When I heard that the next project of Todd Haynes would be a 1950s-set, Douglas Sirk-style soap opera called Far From Heaven (Focus), I let out a groan. Unlike a lot of auteurists, gays, and gay auteurists, I’ve never been overly enraptured by such lush Sirk/Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson weepers as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955); and I couldn’t imagine how Haynes could reproduce the stylized Hollywood “woman’s picture” conventions of a half-century ago without drifting into high, hooting camp. After Safe (1995), his stunning depiction of Reagan-era soul-sickness, and Velvet Goldmine (1998), his fractured eulogy for glam-rock artifice, this sounded like a foolish regression—at once blandly nostalgic and archly postmodernist.
As it turns out, Far FromHeaven is Haynes’ breakthrough. It isn’t as daringly elliptical as Safe, but it’s so intimate, accessible, and passionate that it makes every other current movie seem anemic. It makes even Sirk seem anemic.
It also grows organically from Haynes’ previous features. His notorious Poison (1991) used three tales of transgression to demonstrate the agony of alienation from mainstream society. (The last story, a homosexual prison romance, was Jean Genet by way of Sirk.) Carol White (Julianne Moore) of Safe was the canary in the coal mine of the ‘80s: Her wasting malady was unspecified, but she was clearly being poisoned by the era’s oppressive materialism and sterile conformity. In VelvetGoldmine, the bisexual liberation of the early ‘70s gave way to a vaguely fascist, Orwellian order in which nonconformist behavior was back under wraps. The heroine of Far From Heaven, Cathy Whitaker (again, Julianne Moore) is Carol White’s ancestor—she even has the same initials. And her values are those that suffocated White (and against which those glam-rockers rebelled).
The setting is a leafy, moneyed Hartford, Conn. At this time (1956) it’s a WASP-y enclave of insurance companies and “modern” corporations like “Magnatech.” Executive Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) and his wife, Cathy, are even known as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech”—a point underlined early on, when a busybody reporter (Bette Henritze) from a local society paper drops by with her photographer to do a story on this role model for “women with families and homes to keep up.” Cathy loves her life, she says, adding, “I’ve never wanted any other.”
Julianne Moore has an uncanny way of bridging her characters’ internal and external selves: She starts on the outside, with a set of performance conventions, and digs her way to her character’s core. Then she works back out to show how that person chose those conventions. Moore’s Cathy lives her life with cheerful yet military precision. The blond hair, the wide smile, the matching outfits, the chirpy syntax—they’re all part of her ‘50s uniform. She revels in being “Mrs. Magnatech,” but not because she has never wanted any other life. It’s because she has never imagined that any other life could exist.
Her husband probably couldn’t have imagined one, either, had nature not played a prank on him. Frank is un-frank; he carries a dark secret. He’s a homosexual. Hiding in his coat and under the shadow of his hat brim, Quaid gives a guarded performance, without Moore’s stylized period verve. In his seething trance, he’s a little drab, a little private. But Quaid does convey the hell of being unable to reconcile private longings with public obligations. When he slips into a movie theater and up a staircase to a back bar, where an assortment of ‘50s homosexual types trade significant glances, he isn’t in heaven or hell. He’s in a kind of limbo.
The frank (so to speak) homosexuality is a departure from Sirk. But it says something about Haynes’ inner world that he doesn’t completely empathize with a closeted homosexual of his parents’ generation. A gay man who has never been in the closet, Haynes doesn’t romanticize the obsessions of this somewhat robotic patriarch. The movie’s only heartfelt relationship is between Cathy and the family’s “Negro” lawn and garden tender, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), to whom she turns for solace—and then something more.
Haysbert’s Raymond is a thick, powerful man with a disarmingly friendly face. In many ways he’s too good to be true: He defies convention by taking his little daughter (Jordan Puryear) to a posh gallery opening, and he discourses eloquently on Miró and the Surrealists. (He likens them to religious paintings of the Renaissance.) But Raymond hasn’t lived through the ‘60s. His nonconformity isn’t expressed through defiance. It’s by going places where people like him don’t go. It’s by being there instead of slinking into the shadows.
Haynes has resisted the impulse to Mandingo-ize the friendship between this beautiful and privileged white woman and her hunky black gardener, and some will find this a frustratingly G-rated pas de deux. But it’s important, I think, that there be no transcendence for Cathy Whitaker. In some ways, her husband is luckier: Although his sexual orientation condemns him to live outside the mainstream, he’s more practiced in the arts of subterfuge. He has a culture of outsiders into which he can retreat, whereas Cathy is dismayingly alone among her judgmental ladies who lunch. And when Raymond takes her to a soul food bar in the black part of town, the blacks seem just as bound by convention as the whites.
The genius of Far From Heaven is in how it hits you viscerally. Almost solely through formal restraint, Haynes communicates how helpless and imprisoned these people are—how hard it is to make a move that hasn’t been choreographed. Tiny flames of passion are reliably stamped out by moralizing friends and family—even by children. A society that styles itself as open is actually rigorously and thoroughly controlled.
Far From Heaven is rigorously controlled, too: I don’t think there’s an image in this entire wide-screen movie that hasn’t been meticulously worked out, from the title card in flowing script to the reds, yellows, and oranges of each autumn leaf. (The interiors of the Whitakers’ modern Colonial—and the trees glimpsed through the windows—were constructed on a sound stage in Bayonne, N.J.) You’re struck by the matching colors and textures of Sandy Powell’s costumes; the bits of film-noir shadow amid cinematographer Ed Lachman’s Technicolor hues; the maraschino cherries in the daiquiris the ladies drink while they confess how many times a week their husbands want to have sex with them; the swish of Cathy’s skirt; the way her mink stole drapes around her shoulders as she heads to the police station to retrieve her detained husband; the clack of her heels as she races in horror down the huge empty corridor of Magnatech after catching her husband in a lip-lock with another man—it’s all worked out to within an inch of its life.
But I never found the movie overcontrolled or airless: That inch is bursting with feeling. The actors aren’t deadened: Their characters are helplessly alive beneath their uniforms. More important, Haynes hasn’t just reproduced the conventions of a Sirk movie: He has gone so deep into his own attraction to Sirk that he has fetishized those conventions. It’s true that Sirk achieved extraordinary intimacy with actresses like Wyman, but there was often a professorial detachment in his frames. Haynes, on the other hand, has infused this re-creation with his own erotic fixation on the textures of ‘50s middlebrow culture. The result is an imitation that surpasses the original on just about every level.
It’s hard to think of a movie so postmodern and infused with irony and at the same time so sincere and emotionally accessible. When the marvelous Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy’s best friend, purrs a line like, “We just threw ourselves one Class A, swanky function!” you laugh at the ‘50s slang, but you register the hunger of this woman for acceptance by her peers. And you can understand why, in New York, the Far From Heaven premiere was thrown with House & Garden magazine. How wonderfully subversive! And how about those gorgeous houses and gardens!