Prepare yourself for an unashamed beauty such as modern movies seldom yield to. Float on a swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, that essential movie composer of the 1950s. Be ready for a wide-screen composition of four women on a suburban lawn of Kelly green, and the gorgeous clash of their billowing skirts, in rose pink, vermilion, amber and scarlet. Or Scarlett?
Yes, these are attributions of color that might serve as emblematic names in melodrama. I’m talking about the new Todd Haynes movie, “Far From Heaven,” one of the headiest experiences of the fall — a picture that could as easily have been titled “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind” or even “Gone With the Wind.” For here we are in Hartford, Conn., in 1957 (where you are entitled to read “heartland” for Hartford, meaning not just the core of Eisenhower’s America, but a promise of heartfelt feeling). I don’t think any major American picture since “Pulp Fiction” has been so brazen, so radiant even, about saying, “Here’s a story (if you like), but more important, here’s a certain type of movie.”
There’s the rub. “Pulp Fiction” is a commonly recognized genre, a stew of noir, sex, violence and intrigue, done with flat-out speed and hard-boiled idioms. Kids and their parents were hip to the riffs Quentin Tarantino was playing off Bogart or Mitchum tunes. But surely in 2002 there are going to be some people who wonder why they’re being asked to dwell on this sad story of people from 1957, antiques of desire and repression who seem unable to solve their problems. Fifty years of television and its 12-step dramas have instilled the ridiculous American orthodoxy that we can all make ourselves whole and wholesome. (It’s only in life that people do 20 years with a shrink, clinging onto their condition, while having affairs with other patients encountered in the shrink’s waiting room.)
To be blunt, “Far From Heaven,” which opens Nov. 8, has a narrative pressure, a suggestive color scheme and a stress on camera style that asks, “Why, why on Earth (or in heaven) doesn’t Julianne Moore take her scarlet dress and her tender black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) off into the mauve rhododendrons and have the great bloom of orgasm she yearns for?” Think of that composition!
Not that “Far From Heaven” ever lapses into camp or coyness. These days, it might be more audience-friendly if it teased the old genre. To the contrary, Haynes has made an authentic homage, faithful and fond. But that approach to the film can hardly be posted on screen as an introduction, no matter that the following excellent film history is the second paragraph in the press book prepared by Focus Features: ” ‘Far From Heaven’ tells the story of a privileged housewife in 1950s America, and is inspired by the great Hollywood ‘women’s’ films of that era.”
Haynes vividly evokes the intense colors and visual style of filmmaker Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life,” “Written on the Wind”) to depict the teeming, oppressive surfaces of middle-class, mid-century America and the furtive, life-shattering desires that fester beneath them.
Renewed respect for genre
The “women’s picture,” of course, is a description from before the dawn of feminism. Yet it refers to an honorable genre in American screen history, one that concentrates on the emotional plight or solitude of ardent yet wronged women, and which seemingly is directed at the women in the audience.
That covers Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” or “Broken Blossoms”; Gish again in “The Wind,” directed by Victor Sjšstršm; Janet Gaynor in several films by F.W. Murnau (“Sunrise”) or Frank Borzage (“Seventh Heaven”); to say nothing of such classic “weepies” as Joan Crawford in “Mannequin” (also by Borzage); Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas” (by King Vidor); Loretta Young in “Man’s Castle” (again Borzage); Irene Dunne or Margaret Sullavan in two versions of “Back Street” (the one by John M. Stahl, the other by Robert Stevenson); Olivia de Havilland in “To Each His Own” (by Mitchell Leisen); and even Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.”
That last entry stretches the point, I concede, because Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is so feisty, so active and so selfish that she shades into the kind of woman played by Bette Davis. Still, Scarlett has stretches of self-pity and an ultimate inability to get and keep her man. By contrast, it is Melanie (De Havilland) who stays loyal to the sweet, passive hope that Gish embodied and which is still to be found in Joan Fontaine in Max OphŸls’ “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” and which makes Crawford the emotional patsy for her grasping daughter in “Mildred Pierce.”
Now, serious film criticism has seldom known where to place such films, no matter that “Sunrise,” “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and “The Wind” are often put in the pantheon. Still there was the assumption that women’s pictures were “novelettish,” “trashy” or “overdone,” all of which ignores the way “Mildred Pierce,” say, is a trenchant study of money, work and marriage, while just about any great close-up of Garbo leads one to wonder if the cinema has a finer message than the emotional wistfulness of mistreated women, or women who have fallen into the gap between reality and hope.
I trust that the titles mentioned already are enough to reawaken respect for a genre, without need of “feminist” interpretation. But the case of Douglas Sirk is subtler and more intriguing. And it is Sirk whom Haynes has his eyes on. Detlef Sierck (1900-87) was probably born in Denmark, reason enough to say that other Scandinavian directors, including Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, have excelled in this genre. Sirk went to Germany and became a prolific director of theater who began making movies in the ’30s. Two of those films, “Zu Neuen Ufern” and “La Habanera,” both starring Zarah Leander, a dark-haired Garbo look-alike, are outstanding melodramas.
Critiques of complacency
Sirk came to Hollywood in 1939 and stayed. But it was only in the 1950s, at Universal, that he discovered his own kind of women’s picture. Working for producers Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, he delivered pictures that nag at the false conventions in America of the ’50s, that make the most of unpromising actors and that develop a critique of American complacency. These are also pictures in which color, composition, decor and sweeping camera movements are inseparable from the depth of feeling and the rising current of social irony. But just listen to the titles, soaring and interchangeable: “All I Desire,” “Magnificent Obsession” (a remake), “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind,” “The Tarnished Angels” (an adaptation of Faulkner’s novel “Pylon”) and “Imitation of Life” (another remake).
All those films played in the ’50s and did pretty well at the box office. It was an innocent moment perhaps, one that hardly knew that Rock Hudson — one of Sirk’s frequent stars — was gay, and was very happy with him as a gentle, healing man for such lovelorn wrecks as Jane Wyman offered in “Magnificent Obsession” and “All That Heaven Allows.” Like many American films of that era, they first won critical acclaim in France. Franois Truffaut was a great admirer of “Written on the Wind,” and why not? It is, maybe, the most accessible of Sirk’s films in that it plays off the palatable notion that the children of the rich (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, as the scions of big oil) are depraved or impotent, vicious and self-destructive, while true feeling rests with simpler souls (Hudson and Lauren Bacall).
As I write that, I realize how tempting or natural it is, in 2002, to spice the synopsis with sarcasm and camp glee. But on the screen, in the ’50s, Sirk presented his stories with an absorbed, mounting hysteria in which a discerning eye could feel the metaphorical reach of the crackup. That was true in other films made in the ’50s, when a few directors were trying to signal “Lies!” and “Fraud!” from within the impacted prosperity and confidence of the age. There is melodramatic critique akin to that of Sirk in Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life,” in Robert Aldrich’s “Autumn Leaves” and in Otto Preminger’s “Angel Face.”
But those films were acute and subversive just because they were set in current times. They were real tests of an audience, urging it to look beneath apparent content (the happy ending) to the disturbing hysteria of style. “Far From Heaven” has re-created that style, and Ed Lachman’s camerawork (already rewarded at the Venice Film Festival) is a fall riot of drenched colors. But retaining the ’50s setting, it seems to me, is a mistake, and one that may leave the film too remote.
The “happy” marriage built on lies is as current now as ever. There are still perfect husbands (like Dennis Quaid here — really marvelous) screaming to get out of the closet, just as there are immaculate wives who hardly realize how far they long for emotional truth and an orgasm of their own. I don’t know Hartford, but in the private school world of Pacific Heights in San Francisco, there would still be a frisson if one of our Julianne Moores (forget the A-line dress — she’d wear gym gear now) collected her 5-year-old with a black man in tow, and one a little sexier than Mr. Haysbert. In other words, the path of social commentary by means of the women’s picture is still begging to be taken.
David Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” which was published this month by Knopf.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times