Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid
astiche and homage are dangerous tightropes for an artist to walk. One slip or bobble and he can fall into the realm of parody—or worse—camp. In the case of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the probability of doing so seemed particularly great. After all, the director is working with a mostly forgotten genre (1950s melodrama), from the template of a director who created wide-screen soap operas (Douglas Sirk), and within a frequent punch line of a time and place (post-war, upper middle-class suburbia). Yet from the film’s script titles to Elmer Bernstein’s score to the idyllic crane shots of a leafy Connecticut town that open the film, every detail of a pleasant suburb is in place. Once the camera gets on ground level, of course, the illusion of postcard perfection is shattered.
Far From Heaven is the story of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a suburban Hartford mother and psuedo-homemaker (she stays at home and fields questions from fawning society pages writers while her maid tidies up), who—along with her middle-management husband (Dennis Quaid)—seem so perfect that they are not only keeping up with the joneses, but lapping them. When Cathy comes across her spouse in the arms of a man and realizes that her nuclear family could explode, she develops a close friendship with her soft-spoken, intelligent—and black—gardener (Dennis Haysbert), an obvious no-no in her circle. Like her character in Haynes’ feted 1995 film Safe, Moore’s wealthy housewife is suffocated and stifled by her environment—this time by the faux smile perfection of her GI Bill-fed Levittownesque existence.
The aforementioned Sirk’s histrionic melodramas were popular with moviegoers but horrified critics. Yet over the past few decades, his over-the-top scripts and visual elegance have become regarded as incisive views of the tortured lives that stumbled through this seemingly idyllic era. To Sirk, these individuals put on airs, denying their impulses or—more often—stunting, dulling, anaesthetizing, or hiding them. In All That Heaven Allows—the film that Haynes most explicitly references here—dowdy 40-something widow Jane Wyman sets her society crowd abuzz with news that she wants to marry her husky young gardener (Rock Hudson) who lives by the motto, “to thy own self be true.” The casting of Hudson is ironic because—as a closeted homosexual, at least to the public—he would have had sympathy with Wyman’s character.
Haynes’ nod to Sirk’s work is immaculately recreated and a joy to look at it, as well as to watch. It’s a note-perfect re-creation with every set and conversation layered—just as they needed to be to convey the paranoia and obsession of the era. Sirk’s original is more genuine, but Haynes’ dallying with artifice reveals deeper truths about our world today and how we erroneously gauge the progress we’ve made in combating race and homophobia, as well as the ways we stifled our own personal goals.
Here Haynes also lends humanity to characters that most films tend to treat with tokenism or disdain. Today, a women’s picture—even the attempts at making prestigious ones—are often laden with hokum, cancer deaths, and bonding rituals. They’re often insulting to their core audience. Haynes has instead tackled them straight on, making both a holistic, self-help film (Safe) and now a melodramatic soap opera, and he succeeded on both accounts.
Hollywood’s treatment of the damaged psyches behind the sheen of 50s life is too often finger waggling—particularly when prejudice is the topic, such as in Pleasantville or School Ties. It’s simply hammer-on-head stuff and an accidental indictment of our inability to face difficult issues. Far From Heaven avoids those traps and in some ways is the antithesis of a Hollywood film about racism (mostly cut-and-dry looks at a black “firsts” overcoming prejudice and teaching some stubborn, racist, butch-cut Southerner a lesson in the process). Contemporary audiences go to these films and dutifully gasp at the use of words such as “colored” or “negro” and wonder how people could have been so insensitive way back then and pat themselves on the back about how far we’ve come.
Haynes realizes instead that we’re far from heaven, and—despite a jaw-dropping visual tenderness—his delicate treatment of race, sexual orientation, and the inability to be true to one’s self is this film’s grandest achievement. It’s a 50s set piece, to be sure, but its magic lies keeping the audience close to the film’s emotional world rather than putting it at a distance. In the process, Far From Heaven reveals more truth about American life, racism, and commercial impulses than all the scolding, lecturing, chest-pumping dreck that Hollywood usually creates and awards.
By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01