an upcoming independent film, Committed, and a forthcoming CBS-TV movie with Susan Blakely. Frances has special impact because of the uncanny way Lange, who’s grown astonishingly in range since 1976’s King Kong, gets under Farmer’s skin. Her scenes with Farmer’s jealously neurotic mother, brilliantly played by Kim Stanley, make up for the bewildering shortcomings of the screenplay, which skimps on Farmer’s political activism, talent (we never see her act), and even her husbands (only one of three is mentioned). Instead, the usually reliable Sam Shepard is brought on to play a ludicrous fictional lover in Farmer’s life; he keeps coming back into her life like a boomerang, and a dumb boomerang at that. He also provides stilted, pointless narration. How distressing that Farmer, who always despised the falseness in her Hollywood movies, should have her own life similarly misserved. Still, Lange and Stanley go a long way in cutting through the gloss laid on with galumphing heaviness by debuting director Graeme Clifford (he edited such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice). The two women pay tribute to Farmer’s memory by tugging at the conscience as well as the heart. (R)