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Like Orson Welles, Todd Haynes has been both blessed and cursed by beginning his career with a masterpiece. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, writer-director Haynes’ 1987 breakthrough, is arguably the most intelligent and surely the most resourceful American film of the last two decades. Exhibited theatrically only in D.C., after which it was withdrawn from distribution in response to a lawsuit by Carpenter’s brother, Richard, Superstar is an astonishingly complex work forged from the most meager materials: Barbie dolls, homemade shadow-box sets, snippets of found footage. In 43 densely packed minutes, Haynes manages, among other things, to chronicle the pop singer’s tragically brief life and career, parody the conventions of showbiz docudramas, explain the causes and treatment of anorexia, and link the disease to the repressiveness of sacrosanct American institutions—the nuclear family, corporate capitalism, and the media-driven political system.

Haynes’ three subsequent features, Poison (1991), Safe (1995), and Velvet Goldmine (1998), proved to be formally and thematically challenging, but none had the impact of Superstar, which continues to circulate in illicit, grainy video dubs. With any luck, the new Far From Heaven, a brilliant postmodern replication of ’50s Hollywood melodramas, will finally attract the audience that Haynes’ work deserves. Although the movie is accessible to any viewer, one can’t fully appreciate what the director is up to without knowing something about the films of Douglas Sirk, whose 1955 All That Heaven Allows served as Haynes’ template.

The Hamburg-born Sirk made a handful of movies in Germany in the late ’30s; then flight from Nazi oppression led him to Hollywood. After a string of unheralded low-budget films, he ended up at Universal-International, the most commercial and least ambitious of studios. There, frequently working with producer Ross Hunter, he specialized in a maligned genre: the “women’s picture.”

Largely dismissed and often mocked by reviewers, these soapy ’50s melodramas—among them There’s Always Tomorrow, Written on the Wind, and remakes of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life—nevertheless drew large audiences. In the ’70s, a decade after Sirk had retired from Hollywood and returned to Germany, a new generation of critics and filmmakers, including maverick director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, re-examined his work and discovered that Sirk had used his glamorous casts and vibrant sets and costumes to camouflage withering critiques of American bourgeois values.

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All That Heaven Allows, which Haynes cites as his favorite Sirk movie, is among the director’s most powerful statements. A lonely middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) in a cloistered New England town falls in love with her much younger, Rousseau-ian gardener (Rock Hudson.) Initially, she attempts to rise above the conformist censure of her selfish, status-conscious children and snobby country-club set, but social ostracism pressures her into terminating the relationship. Although compromised by a tacked-on happy ending—so absurdly written and directed that a child would scoff at it—Sirk’s film bluntly denounces the middle-class morality that conspires to quash the sexual and emotional fulfillment of those who dare to deviate from its norms.

In 1974, Fassbinder remade All That Heaven Allows as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, updating the setting to contemporary Germany and changing the protagonists to an elderly charwoman and a young Algerian immigrant. Haynes ups the ante by recycling not only the original’s plot, but also Sirk’s delirious ’50s studio style, employing many of the director’s trademarks: House Beautiful interiors, designer gowns, expressionist color schemes, raked camera angles, rear projection, mirrors strategically placed to reflect the inauthenticity of the characters’ lives, arching crane shots, lap dissolves, and a swooning orchestral score.

Far From Heaven reproduces the hothouse lushness of Sirk’s Universal melodramas while seizing on their essential anguish. Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a privileged Connecticut housewife ensconced, in 1957, in a suburban dream home with her sales-executive husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) and their two pre-teen children. Cathy’s flawless existence is imperiled when she accidentally discovers Frank’s furtive homosexuality. Rattled by this revelation, she turns to Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her empathetic black gardener, for support. Defying the strictures of their insular world, the Whitakers struggle to preserve appearances while experiencing emotional convulsions that they are ill-equipped to handle.

Moore, who previously played a well-heeled victim of environmental illness in Haynes’ provocative but ponderous Safe, again proves herself to be one of the most gifted, versatile, and adventurous American screen actresses. Her performance as Cathy treads a delicate line, evoking without condescension the naivete and restrained demeanor of ’50s heroines while also expressing the palpable pain of her character’s predicament.

Quaid is a revelation as Frank. Outfitted with a haircut and wardrobe echoing those of Fred MacMurray’s unhappily married businessman in Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow, Quaid drops his beaming, rakish leading-man persona to portray someone caught in existential turmoil, torn between uncontrollable sexual impulses and familial obligations. In a dignified turn reminiscent of Sidney Poitier’s signature roles, Haysbert, as Raymond, faces a different, even more demeaning plight: the invisibility of blacks in ’50s American culture.

Taken at face value, Far From Heaven is a remarkably effective melodrama. The movie is filled with memorable sequences: Frank’s uneasy visit to a therapist to suppress his erotic appetites; Cathy’s chatty, suffocating hen parties; Cathy and Raymond’s provocative discussion of a Miro painting at a museum opening; the pair’s subsequent discomforting visit to a black roadhouse; and, above all, the Whitakers’ wrenching bedroom scenes after Frank’s secret life is exposed.

Haynes’ screenplay is generously evenhanded in its characterizations. Regarded as a liberal in her college years for her egalitarian convictions, Cathy belatedly discovers that she is tainted by the racism inherent in the society that spawned her. Frank strains to quell his homoerotic urges but can’t resist the blandishments of a pouty blond boy-toy whom he encounters on a marriage-reviving Miami vacation. Intellectually and morally superior to his employers, Raymond stoically accepts his subservient position, only to be cruelly rewarded for his submission when his young daughter is attacked by white classmates.

Although the film’s forthright handling of racism is a troublingly resonant contemporary theme, it can be traced to another Sirkian model, Imitation of Life, in which a black servant is renounced by her light-skinned daughter, who attempts to pass for white. More anachronistic in the context of this Technicolor Neverland—but unsurprising, given Haynes’ involvement in gay-activist causes—is the candid depiction of Frank’s homoerotic encounters, which was taboo in ’50s Hollywood.

Far From Heaven’s most striking departure from All That Heaven Allows, however, comes in its closing reel. Haynes offers no last-minute redemption for his oppressed characters: Whether they transgress society’s dictates or submit to them, in the end, everybody loses. CP