Back in the 1950s, Douglas Sirk made — or re-made — glossy soap operas like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life for producer Ross Hunter. At the time, these films were thought of as no more than standard weepies that occasionally (and not very daringly) touched on social issues that had already been addressed at length 20 years earlier.
Today, however, a cult has grown up around Sirk’s films, with its members insisting that his movies were deliberately over-the-top and subversive. I’m not sure I agree with that; frankly, I think Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life were done better and more sincerely in the 1930s by John M. Stahl, and I don’t see that much difference between Sirk’s movies and other directors’ films for Ross Hunter. After watching Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, I’m not sure Haynes entirely agrees that Sirk got it right either, though Haynes has certainly used Sirk’s films as a template for his own. And there’s no question about Far From Heaven: It is deliberately over-the-top and subversive. It is also quite often brilliant, and it’s always an astonishing tour de force.
Haynes set his story in 1957, but he hasn’t made a film about 1957 so much as he’s made a film that seems to be from 1957. From the moment Far From Heaven starts with a camera prowling downward through autumn leaves onto the picture-perfect world of Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), there’s not one inch of celluloid that doesn’t evoke the mid-’50s filmmaking style with eerie precision — and with obvious loving care. It’s an astonishing conjuring trick bound to warm the heart of any revisionist film historian — which Haynes certainly is himself, as much as he’s a filmmaker.
Haynes has crafted a film on his own terms that rethinks a typical 1950s-Sirkian three-handkerchief picture while laying bare the kind of thematic subtext no such Sirkian film would have dared to tackle — and yet doing so via a strictly 1950s approach. The Sirk-Hunter films about well-to-do characters suffering mightily in glossy settings may have touched on social issues — and those titles starring Rock Hunter may now be seen as ironic, owing to what we have since learned of Hudson’s sexuality — but those early movies couldn’t have addressed the issues Haynes raises in Far From Heaven.
In short, this is the best movie Douglas Sirk never made, dealing from a brilliantly stacked deck to create something that is Sirk magnified. Rather than bury one issue within the film, Haynes offers a variety, crafting a movie not just about the dissatisfaction, corruption and meanness that lies beneath his characters’ outward demeanors, but about sexuality, racism, intolerance and human nature as well. Haynes has taken the irony of the Hudson situation and placed it at the forefront of his film.
Everything would be bright, happy and perfect in Cathy and Frank’s world if it weren’t for the fact that Frank — the perfect husband and father, and the embodiment of the American Dream — is gay (much as Rock Hudson was the perfect romantic lead, but for that). Haynes has also taken the subplot of racism from Imitation of Life and put it front and center; no longer are we safely dealing with Lana Turner’s friendship with her maid, but instead with Cathy’s obvious attraction to her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert, Love and Basketball). Even though Cathy tries to paint an innocent picture of this infatuation, it’s deftly shattered by her own words.
In a sense, Far From Heaven is both an homage to the Sirk-Hunter films and a critique of them. What makes Haynes’ film work is the fact that there’s rarely a sense that director and cast are feeling in any way smugly superior to the films and the time they’re emulating. The screenplay may go too far in some of its “gee whiz” dialogue, but such dialogue is appropriate to the movies being referenced; it’s to Haynes’ great credit that he never uses this approach for a cheap laugh at the “quaintness” of the era. It’s also instructive that the psychiatrist Frank visits in order to “cure” his homosexuality speaks less of the process as a cure than as a possible path to living as a heterosexual.
Haynes assimilates the era; his film truly inhabits the period it evokes. (If you were alive in the mid ’50s, you may find the coffee mugs, lamps and other props that you remember very clearly are making you feel a bit like a period piece yourself!) The performances are all on-the-money: Julianne Moore is simply brilliant as Cathy, while Dennis Quaid (an actor I’ve never warmed to) captures the heartbreak of a character who isn’t what he is “supposed to be,” and who doesn’t know what to do about it. The whole production is handled with style (the look of the film alone is worth the price of admission) and restraint, at least as concerns what is actually seen — there’s precious little restraint in the emotions being conveyed. It was a masterstroke having Hollywood veteran Elmer Bernstein score Far From Heaven; Bernstein captures exactly the feel of a 1957 flick. (Though he never scored a Sirk film, Bernstein did similar movies in that same era — and it’s hard to believe that the man who wrote the music for Robot Monster doesn’t understand irony!)
Is Far From Heaven, as some have said, the best film of the year? That far I won’t go, but the movie is certainly in the running.