Just beyond the fall from grace,
behold that ever-shining place.
Raymond Deagan in Far From Heaven
So—anyway...a handful of weekends ago, I'd switched away from the playoff game, trying (in vain, as it turns out) to help out the Colts, who apparently were incapable of scoring while being watched on TV by me. Flipping over to the classic movie channel, I was just in time for the beginning of All That Heaven Allows, which I'd always wanted to see. It's a '50s melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk, with Jane Wyman playing a pure-hearted widow who struggles against the strictures of social convention when she falls in love with a younger man from a lower social class, played by Rock Hudson. Rock's character is nominally her gardener, but one scene finds him at his back-to-nature mountain hideaway with a white stag (the heavy-handed symbol of Jane and Rock's pure and rare love), which he feeds by hand. (Encouraging the deer!...no gardener he.) The film is a curiosity...which is just another way of saying I was really surprised at how awful it was. The plot lurches from points A through Z as if you're being shuttled through bullet points on an outline instead of being taken through a story; Rock Hudson's acting is painfully terrible; and the characters (even those with the benefit of competent acting) speechify to the audience instead of talking to each other. At one point, Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" passage from Walden is read aloud to us. The polemics made me grumpy and uncharitable. Was it so very wrong for me to burst out laughing at the scene where Jane Wyman, in a full-on soft-focus close-up, stands with tears rolling down her face, alone and lonely on Christmas Eve, looking out her picture window at the neighborhood carolers singing "Joy to the World"?
Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven is often referred to as a remake of or homage to All That Heaven Allows, and although Haynes is unfailingly generous in crediting Sirk for inspiration, Far From Heaven—far from a cover version of the earlier film—is a different movie, and a great movie. The movie is set in 1950's Hartford, Connecticut, with exteriors and interiors done up in colors and costumes just this side of exaggerated, to delicious effect. I've watched this movie repeatedly just to breathe in the colors and the styles, mightily squelching the urge to rip up and redo my basement in teals and oranges, with atomic-age wall clocks and faux-riental knickknacks, swinging sledgehammer and wielding paintbrush while fully dressed in pumps and jewel-toned crinolined dirndl.
But there's more to this film than just what meets the eye. The story is a domestic drama of a woman, the friend she makes, and the calamities visited upon them in the ordinary course of human events. Julianne Moore, whom I've wanted to watch in anything (well, maybe except for dopey comedies with Hugh Grant and Pierce Brosnan) ever since The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (where she was the only redeeming feature of that dopey movie), plays the kind and guileless Cathy Whitaker, wife and mom, keeper of the hearth, who befriends Raymond Deagan, widower and gardener, played by Dennis Haysbert (the *sob* late President David Palmer on "24"). Aside from his somewhat odd pronunciation of Hamamelis (my "How do you say" sources confirm it should be Ham-a-may-lis or Ham-a-mel-is, Raymond, instead of "Ha-Ma'am-alis"), and the indignity of having to appear in an early scene dressed in butternut-squash colored slacks, Raymond is educated, cultured, a devoted father, a good friend, and, as we see him on the train that pulls away from Hartford at the end of the movie, makes the irrefutable case for bringing back the fedora.
Of course, Cathy and Raymond's friendship can't be permitted—there isn't an electrified line of class, race and gender that it doesn't breach—and, by the end of the movie, Cathy's marriage and the social stature it confers upon her have been wrecked, and Raymond is forced to sell his business and leave the only town he has ever lived in. Disapproving looks and reactions are the dramatic and visual focus in scene after scene, as broadly drawn as the scene with the snooty circle of elephants in Dumbo. So why caricature the narrow-mindedness of that time and place? Oddly enough, I think the events and reactions are overamplified so that they can be neutralized. I don't think the movie was made to Make a Point about the evils of intolerance, or to send the message (as in the Sirk film) that True Love can only be attained once the empty values of bourgeois society are rejected. Once we recognize the overdramatic setting as but an ornate frame, our attention is drawn to the subtle and fleeting moments of hope, happiness, fear, disappointment and sadness, so familiar in our own lives, and seldom regarded as deserving the spotlight unless as a larger-than-life showcase for the manipulative prowess of the artist, or as an incidental detail of plot, which is, after all, where the action is.
When Cathy tells Raymond that their friendship must end, Raymond asks: isn't it possible for people "maybe, for one fleeting instant, [to] manage to see beyond the surface, beyond the color of things?" I'll confess that it took more than just one viewing for me to see beyond the surface and color of this movie, but when I return to it, it's to appreciate how it quietly honors the beauty of ordinary human feelilng. Heavenly.