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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Crushed Film Festival presents: Far From Heaven

Submitted by on July 12, 2012 – 1:59 PM13 Comments

The Movie: Far From Heaven

The Crush Object: Dennis Quaid

The Story: Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has the perfect late-'50s life — married to a TV-company exec (Quaid), admired by friends and society-page scribes for her flawlessly production-designed party-throwing and home-keeping, insulated from irresolvable realities by a baffle of crinolines and marcelled hair. Of course, the hubby does stay late at work a lot…and she treats her fairly well-behaved kids like extras who keep straying off mark…and the housekeeper, Sybil (Viola Davis), can scarcely control the high-velocity "girl, please" looks that ricochet around the background of various shots, but other than that stuff, everything's just peachy, darling. Right?

Yeah: no. At a mid-afternoon daiquiri party, Cathy has to squelch her surprise at learning that other husbands want It once a week — sometimes more. Her own husband seldom wants it at all, not from her; when he stays late at work, he does it to make out with dudes, and when Cathy busts him with a hand inside another gentleman's pants, the ensuing psychiatry predictably fails to "cure" him. Increasingly alienated from her husband, and in turn from the friends in whom she can't confide about his "problem" (including the excellent Patricia Clarkson as Eleanor), Cathy forms an unlikely — and unacceptable — friendship with gardener and Magical Black Man Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert).

It's that socially impossible bond that threatens the fabric of Cathy's carefully sewn life — and may reveal that underneath that fabric isn't nakedness, but simply nothingness.

Far From Heaven is a captivating movie, but it's more problematic, at least for me, than many of the contemporary reviews suggest. I don't know enough about Douglas Sirk or the "women's pictures" director Todd Haynes meant to recapture to say if it's an accurate piece of work; most critics signed off on it as such, and certainly it's gorgeous to look at — almost succulent in places. I craved every item in the Whitaker home, right up to the Magnatech font, and the emphatic use of colored lighting (Frank's reluctant entrance into what was probably the only gay bar in Connecticut, e.g.) and costume coordination (the ladies' club in their fall colors) could have felt too knowing, but it worked. So did the pointed artifice of the dialogue; it lands as very stagey and grand, but Haynes isn't mocking the era. He's cataloging it, and trying not to judge. Even the repeated use of mirrors to underscore the emotional denials and deflections in play succeed, done so beautifully that they sidestep cliché.

But a somewhat harsher eye might have benefited the film from a character-beat standpoint. Haysbert is his usual steady, committed self, and the shot of Raymond watching Cathy as she scuttles away from him is a killer — but the character is just absurd. Not only knows about modern art, but has winsome things to say about it, at an art show he's brought his daughter to, in defiance of social norms, because 1) he's an excellent parent, obviously, and 2) he's the only parent. And he runs his own business. And he's a good listener who cares about Cathy's feelings. And he's the one who is the bigger man about reacting to his circumstances, and doesn't get bitter about things. And he has not defecated since 1934. …Okay, not that last one. It was actually 1930. …Okay, seriously: I sympathize with the difficulty, given that Raymond is as much plot point as man in the scenario; I don't know specifically what Haynes might have done differently to at least knock Raymond's halo a bit off the center line. But he should have found something.

Cathy is also confusing, at least to me. It seems like we're meant to see her plight as tragic, that she's getting elbowed out of Eden. But it's unclear to me that there's anything to her besides…well, Eden maintenance. The idea that "everything she ever wanted" is actually "the only thing she ever thought was want-able" is hinted at, but the latter would imply hidden reserves of something in Cathy, some different and/or frustrated desires or parallel gifts, and I didn't get that from the character despite a fantastic performance from Moore. Or perhaps because of that performance. Perhaps that's the tragedy — that, for Cathy, the perfect life wasn't a big lie. Moore plays it as though she's the house in "There Will Come Soft Rains," and the choice works, but it isn't terribly poignant. And how does Cathy's "parenting" fit into that framework? There is literally not one scene with the kids in which she's not telling them to quiet down, go away, help with groceries, get a bike out of the driveway, or some variation on a theme of their irritating her with their imperfections, and they repeatedly ask for her attention and acknowledgment and don't get it. The scene in which Frank starts sobbing about his life and the daughter, totally freaked out, immediately starts sobbing also is rending — but then it's over. Should we understand Cathy as merely playing a role, not feeling much for other people — except about their surfaces? It's fascinating to watch, but hard to know what to think about it.

Quaid's performance is easier to read, although that's not necessarily a positive. The role as written calls for a lot of jaw-clamping and tortured glowering, so there's that, and Quaid is perfectly serviceable. I did get the sense, though, that he considered suppressing his trademark wolfish charm a necessity to succeed in a more serious role — but that patented twinkle might actually have given the Frank portrayal more depth than Quaid's "I just can't seem to poo" default here. Again, not a bad job with this material, but I got some performance anxiety from it. Oh, and in one scene he pulls The Kerr Smith Memorial "Oh Jeez Now I Have To French A Dude Onscreen" Face Of Eloquent Homo Terror — but I would like to believe that that was actually Frank freaking out that he couldn't "fix" his same-sex urges, versus Quaid freaking out about boy cooties.

The Backstory: I have a sizeable catalog of DQ bombs to get through for the CFF; I avoided this film for years, partly because it was well-regarded but mostly because I developed an irrational hate-on for Moore as of, no kidding, The Fugitive, and it took a long time for that to fade. More on that in a future installment involving The Myth of Fingerprints. …That's right.

The Embarrassment Level: I'm a little embarrassed on behalf of whoever decided that Cathy's escaped scarf should be lavender, because…come on. And the role is probably not prime CFF material, Quaid-wise. But it's a good flick. 1.

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13 Comments »

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    It's been a while since I've seen this, but I recall enjoying it, and absolutely lust-drooling over the set/costume design, to the point where it was nearly a distraction. The scene where Frank calls Cathy, and they're incredibly stilted and frozen, knowing even as Cathy scolds Frank about not remembering her Tuesday schedule that this is the last real out-of-court conversation they'll ever have?

    The LAMP. The one in Frank's hotel room. God, how I wanted it. My brain was fighting the whole scene: "Aww, this is really quite sad…LAMP! It must have been so hard for these two people, having absolutely no context for what they're feeling…LAMP! LAMP! LAAAAAAAAAMMMMMP!"

  • Erin W says:

    My favorite midlife Quaid movie is Frequency. If you haven't seen it Sars, you'd like it: it's got dads & sons, baseball, crime solving. And Quaid rides a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket, soundtracked by Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave."

  • Cora says:

    Hmm, Julianne Moore. The Fugitive didn't bother me — I rather liked her character in that — but: Nine Months OMFG, everyone involved in that should have been banned from the movie business for two years. (Chris Columbus' line for Jeff Goldblum on some floozie he's dating: "Her calves are like calzone!" WHAT the FUCK does that even mean??? Then The Lost World — gee, I guess I should really be hating on Jeff Goldblum — then the remake of Psycho (why, why, why?!?) and THEN a poor man's one-note Clarice Starling.

    GOD. Who could blame you?

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    First, I have to second the Frequency recommendation and I, too, coveted the lamp!

    I saw this in the theater and liked it well enough. I don't hate Julianne Moore but I don't see the pretty and for so many of the characters she plays "pretty" seems to be essential. I was OK with DQ's performance, too, although now that you mentioned the lack of his roguish twinkle I have to wonder . . .

    My all time favorite DQ movie is The Rookie. Yes, it's Disney but part of the reason I loved it was I had read the book and while I would have loved to see more about Jimmy Morrison's struggle I thought they did a great job in pulling in the right stuff to make an entertaining baseball movie. I recommend the book, even if you're not a baseball fan!

  • ElizabethA says:

    Huh, nothing but love for Moore here, there and everywhere. Quaid, however, absolutely Did Not Do It for me here. I just thought he was hugely miscast – especially the Kerr Smith Memorial moment, and Sars so brilliantly described above.
    My favorite bit about that movie was a feature (in the LA Times?) about the set designer drooling over the notion of working with Moore's famously red hair, and designing everything around it. And Moore went with the platinum wig.

  • Matt says:

    Heh. Seeing you write about Dennis Haysbert makes me remember that patio night last summer here in town, and the range of subjects we covered.

    I can't watch him in anything (well, maybe not Major League), especially Allstate ads, without thinking of him as SGT MAJ Blaine in the Unit. I keep expecting him to pull a .45 and ask if I'm in good hands…

    The commercial character and the Delta SGT are extensions of the same Magic Gardener steadiness he has in this movie, it seems to me. Just a matter of degrees.

  • I have a strange relationship with this film as well, although for different reasons. I am, unfortunately, very familiar with the Douglas Sirk films Haynes is paying tribute to, and I am not a fan. Yes, he's a visual master, but to me, the films he's done never rise above the level of soap opera, and while the actors he worked with probably had as much to do with the studio (Universal) and producer (Ross Hunter) he worked with, almost none of the lead actors he worked with did anything for me (except for the delightfully trashy Dorothy Malone in "Written on the Wind"). The maid subplot in his version of "Imitation of Life" is as powerful as its reputation (no matter how much you may hate yourself for it, you will at the very least be misting up at the end), but then you have the whole Lana Turner/Sandra Dee storyline, which again, does nothing for me because those actors do nothing for me. I know there are those who think Sirk's movies are a compelling study of suburbia, but there's a movie from that time called "The Reckless Moment" (remade as "The Deep End" about a decade ago, with Tilda Swinton) that's better in that regard than anything Sirk ever did, in my opinion.

    All of which is to say I wouldn't give a damn about how meticulous Haynes is in re-creating the world of Sirk's films (as you note, pretty damn meticulous) were it not for the fact he's cast better actors. I agree with you about Haysbert's character, but he does his best to lift it out of being a symbol, and almost succeeds. I do disagree with you about Moore and Quaid though. For the former, while I would say, for example, Betty Draper is probably a more nuanced example of that type of character, I do think Moore and Haynes bring something to it, and yes, for that character archetype in those movies, it is a role; plus, as she showed in "Boogie Nights", I think Moore is exceptional at playing both the surface and subtly showing what's underneath that surface (and contrast this role with the role she played in "The Hours", which I think is a one-dimensional version of this one). As for the latter, I think Quaid does bring his "wolfish charm" on at first, which makes his fall even more tragic, at least for me. And then there's, as you note, Patricia Clarkson as the best friend. It is so very rare to see a Hollywood movie that gets casual or hidden racism right, and this is one of those movies; the scene where Moore realizes Clarkson is in fact as racist in her own way as the other people she's come across is gut-wrenching.

    Overall, I do think it's a very good film, and one of Moore's best performances, but like you, I do feel a bit uneasy about it, as I do all of Haynes' work except for "Safe".

  • Isis Uptown says:

    I liked this, but my crush is on Dennis Haysbert. Yes, he is playing a Magical Negro, but he's so handsome.

  • Nina says:

    The point of Cathy for me is that she's a narcissist. Her kids and her husband aren't people to her. Essentially, they're props that help make her look good. She talks to the kids that way because, again, they don't register as people with wants and needs of their own-they exist to shore up her self-image, so negative attention is all she can really give them.

  • attica says:

    I'm back and forth on Moore. A lot of times, I feel she's giving drama-workshop angsty perfs, but sometimes, if the role is brittle enough, she works for me.

    Since I live near a number of the locations used for the exterior shots (Yonkers Metro-North station, represent!!), I found myself fixating on placing them in addition to admiring the movie.

    But I really would have enjoyed some seriously hotter Quaid-on-boy action. Opportunity missed, there, film.

  • Dorinda says:

    The Kerr Smith Memorial "Oh Jeez Now I Have To French A Dude Onscreen" Face Of Eloquent Homo Terror

    TRADEMARK THIS. It's something that always bothers me, and can boot me riiiiight out of a movie. I just want to whap some actors on the back of the head (or worse, for those who go full-out panicky clenchmouth hostageface about it–not that Quaid does, but there are sadly some who do).

    On the bright side, it means that those actors who don't have any trouble with it get an extra sparkly gold star from me. Check out Timothy Olyphant macking sweetly on guys in "The Broken Hearts Club" sometime. He will never be in the running for the Kerr Smith Award. (Hooray!)

  • mspaul says:

    Really, I'd just like to see a resurgence of the mid-afternoon daiquiri party.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    So would I. Starting today. Get some maraschinos and I'll see you on the deck.

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