Far From Heaven: Bold, Adroit, But I Resent Anti-50’s Overkill

Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven , from his own screenplay, is well worth seeing for its visual approximation of the Douglas Sirk–Ross Hunter “women’s pictures” of the 50’s, several with closet-gay icon Rock Hudson as the male lead. Having reached adulthood and even gone into the Army during the Korean War in the 50’s, I find that I have problems with Mr. Haynes’ mode of mixing genres in the guise of “exposing” the dark corners of our national life in the Eisenhower years. The fact that Rock Hudson didn’t reveal his homosexuality in his screen roles during this period does not in itself make his Sirk-Hunter vehicles retroactively ironic. There is still a closet in Hollywood, and though the subject is discussed more openly today than it was in the 50’s, it’s rumored that an actor was recently denied a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for which he was favored because he had brazenly appeared in public with his younger gay companion.

As for the dark shadow of racial discrimination, the Sirk-Hunter team followed in the footsteps of John Stahl’s 1934 version of Fannie Hurst’s tear-jerker, Imitation of Life , about a light-skinned African-American (Fredi Washington in the original) who tried to “pass” as white despite the warnings of her darker-skinned mother, played by Louise Beavers. In the 1959 remake, Caucasian actress Susan Kohner played the light-skinned African-American who failed to heed the warnings of her dark-skinned mother (Juanita Moore) about “passing.” This casting of white for black would not have been tolerated in the more racist 30’s. Still, even by the late 40’s, there were several “civil rights” movies that denounced discrimination without suggesting the removal of the ban on miscegenation. And the 50’s were not entirely lily-white, at least on the screen.

I don’t have any idea what was going on in 1957 in Hartford, the supposed setting of Far from Heaven . Julianne Moore has been cast as Cathy Whitaker, the perfect suburban wife and mother in the perfect home, a character modeled more on 50’s sitcoms than on the actual 50’s incarnations of Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows . With her ridiculous blond wig and wide-eyed sincerity, Ms. Moore elicited condescending giggles from the largely youthful, hip audience at the screening I attended. How ridiculous people were back in the 50’s! But to believe that, you’d have to forget every contrarian movie made in that decade, from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in 1950 to Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. Indeed, the 50’s are still my favorite moviemaking decade, both here and abroad, but it would take me too long to explain why.

Instead, I would suggest that Mr. Haynes has indulged in sentimental overkill to make Cathy so earnest and self-sacrificing, her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) so convulsively anguished about his gay instincts, and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), the African-American gardener who allows Cathy to reach out to him in her moments of emotional distress, so noble and rational as to make Sidney Poitier at his noblest seem a competitive rascal. I once wrote that the problem Mr. Poitier faced in all his leading roles was, to reverse Jean-Paul Sartre’s axiom, that his essence preceded his existence. This is the difference between the racial problem and the sexual-orientation problem: The former is evident from the outset, and the latter requires an overt act, like the one witnessed by Cathy when she catches Frank kissing another man-and then helpfully agrees with her husband that he needs medical help to cure his addiction. How ridiculously 50’s can you get?

Mr. Haynes and his gifted cinematographer, Edward Lachman, deserve full credit for reproducing Sirk’s audacious magnification in the characters played by Ms. Moore, Mr. Quaid and Mr. Haysbert-a sign that Mr. Haynes, like Sirk before him, takes the sufferings of his characters seriously and does not look down on them from some safe and lofty vantage point. Yet even with Sirk, whom I championed in The American Cinema at a time when he was much less fashionable than he is today, I always appreciated his romantic works like Magnificent Obsession (1954); All That Heaven Allows (1955); Written on the Wind (1956)-though I preferred the book’s ending; The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (both 1958); and Imitation of Life (1959). Truth to tell, Mr. Haynes is too much the ironist to satisfy my craving for full-bodied romanticism. I suppose it can be argued that this is more my problem than his, and so be it.

Mesmerizing Frida

Julie Taymor’s Frida , from a screenplay by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, based on a book by Hayden Herrera, has been demeaned, if not dismissed, by some of my esteemed colleagues as just another biopic about an artist. I disagree vehemently. After all, I cannot recall Greer Garson, Luise Rainer or even the blessed Bette Davis putting on a sensual show like Salma Hayek does as Frida Kahlo, giving us a full soft-core display of the painter’s promiscuity and bisexuality. Yet Frida is never sordid or tasteless, thanks to Ms. Taymor’s stylized treatment of the Diego Rivera–Frida Kahlo mythology and her canny pacing of the action. Frida is announced in the credits as a film “by” Julie Taymor. That little preposition once got the late Otto Preminger in trouble with the Screenwriters’ Guild, whose members chortled at Nelson Algren’s joke: “I drove past Otto Preminger’s house yesterday. Oops, I forgot. It was a house by Otto Preminger.” How times have changed! Not that there’s any doubt that Ms. Taymor deserves her auteurial preposition. In addition to the playful animation sequences and her two-dimensional collages of Frida and Diego in New York, Ms. Taymor gets magnificent performances from Ms. Hayek as Frida and Alfred Molina as the oversexed Diego Rivera, who promised to be “loyal” to Frida but not “faithful.” For once, I found the film’s name-dropping-including Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky and Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller-fascinating both as a glimpse of the maelstrom of the 30’s political history and as an evocation of the Frida-Diego world view, which was too worshipful of Lenin for Rockefeller and too loyal to the dethroned Trotsky for the Stalinist Communist Party around the world to approve.

Not to worry: Frida is no dry political tract-not with all the sensual lubrication the film receives from Frida’s ultra-suggestive tango with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and her restaurant seduction of one of her husband’s conquests, Gracie (Saffron Burrows). Frida’s unending surgical ordeals and her almost-constant pain get her off the hook somewhat for such unconventional behavior from a movie heroine. Still, she draws the line with Diego when he makes love to Frida’s susceptible sister. The on-again, off-again antics of Frida and Diego never become tedious because of their deep spiritual, artistic and physical rapport, which Ms. Taymor and her screenwriters manage to preserve despite the messy distractions inevitable in two such rebelliously bohemian lives. Frida’s supportive father, played by Roger Rees, deserves special mention for the gentle thoughtfulness he contributed to his daughter’s self-esteem.

Who, Me?

I recently caught a peculiar outer-space parody called Galaxy Quest , in which Tim Allen contemptuously addresses a monstrous-looking antagonist as “Sarris.” I don’t hold this apparent animosity against the talented Mr. Allen; the use of my name in this context was reportedly the revenge of the producer for my having panned one of his earlier movies. Though my namesake came to a predictably bad end, I was amused and a bit touched by this reference to a Halloween birthday boy like me.