“I can’t shoot straight anymore.”
Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) – All that Heaven Allows (1955)
A few years ago there was a sudden revival of interest in 1950s America thanks to the HBO series MAD MEN which turned an ironic eye towards the sexual politics and consumerist style of the era. Around the same time there was a complete reprint of the brilliant novels and short stories of Richard Yates who was the chronicler of the ‘age of anxiety’ where the impossible hopes and dreams of the post war were turning sour. His most famous novel was adapted by pre-SKYFALL Sam Mendes, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008) , with DiCaprio and Kate Winslett playing the couple being wracked with bitterness beneath the surface of suburban respectability.
The Eisenhower period was filled with contradictions and ethical paradoxes stifled by an overwhelming uptight and conservative culture which are ripe for artistic investigation. The melodramas of the time were, on surface, saccharine, technicolor affairs made popular by director Douglas Sirk. His films have been subsequently reinterpreted by feminist critics as being more subversive working within the mainstream Hollywood system. ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955), for example, features Jane Wyman has a widow who is encouraged by her grown-up children to stay at home and watch television as they get on with their lives. She tacitly resists and forms a friendship with the gardener, Ron Kirby, which is frowned upon by her friends and family because of the class differences. The director uses some hooky visual metaphors to illustrate the repressed desires, such as framing the action by a reflection in a TV screen, or the appearance of a white stag at the end when she finally turns her back on a relationship with Kirby. The subsequent reinterpretation of this film has been given an extra frisson when it was revealed that Rock Hudson was gay. Sirk is a touchstone of transgression within the system.
It is not surprising that the film Todd Haynes chose to pastiche this film to make the sub-text of repression more pronounced in FAR FROM HEAVEN. His calling card was the kitsch-classic, SUPERSTAR:THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1988) a short film depicting the life of the troubled celebrity using barbie dolls. He went on to shape New Queer Cinema with POISON (1991) and became a favourite of American Independent cinema with the chilling SAFE (1995) and the honorable failure VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) which attempted to get to the heart of glam-rock and found that there wasn’t one. FAR FROM HEAVEN was his first attempt to break into the mainstream so he used the melodramatic cloak of Sirk to slip under the radar.
Julianne Moore gives a poised, statuesque performance as home-maker Cathy Whitaker who, at the beginning of the film is being interviewed by the local newspaper. Her family are the subject of a feature in the paper as they represent the epitome of wholesome 50’s America. During the interview she is distracted by a stranger walking through the garden who she assumes is an intruder. The stranger is Raymond, the adult son of her regular gardener who has been recently widowed. The reporter observes that he is black and on seeing them talk together, she includes a passage of comment in her report that Cathy is “kind to negros”. There’s an obvious nod to Sirk in the burgeoning relationship between Cathy and Raymond, who is played with remarkable stoicism by Dennis Haysbert (before he became the President of America) and the ‘clamour’ within the conservative community.
Haynes uses the autumnal colours, dark tones and cranks up the sense of repression and fear by having the camera constantly moving from above and prying into the darkness. The relatively chaste relationship between Cathy and Raymond is counterpointed against her husband Frank (Denis Quaid) who she discovers having a homosexual affair while visiting his office late at night. He admits his ‘perversion’ and offers to be ‘cured’ by psychotherapy, which promises full ‘hetro-sexual conversion’. At the subsequent dinner parties, society seems to hold Cathy responsible for her husband’s decline into heavy drinking. They are less accepting of her relationship with Raymond and petty prejudices become nasty.
The nastiness is heightened by the intensity of the colours and inarticulate melodramatic form. Its a powerful cinematic experience because it borrows the superficial trappings of 1950s film to lend a deep insight into the paradoxical darkness of an age.