The Crushed Film Festival presents: Far From Heaven
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.
Tags: Dennis Haysbert Dennis Quaid Douglas Sirk famous boyfriends Far From Heaven homophobes of film and television irrational actor hate-ons Julianne Moore Kerr Smith Magical Black Men movies parenting gone horribly awry Patricia Clarkson The Crushed Film Festival Todd Haynes Viola Davis