The 1950s in America was a very interesting decade culturally speaking. Right after World War II and right before the racial, sexual, and rock’n’roll revolutions began it was a time when on the surface everything seemed fine, but beneath the surface something was brewing. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) jumps back to that era through the lens of Douglas Sirk and explores issues that today can be openly discussed, but back then people barely had a name for them.
In order to fully appreciate this movie it really helps if you are familiar with the works of its main inspiration, the films of Douglas Sirk who is best known for his 1950s melodramas. Lucky for me I spent the summer of 2009 at the University of British Columbia where I took a course on Hollywood Cinema from 1930 to 1960 and part of the curriculum was watching Sirk’s 1955 romance All That Heaven Allows starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. (What joy it is to be able to study cinema in a classroom.) As the story was about the tentative romance between an affluent suburban widow and her much younger gardener, at the time it was seen as a critique of the 1950s conformity.
However by today’s standards a widowed woman dating a younger man is pretty tame in terms of taboo relationships so Haynes’ 2002 film pushes the envelope even further by having his leads engage in relationships that even today are still slightly frowned upon. Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a wife, mother, and homemaker in 1957 Connecticut. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful executive for a company that sells television advertisement. Put them on a the cover of a magazine and the header could read “America’s Perfect White Couple.”
Except if you scratch below the surface you will find things are not so perfect. One day Cathy is somewhat concerned to see a black man in her backyard. When she realises the man is Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) the son of her late gardener she is reassured and strikes a casual friendship. However she becomes tempted to make the relationship more than casual when she discovers Frank has secrets of his own. While she has been pushing racial boundaries by hanging out with a black man, Frank has been spending time with men in hotel rooms.
Both of these illicit relationships hit the wall of the social conventions of the time. When Cathy and Raymond are seen spending time together in a black neighbourhood, the white people start gossiping about Cathy and for Raymond the consequences are a lot more physical. As for Frank, he tries to deal with his “problem” through a conversion therapy that is recommended by a doctor (James Rebhorn) as though he was prescribing a cure for a skin infection.
When I saw Far From Heaven playing on TV a few months after UBC I noticed it not only had the same colour palette but the same mood and speech patterns as a Sirk film. The result is a movie that looks like it was made over 50 years ago, but tells a story that could not possibly have been told at the time.
Since 2002 many more films and TV shows have come out exploring the social restrictions of that particular era, notably Mad Men and Masters of Sex. People who express nostalgia for those good old days should really take a good look at those shows and remember that things were perfect only if you were white, rich, and straight as an arrow. Otherwise you were not welcomed in the big country club.