Far From Heaven Renewed My Faith

Style, substance and originality, too? In 2002? Pass me the smelling salts. But you get all that-and more-in Far From Heaven , the ravishing new film by writer-director Todd Haynes that has already dazzled critics and audiences alike at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, and is now ready to open commercially, in time to energize an otherwise lethargic year at the movies. It will knock you right out of your Reeboks.

An independent thinker with a unique point of view, Mr. Haynes has ignored all those focus groups, market analysts and demographic-research firms employed by Hollywood film companies to kill off good movies before they come out of the starting gate, and created a highly personal vision of a time-honored genre-the so-called women’s pictures of the 1950′s. Although he looks too young to have been weaned on all those ripe, superficial Technicolor Universal tear-jerkers from producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk that shaped an entire nation of moviegoers, Mr. Haynes knows the territory. His passion is inspired by the bright colors, lavish sets and intense camerawork that were Douglas Sirk’s trademarks in Magnificent Obsession , Imitation of Life , Written on the Wind and especially the 1955 domestic weepie All That Heaven Allows , and the tradition of heartbreak glazed with glamour leaks through every luxurious frame. But Mr. Haynes is not interested in remakes; using All That Heaven Allows as a template, he constructs a revisionist arc beyond the perimeters of 50′s melodrama to reveal the dark shadows lurking behind those perfect organdy curtains. In All That Heaven Allows (1955), valentine-faced Jane Wyman played a lonely widow who scandalizes her friends, her children and the snobs in her Connecticut country club when she falls in love with a younger hunk (Rock Hudson) who also happens to be (holy hairspray!) her flannel-shirted and perennially tanned gardener. This conflict may be silly and dated now, but in the repressive Eisenhower era, it was a cause for much heavy breathing among frustrated housewives (Rock was a heady alternative to the Betty Crocker cookbook) and sexually confused teenage girls and boys (some of whom did not, at the time, know why).

Half a century later, along comes the gifted and precocious Mr. Haynes, who offers a tantalizing second look at an innocent period in our national consciousness when the man brought home the bacon and the evening paper, the woman was an expert in shopping, gardening, home economics and doing good works for charity between helping with the kids’ homework assignments and achieving the perfection of seven different kinds of melted Velveeta cheese dips, and everybody’s idea of family values was Ozzie and Harriet. But, ponders Mr. Haynes, what if Ozzie was secretly gay, and the gardener Harriet fell for was black? Homosexuality, prejudice, interracial relations-subjects forbidden on the screen in the gray-on-gray 50′s-could fuel real hatred and gossip, and setting the new film in the identical time frame turns the concept for All That Heaven Allows into something very Far From Heaven , indeed.

In an affluent suburb of Hartford, where gorgeous autumn leaves and white steepled churches against hard blue skies contrast sharply with the conflicted secrets unraveling inside the perfect houses with the perfect lawns on the perfect streets, Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) are the perfect couple. Her shoes and handbags always match, her Lana Turner hair never moves even in a snowstorm, she’s a role model to her bridge club, and she works at perfection 24 hours of every perfect day with her apron tied, her geraniums watered and the check for the milkman all made out in advance. (Think The Donna Reed Show .) He’s a handsome sales executive with the Magnatech TV company (think Magnavox), a perfect dad to his kids and a man’s man to his pals on the golf course (think Fred MacMurray). But he starts staying late at the office, missing all those perfect meat-loaf dinners and hanging around the picture show after dark. (When a lonely, neglected husband watches The Three Faces of Eve all by himself, you know there’s trouble in River City-especially if there’s a gay bar in the alley next door.) Late one night, Cathy takes Frank’s dinner to the office to surprise him with a home-cooked meal and finds him locking lips with another man. Their perfect world crashes: Cathy turns for consolation to the black handyman (Dennis Haysbert), who is a sensitive widower with an 11-year-old daughter to raise and the most compassionate man she knows; Frank turns to psychiatric treatment to achieve a “heterosexual conversion” (in those days, shock treatments were believed to cure limp wrists); and there goes the neighborhood. Even their best friend (the marvelous Patricia Clarkson, in the Agnes Moorehead role) deserts them in their anguish. This is not a parody of period melodramas. Mr. Haynes’ revelations about how little the basic fears of sexual orientation, racism, prejudice and divorce have changed in 50 years are valid, relevant and timeless. But the most unsettling thing about Far From Heaven is the impact it has on feminist aesthetics. In All That Heaven Allows , Jane Wyman came to her senses in time for a happy ending laminated with the glow of a backlot sunset. No such easy answer is provided for Cathy. Despite his decency and integrity, the black man she comes to love leaves town convinced that the races cannot peacefully co-exist in Hartford. Despite his respect and admiration for his family, the husband finds a new life with a boy half his age. Everyone moves on-except the wife. The woman who devoted herself to public perfection, being whatever people wanted her to be, is the one who is left in a private hell with no skills and no prospects, alone with her menus, her waxed floors and her maternal responsibilities. The ultimate irony is that the centrifugal force behind every other life in the film is left with no life of her own. Even in lush Technicolor with an Elmer Bernstein score, all that noble sacrifice won’t keep you warm on a cold winter night.

To fully appreciate how Mr. Haynes has enhanced the feelings and emotions behind the superficial values that camouflaged the darker, unspoken issues in those old Hollywood melodramas with Susan Hayward, Jane Wyman, Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck, I think it’s important to contrast the film’s volatile themes with the period in which it’s set. It’s a great hommage to a legendary director, but even if you’ve never heard of Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven is a joyous cinematic experience, with an overwhelming visual artistry that surpasses even the films it honors. I’ve never seen an independent production on a limited budget that looks so grand and rich and opulent. The crisp, magnificent cinematography by Edward Lachman and the dreamy, soaring music by Elmer Bernstein are Oscar-worthy throwbacks to the golden era of American filmmaking. The period clothes, the terrible Art Deco furniture, the clean and shiny station wagons, the fruity indirect lighting with people silhouetted by lamps, the luscious Technicolor-no film in the past decade has been more breathtaking to look at. The performances are flawless. As the tortured husband whose deceptively straight-and-narrow road takes an unexpected detour, Dennis Quaid has the biggest stretch in the picture, but his honesty and discipline win total sympathy. Far from a villain, he comes off as merely the right guy trapped in the wrong era. As the sad, beautiful conduit through which the events are recorded and the ironies filter, Julianne Moore is simply stupendous. The warm, vibrant shine in her eyes, contrasted with her graceful self-assuredness, makes for a disarming central presence, and Mr. Haynes structures her gradual change from naïveté to cynicism with such careful complexity that she lands every punch with devastating power. She won the Best Actress prize in Venice for this film. Isn’t it about time she won the Oscar, too?

My hat is off to any director whose sensibilities lie in plot, character development and traditional narrative thrust, who can utilize every element of the filmmaking process from set design to camera angles with flair and still say something meaningful and contemporary without tricks and technology. Every element in Far From Heaven harmonizes, in the kind of colossal achievement that revives my faith in movies and keeps me coming back for more.

Eloise’s Encore

Brilliant, talented, eccentric and fab fab fab, Kay Thompson was, among other things, Judy Garland’s vocal coach at MGM, Liza Minnelli’s godmother, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn’s co-star in Funny Face , and the creator of Eloise, the 6-year-old imp who lived at the Plaza Hotel. In four best-selling children’s books, Eloise was bad bad bad, which made millions of readers glad glad glad. Now Simon & Schuster is reissuing them all, with the brand-new installment reaching the bookstore shelves in time for Christmas. From her gilt-edged salon over the rainbow, Kay is probably mad mad mad.

You see, when the legendary Kay died in 1998, bald as an eagle and mysterious as Garbo at 88, looking rather like Isak Dinesen on a diet of peacock eggs, she took Eloise with her. Kay was Eloise; Eloise was Kay. Alter egos, you know. But the original illustrator, artist-illustrator Hilary Knight, has now published Eloise Takes a Bawth , the fifth and final installment, which Kay worked on for four years while she was living in a palazzo in Rome and buried with her vintage Aztec fashion accessories and Kay Kyser records for 40 more. If she knew her estate had signed a multimedia licensing deal for a new generation to profit from Eloise, she’d probably have a fit fit fit. But do we care? Eloise is back, and being glum glum glum is just dumb dumb dumb.

In 1955, when Eloise first skipped out of Kay’s rhythmic, finger-snapping brain to pour water down the Plaza mail chute and order a single raisin from room service (“And charge it, please”), the book cost $2.95. Times have changed. Eloise Takes a Bawth will set you back $17.95, but it’s worth worth worth it. The world is 40 years older, but Eloise is still only 6. Mr. Knight’s refurbished sketches retain all of her mischief and charm charm charm without one bit of harm harm harm, and Kay’s original ideas have been enhanced in a text text text by playwright Mart ( The Boys in the Band ) Crowley that makes you want to yell, “Next next next!” I can just see Kay back in 1960, on a spree spree spree, devising a plan for Eloise to overflow the tub and flood the hotel on the night of the Venetian Masked Ball with glee glee glee. So delight the precocious brats in your life this holiday season with Eloise Takes a Bawth . Better yet, delight yourself. But get it fast fast fast, because this is the last last last.