...Kim Stanley in Frances (1982).
approximately 23 minutes and 37 seconds on-screen
21 scenes (nearly half of which clock at less than 1/2 a minute)
roughly 17% of film's total screen time
Legendary stage actress Kim Stanley plays Lillian Farmer, the passionately devoted mother of the rebellious actress, Frances Farmer (played here with electrifying intelligence and devastating emotion by Jessica Lange, the 1982 trophy-snagger for Supporting Actress). Stanley's Lillian is her daughter's greatest fan. Indeed, Lillian Farmer wants nothing but for her daughter to be a star, and, for a time, it seems that Lillian's many wishes upon her daughter will come true.
Indeed, Lillian's pride in her daughter fills her near to bursting and Stanley's adept performance shows just how difficult it is for Lillian to keep the lid on that bubbling pot of maternal pride. In what is one of the performance's most elegant aspects, Stanley gilds her performance with a surprising coyness. For example, in the film's earlier scenes, as her daughter's insouciance gathers attention and notoriety, Stanley's Lillian just beams -- but she does so almost shyly. This curious touch proves suggestive of the fatal paradox of the eviscerating mother-daughter dynamic at the core of this film: As the pride and passion Stanley's Lillian feels for her daughter's potential grows, so too does her belief that she must keep herself (and her daughter) properly stifled.
This pathology for propriety causes Lillian -- Frances' greatest fan -- to also become her ficklest. Stanley's Lillian needs for Frances to be something perfect, something marvelous, something other than the complicated woman she is. And Stanley's performance expertly conveys the rankness this kind of self-absorption, the cruelty of this need. And as Lange's Frances catches on to her mother's childish games, Stanley's Lillian fights back -- meanly, viciously, inhumanely. It's as though Frances' identity is a plaything for Lillian, and the power of Stanley's performance comes in showing just how far this woman will go to maintain her grasp upon her favorite toy.
As Lillian, Kim Stanley (aka The Female Brando) acquits this tricksy role with savvy restraint (imagine either Stapleton or Page in the part...), thereby calibrating the bathos and the pathos of this classic cinematic monster-mom with uncommon grace. And while the film's devastating impact derives from Lange's elemental and astonishing performance, it's Stanley's performance as Lillian Farmer that creates the centrifugal force driving Frances' emotionally apocalyptic downward spiral. She's a doozy, she is. (So, take that, little sister...)
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