During the last year of his life, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was obsessed with Frances Farmer, an actress from his hometown of Seattle who died in 1970. Farmer’s beauty and unique screen presence made her a star, but her no-bullshit ballsiness made her a pariah — and a target of the hostile media — in 1930s Hollywood. Farmer’s career went down the tubes in the 1940s when a couple of incidents of inconvenient drunkenness led to her being committed to an insane asylum by her own mother, and given a lobotomy. Or, so Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, frequently told journalists while Cobain was promoting In Utero, the Nirvana album that includes Cobain’s tribute to the actress, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (Love also claimed to have been married to Cobain whilst wearing a dress once owned by Farmer, and the couple named their daughter Frances, although that was likely at least co-inspired by Frances McKee of The Vaselines). Unbeknownst to them, the notion that Farmer was lobotomized was a fiction invented by a biographer with ties to Scientology, a lie which was then dramatized in an Oscar-nominated, Mel Brooks-produced movie which helped to make Jessica Lange a star. By the time Kurt and Courtney were championing Farmer as a proto-punk martyr in the 1990s, the legend of Frances Farmer as patron saint of…well, women like Courtney Love, had been printed so many times that it had swallowed up the truth of Farmer’s experience, and loomed much larger than her actual body of movie work. Today we’ll explore how, and why, that legend got printed, and try to explain how Frances Farmer became the patron saint of beautiful, bright, potentially batshit women whose self-destruction can be traced back to their signing of a studio contract. We have special guest stars! Nora Zehetner (Brick, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and most recently IFC’s Maron) played Frances Farmer; Brian Clark played Kurt Cobain, and Noah Segan IS Rex Reed.
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