Saturday, June 29, 2013

Not Even the Cleavers are Really the Cleavers

Film: Far from Heaven
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

One of the things I have really enjoyed about watching all of these films on the 1001 Movies list is the number of interesting discoveries I’ve made. Not only have I found a bunch of films that I really like, I’ve also discovered directors whose work I will now start seeking out. Todd Haynes is one such director. I’ve seen two of his films now and while the biggest similarity is the presence of Julianne Moore, there is a strange connection between them. Haynes comes across as a more socially acceptable David Lynch, or at least one who hits some of the same topics without all of the concomitant weirdness that goes along with Lynch. In other words, if you want to like Lynch or think you should but just can’t, try something by Todd Haynes.

What makes a film like Far from Heaven interesting is that it deals with some modern issues, but in the context of the 1950s. What we can freely and openly talk about—in this case homosexuality and interracial relationships—were taboos to the point of the ideas being non-existent in the world of this film.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) lives the perfect 1950s upper-middle class lifestyle. She raises her kids (with the assistance of live-in help Sybil, a thankless role played beautifully by Viola Davis), attends and hosts parties, involves herself in the community, and otherwise lives and acts like she should be living next door to the Cleavers. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is an advertising executive who maybe works too hard, but is a good provider for the family. So it’s disturbing when one night he doesn’t come home. Cathy gets a call from the police station—Frank is being held until she comes to get him. On the drive home, he tells her it was a misunderstanding with the police.

But it wasn’t. Frank is hiding the darkest secret a man in the 1950s could hide: he has homosexual impulses. Cathy catches him in a passionate embrace with a man at the end of the first act, which leads to Frank entering conversion therapy and slowly descending into alcoholism. At the same time, Cathy strikes up an acquaintance with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the son of her late gardener. In conversation, Cathy discovers that the only real divide between the two of them is the frowned-upon racial one. Raymond is intelligent, well-educated, and as successful as a black man can be in 1950s Connecticut. It’s also important that he is raising his daughter Sarah (Jordan Puryear) on his own since the death of his wife.

What happens, of course, is inevitable. As Frank begins to pull away from Cathy and fall into alcoholism and his own inner demons, Cathy begins to draw closer to Raymond, first as a sympathetic ear, and then as potentially more. When Cathy and Raymond are spotted by a small-minded town gossip, it occurred to me that Far from Heaven is very much a race-infused retelling of the story in All that Heaven Allows, albeit with far less melodrama.

Haynes is masterful with the storytelling here despite any similarity to other films. Cathy’s situation is one that puts her in the middle of two scandals, both of which she is helpless to do anything about. In the world of today, her husband’s homosexuality is by far the more controversial and shocking issue (and even that is less shocking than it was when this film was made). But in the film world, Haynes gets us to realize that Cathy spending time with a black widower is, if not more shocking to the other people in the film, something equally scandal worthy. The fact that their romance is not even a real romance doesn’t matter; the very appearance of her even spending time with Raymond is something that, well, nice white women in Eisenhower’s America just don’t do.

Haynes also uses a soundtrack that is appropriate for the film and reminiscent of films from the 1950s. It’s subtle, but brilliantly so. We know in our hearts that there is no way this film can end well, or end in the way we would like it to today, but the soundtrack so easily calls up films that invariably ended on a high note that we keep our hopes up the whole time.

Julianne Moore, of course, is wonderful. No surprises there—she was Oscar-nominated for the role. Dennis Quaid is likewise excellent, showing real skill in playing a man this deeply conflicted. It is Dennis Haysbert, though, who very much makes his presence known. He is a commanding screen presence here. He towers over the other men in the film, a subtle indication of the virility that so worries everyone else in this Connecticut town. His voice equally demands attention.

Far from Heaven is surprisingly moving. It’s also smartly manipulative. The vast majority of people today immediately sympathize both with Cathy and with Raymond, and many will sympathize with Frank’s internal plight. Setting the film in a time when none of them can end up happy is brilliant, and makes everything work.

I’m going to watch for more Todd Haynes in the future. So far from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t missed yet.

Why to watch Far from Heaven: Topics that are still modern touch points for some.
Why not to watch: If you’re homophobic or racist, it will anger you.


  1. I haven't seen this one yet, but I'm really looking forward to seeing it for Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore. I have a massive girl crush on Julianne Moore, and even though she's done some less-than-awesome movies, she herself is always perfect (and nice to read you thought she was good here). I really enjoyed your paragraph about Lynch v. Haynes. I think I definitely fall in the camp of "think I should like Lynch but don't."

    1. The biggest issue with the film is that it can really only get to one place, and it's not a place you'll like.

      It has that Lynchian "small town gone wrong" feel to it, though. It struck me 20 minutes in how much this (and Safe for that matter) feel like publicly acceptable Lynch.

    2. I loved this movie for all the reasons you said. One of the things that I particularly liked was how Haynes captured that super-saturated '50's Technicolor glow that was characteristic of the Sirk films.

    3. Yes! It looks and sounds like a film made in the 1950s. Even the plot works like a '50s film despite being a plot that could never happen in a film made in that decade.

  2. I liked Far from Heaven. I just saw All That Heaven Allows a few days ago and as you were describing Far from Heaven it was reminding me of the other film, so I was glad when you also mentioned it. YOu have to wonder if the title was also inspired by it. I thought Quaid did one of his better jobs, too, as a man struggling with who he is vs. who he thinks he should be.

    I have to admit Safe didn't do much for me. Haynes is 1 for 2 with me. I just checked to see if I could recommend anything else he's done, but he's only made a few movies. Velvet Goldmine has had some good words said about it, but I've never happened to see it.

    Another one I heard about, but did not see is I'm Not There. It got all the press because of the various people, including Cate Blanchett, playing Bob Dylan, but I believe reaction to the film was mixed and decidedly "meh" from people who were not Dylan fans. Since Blanchett received an Oscar nomination, this would put it on your Watching Oscar list anyway, and give you a double excuse to see it.

    1. I thought the same thing about the title. It almost has to be a reference or an homage, doesn't it? As Marie pointed out above, Far from Heaven really looks like a Douglas Sirk film.

      I was really taken with Safe. It's one of the few "Magic Flashdrive" films that I've kept to watch again. I'm Not There is one I am very interested in seeing, in part because of what I've heard, but more because I am a fan of old gravel throat.

  3. Steve, you should definitely check out I'm Not There. I loved it and wouldn't call myself a big Bob Dylan fan. I haven't seen Far From Heaven since the theaters, but I really enjoyed it at that point. The performances are all excellent, and it owes a lot to Douglas Sirk like you mention. It's great you were able to catch up with this gem.

    1. I've been really lucky buying things for The List sight unseen. Far from Heaven is one I'm glad to have in my collection.

  4. I was about halfway through Far From Heaven when I started thinking about why I was enjoying it so much. I sometimes get a kick out of old "weepies" with Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, or the films of Douglas Sirk that this film homages. I liked Imitation of Life a lot mostly for Lana Turner, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner trying SO HARD that you had to give them an "A" for effort, and the result is so darned entertaining that criticism seems completely unnecessary. And Rock Hudson is so good in Magnificent Obsession! I also like Otto Krufer's weird little performance a lot.

    But I was feeling a whole other level of enjoyment for Far from Heaven, much like what I feel for the best films in my favorite genres, like horror or comedy.

    I remembered Far From Heaven was directed by Todd Haynes, and then I started watching Julianne Moore's performance a little more closely, and in a few minutes it hit me. Far From Heaven is a parody. A very subtle, very loving, carefully crafted parody of the kinds of films that Douglas Sirk made. At first I was thinking that the script was a little tongue in cheek, but the actors were playing it straight, but now I think it's the other way around. Julianne Moore is a perfect housewife, prim and proper, but more like a character from an SNL skit making fun of 1950s sitcoms. But without any over-the-top laughs to give it away. And Dennis Quaid's blubbery self-loathing very much reminded me of attitudes in films like Children's Hour or Advise and Consent, and then carried over into a domestic weepie. I was sure he was going to kill himself, probably at a party or in front of the family.

    There is more than a little John Waters in this movie, just without the scratch and sniff cards, the foot fetishes and the porn crusaders. And no Edith Massey!

    Bravo! Had I known it was anything like this, I would have watched Far From Heaven long ago!