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Frankie & Alice (2010)
Starring Halle Barry and Stellan Skarsgård
Directed by Geoffrey Sax
With all the talk recently about famous people transgendering, no one ever thought of a story idea where a lead character has a multiple personality disorder and transfers between a female black housekeeper to a debutante, Southern white aristocrat, crossing racial composition.
No one had to reach for that poignant storyline because Geoffrey Sax, a Canadian filmmaker, took a true story portraying a woman who suffered from a dissociative identity disorder and presented it onscreen. Halle Berry, a seasoned actress, was able to command all three personalities wrapped into one person including a 7-year old genius who had an IQ aptitude of 156.
The real African American Frankie, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia in which her mother was a servant in a white household, had at least two traumatic teenage experiences that split her personality into fractured states. She fell in love with the prominent white family’s son, ran away with him, and got pregnant by him. This happened when she was age 15 in 1957 in the Deep South.
Two deaths resulted from that social risk and taboo tryst. Her boyfriend died in a car crash while she was distracting him in the front seat. She later gave birth to his child and her mother killed the infant after she delivered it a motel no less.
There is a lot of pivotal positioning within the Murdoch family in one of the opening scenes as Francine (Frankie) Murdoch seems to be the mother’s favorite when she visits her on her birthday and presents her with an elegant mother’s necklace featuring two birthstones for her two daughters.
Chandra Wilson, who plays Maxine Murdoch, Frankie’s sister, seems to have the full-time burden of caring for her mother in their South Central home while Frankie scoots in and out of their lives as a go go dancer who makes good money and is the centerpiece of men’s lust at a sleazy strip joint in Hollywood. Phylicia Rashad plays the forgiving mother who seems to embrace Frankie’s every whim and affection.
Frankie also lies frequently to her mother, saying she is attending college or going off to Florida when she is not. After the first scene with her mother, the tables turn when it shows the darker side of Frankie’s existence. She rakes in hundreds of dollars a night stripping but can’t seem to pay her rent. She looks through her checkbook and realizes she has spent too much money on a high end gown at a Beverly Hills boutique. Her landlord pounds on her door to let her know the rent check bounced again.
Fantasy diversion is present in Frankie’s life as she desires to escape the reality of her demeaning position as a stripper. She dresses up and goes out to clubs, presenting her alter ego Alice as someone who is above black lower and middle working class. She leaves the bar one night with a popular bartender who is really just a one-night stand. She steps on one of his kid’s toys and spirals into a hallucinogenic state, flipping out at him and cracking his head open with a vase. She walks into the street and crumbles in two way traffic. The cops mistake her for a junkie. She gets a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold and finds herself in a Los Angeles County mental hospital.
A perceptive psychologist, Dr. Oz, played by Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård, taps into her beauty and presence as she reels him in with her Southern drawl played by her alter ego, Alice. Alice is the Southern belle who has little toleration for black people.
Halle Berry seems to have mastered the detachment of self-loathing of her own race as she projected the underbelly of her dual white heritage. Within the framework of her persona, one sees to only perceive the characteristics of the white woman she intends to possess. Contoured by her outspokenness in the county mental ward when interacting with her peers, she dances to funky '70s beats while the community television in the lounge shows "American Bandstand" and Motown favorites. Frankie can be free in that moment.
The set costume designer personifies that era well through Frankie’s wardrobe. As the movie progresses, Dr. Oz develops a chalkboard of her primary three personalities which displays differences. She is left-handed as the white woman with a lower IQ of 102. She is right-handed as the black woman with a impressive IQ of 152. She has 20/20 vision as Frankie and Alice, but Genius, the 7-year old, needs glasses because she is nearsighted. Genius’ IQ is 156. Frankie smokes but Alice doesn’t. To take an IQ test and score differently means that Frankie had to be of those separate minds to embellish her expectations while being that person.
The movie moves along at an acceptable plot driven pace but it is the nuances and quirkiness of the characters that hold the audience attention. Dr. Oz drifts off with '70s style headphones with jazz any chance he gets. His doting secretary can never quite penetrate his melancholy and emotional distance. His primary companion is his cat. As a doctor, he has a nice home but detaches from materialism as he obsesses about helping his most complex patient, Frankie.
Frankie, who comes off self sufficient in the first few scenes of the movie as a chain smoking, self-liberated woman who stands up to intrusive men, later cracks in her Southern Belle gown as she is admitted a second time to the county mental hospital after attempted to stab a wedding guest at her former lover’s (Pete) sister’s wedding.
After seeing Pete’s sister at the wedding, Frankie seems to have blackout moments that put her in a translucent state. She is charged with assault with a deadly weapon but is later committed to the County mental hospital under certain research conditions. The head psychiatrist is not thrilled with her presence and notices the obsession of Dr. Oz. He questions if Dr. Oz is really treating the patient for her own benefit within the county budget or if it’s his personal pet project. The psychiatrist releases Frankie after the criminal charges are dropped without notifying Dr. Oz. He goes and finds Frankie after visiting her mother and sister.
The final climax in the movie comes when Dr. Oz puts Frankie in a hypnotic state. Halle Berry shows her full range of acting skills as she demonstrates childbirth, the traumatic death of her boyfriend, Pete, and the subtle extinguishing of the life of a newborn by the hands of her mother. That epic moment comes as the screen shows a flashback of Frankie giving birth in a motel as the mother takes a crying baby, smothers it and wraps it up for the garbage. Trauma of this nature makes it evident that many people could be candidates for mental health issues beyond their grasp, taking one in fateful directions.
Geoffrey Sax handled the material well and the aspect of dissociative identity disorder (DID) with his scrupulous subject, Halle Berry. Berry herself has had to straddle the dual world of black and white ancestry. Her talent led her to the first Oscar for a female black lead in "Monster’s Ball." The more psychologically twisted movie parts she takes on such as "Gothika," the clearer vision we have of a fully embraced actress that can create dimensions in the audience imagination to grip them for weeks after her commanding spell she has on all who embrace her skill and charms.