I think it was only a matter of time before Julianne Moore appeared in a 1950's
period piece. Moore has the innate ability to adapt to any time period, just as
she did in the fabulous "An Ideal Husband." But her performance in Todd Haynes'
highly melodramatic "Far From Heaven" is not the performance I expected. Moore
handles the role as well as you can imagine but you have to look beneath the
surface to discover what the film and the performance really mean.
Set in Hartford, Connecticut, Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a picture-perfect
image of the ideal housewife. She is always beaming, drives a stationwagon,
takes good care of her husband and kids, cooks meals, and has regular visits
with her girlfriends about the latest gossip and carpet color-matching schemes.
Her husband, Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), is a workaholic sales executive.
Their image is so picture-perfect that she is constantly photographed in her
home or in other whereabouts like an art gallery. Indeed this whole word seems
too fabricated to really believe, and we are right to have those assumptions.
Just like when nothing seems wrong at the surface, we slowly uncover Frank's
secrets. At the start of the film, Frank is arrested by the police for drunk and
disorderly conduct. Cathy's party proves a bust since she has to pick up him at
the station. But Frank has more up his sleeve when he is discovered kissing
another man at work by Cathy. He is a closeted homosexual and convinces his wife
that he will seek help to "beat this thing." The homosexuality is a threat to
their marriage, not necessarily to the unaware community.
Curiously, the homosexuality awakens Cathy to other things. Sure, she has her
clique of friends including her gabby best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson),
but something is missing. When Cathy finds that she has a new gardener, Raymond
(Dennis Haysbert), she also finds a friend who can really listen to her. The
problem is that Raymond is black and this is the 1950's, long before the
civil-rights movement. Cathy and Raymond become friendly, attend the same
galleries and eat at a restaurant that only blacks frequent. Never mind that
Cathy is absent-minded and fully supports the NAACP, the community looks down at
her as does her husband. In other words, homosexuality is kept in the closet but
racial, non-romantic relations are best left unseen or else you will be shunned.
That kind of hipocrisy has never really been addressed before, and I imagine
that it has more to do with the expected roles of men and women in society.
"Far From Heaven" is directed by Todd Haynes who previously worked with Moore in
"Safe." Haynes has crafted a style for the film to assume the look of a movie
from the 1950's. Curiously, it is not just the filmic style, which incorporates
the use of dissolves as continuity from one scene to the next, as well as the
Technicolor look of those 50's melodramas by director Douglas Sirk with those
high-angle crane shots of leaves in the foreground as we descend upon a familiar
sight - a big house with a white-picket fence. And it is not just the syrupy,
impactful music by Elmer Bernstein, himself a product of those times with his
memorable scores. The acting and dialogue style seems to come from the way
Hollywood movies used to depict those times. In other words, leaving aside the
taboos of race and sexual identity, "Far From Heaven" looks exactly like a film
from the 1950's that has only recently surfaced. The reason for this
postmodernist "Pleasantville"-style may be to dig up the repressed feelings that
were inherent in the Hollywood films of the 50's, and serve them straight up.
For example, race and sexual orientation were barely ever discussed in those
films (the same could hold true of society back then). Thus Haynes finds a way
of articulating those reserved emotions and getting them literally out of the
closet. For example, "ah, geez" is a term you might have heard in some of those
films, but certainly the F-word was never uttered in a Hollywood film until
1970's "MASH." When Frank angrily spews the word, it feels like a sudden shock
of reality since we didn't expect to hear it.
The movie never aims to be parody but its mannered, stylistic speech could
easily have led in that direction. That is why it is hard to know how to respond
to Julianne Moore's performance, which is pitch-perfect in its honing of such
delicate, refined dialogue. The dialogue is not sparkling or poetic yet it is
unironic and well-suited to the time and place it evokes. It can induce laughter
in the audience, such as when Cathy admits to Raymond at the gallery that she is
not prejudiced and supports the NAACP. Again, what can induce laughter is the
very notion that we have been fooled into thinking we are watching a movie from
the 1950's, thus her comments seem shocking. Another noteworthy scene is when
Frank enters a bar for homosexuals, and they look at him with humiliation. This
scene seems directly lifted from a similar moment in 1962's "Advise and Consent"
where Don Murray looked suitably humiliated to be in a club for gays.
"Far From Heaven" is a film buff's dream, a stylistic stretch of the imagination
of a decade that is rarely discussed much anymore. Not only is it a walk back
into the past, it is like Douglas Sirk literally came back from the dead and
made a movie in the same style of his cult films. More significantly, it is
about the possibility of change and of trying to break through the facade by
being yourself. Cathy does change but does not try to change for others. Her
friends shun her but the most heartbreaking scene is when she tells the ousted
Raymond she will visit him in Baltimore. His response is that it is not a good
idea. What Moore and Haynes have done has not really been done before - to
recreate a cinematic past and uncover what was hidden. This is a marvelous film
that grows on you long after the credits.
Copyright © 2003 Jerry Saravia