Published November 12, 2002
At one point in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, young David Whitaker (Ryan Ward), who calls his mother “Mother” and his father “Father,” comes running in excitedly from the garage to tell Father (Dennis Quaid) that, unbidden, he has just waxed the family car — whereupon, Father bursts into tears. We know, as David does not, that Father’s anguish is owing to the fact that he is gay, and that his attempt to seek a psychiatric “cure” for what he is assured is an illness has failed. But David’s zealous good behavior made it look to me as if Father were weeping because everything is so perfect: kids, job, house and adoring wife Cathy (Julianne Moore), David’s Mother, who immediately sends the boy to his room.
For such perfection is here a sort of ironical death’s-head symbol of all that Mr Haynes thinks was wrong with the 1950s. Cathy is perfectly soignée and color-co-ordinated, a Life magazine image of the perfect housewife of the period for the same reason that David is the perfect child and Sybil (Viola Davis) and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) the perfect “colored” maid and gardener of their perfect Connecticut split-level. All are put together, postmodern style, in an over-the-top, 1950s-style melodrama, complete with dazzling Technicolor and a gorgeous Elmer Bernstein score for the sole and sufficient purpose of being exposed by the film’s earnest moralizing as a fraud and a sham.
Those who, during the last 40 years or so, have got over their shock and dismay that the official, Ozzie-and-Harriet version of the 1950s often masked darker, Ozzie-and-Sharon realities may find it difficult to find anything to like in this movie. The director seems to have taken the opportunity afforded by one or two modest successes — Safe (1995), about a neurotic woman (played by Miss Moore) who persuades herself that she is allergic to everything and Velvet Goldmine (1998), about a fictional glam-rock band from the 1970s — to send a message. Alas, Sam Goldwyn is still right about this being something better left to Western Union. Especially, he might have added, when the message consists of straight propaganda aimed at that favorite Aunt Sally of Hollywood politicoes, the decade of the 1950s.
This was the decade, if you accept the pretty near unanimous view of Hollywood, of the evil pression twins, op and re — “oppression,” that is, of blacks, gays and women and “repression” of sexual impulses. The two, in the vulgar Freudianism which is the established religion of Tinseltown, are naturally related, and in Far From Heaven we have a classic twofer: since society’s unjust treatment of gays is so distressing that Cathy seeks chaste solace in the company of her gentle, handsome, highly cultured (his mini-lecture on the art of Miró is a high point) black gardener, Raymond — only to bring down on them both the consequences of society’s unjust treatment of blacks.
Brought in to assist in the processes of ridicule, as it almost invariably is on these occasions, is the natural tendency of people to laugh at out-of-date fashions. Here the styles of ladies’ dresses, men’s hats, advertising slogans, as well as the forms of address and manners (“Jeez,” says little David on being told to go to his room,” to which his mother replies: “We don’t use language like that in this house, young man”). Above all, however, there is medical fashion. According to the best medical opinion of the period, homosexuality was a form of mental illness, and Frank naturally seeks treatment from the kindly Dr. Bowman (James Rebhorn) which is naturally ineffective.
Will people half a century from now look back on us and the sacred cows of our time with the same kind of ridicule and scorn? Almost certainly they will, but they will not be any nearer than we are to being able to take seriously either the picture-pretty domestic life — which indeed is true to 1950s advertising if not to 1950s realities — or that which is set against it in the form of Dennis Quaid’s stony-faced and quite comical lust or Julianne Moore’s unbridled compassion. If life in the fifties really were as much of a performance as this film wants to tell us it was, even the allure of illicit sexual yearnings would never have stood a chance.