The American melodrama, made popular in the 1950s is revisited in Todd Haynes’ 2002 film “Far From Heaven”. Haynes employs many of the stylistic features and conventions common to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk to successfully create an adaptation that is compelling to the present day, suburban American audience.
Haynes works hard to make his “Far From Heaven” look and feel like a 1950s melodrama. The cinematography and art direction flawlessly reproduce the 1950s style and it has even been reported that Haynes personally placed the call to Elmer Bernstein, who scored many great films in the 1950s, to ask him to score “Far From Heaven”. Could the cinematography be any richer? Could the sets more accurately depict the images we’ve seen in magazines? Could the music not be borrowed from any one of the melodramas of the 1950s?
While the movie accurately reflects style of the Hollywood Melodrama and the values of the 1950s, what makes “Far From Heaven” a success is the boldness with which Haynes contemporizes and brings into focus the origins of the social distortions and contradictions suggested by Sirk and his contemporaries. This is largely a result of the narrative being set in the past, which allows the distance between the film and the audience to be filled with reflection. “Far From Heaven” serves as a marker for where we’ve been and what we have yet to accomplish as a society. That Haynes offers this marker at the fin de siècle (he would have been developing the film in the late 1990’s) is apropos as historically, it’s at this time that past and future are most closely aligned and that art most vividly reflects a changing social milieu.
Haynes’ 21st Century contemporization of issues is most obvious in the character Frank Whitaker, skillfully portrayed by Dennis Quaid. Just as Sarah Jane passed as white in Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” , Frank “passes” as heterosexual, imitating the life society expects from their Mr. Magnatech. No doubt Haynes can empathize with Frank but he doesn’t make a case for the acceptance of homosexuality. Haynes has a greater point to make: we too often judge people by their external characteristics. Consider also Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a woman who seems to exemplify the stereotypes of a privileged woman of her era but who in actuality is a liberal do-gooder and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), who is seen by the whites in the film (Cathy excepted) as nothing but a stereotype.
It is in the casting of “Far From Heaven” that Hayes most deviates from the 1950s melodrama. Unlike the star biography insinuated in “Imitation of Life” and “Home From the Hill”, or the possibility that Sirk may have intentionally cast Rock Hudson counter from his secret homosexual lifestyle, Haynes has cast actors whose personalities and lifestyles are very different from the characters they portray in the film and directed them towards realistic performances as opposed to cookie cutter caricatures.
As characterized in later melodramas, Haynes casts issues, attitudes, themes and groups in the roles once played by a single actor. Like the Greek Chorus of men in “Home From the Hill”, Haynes casts a photographer and a reporter (appropriately named Mona Lauder) as society’s eyes and ears, reminding the characters and the audience that there is always someone watching and ready to report on any deviation from the norm. The doctor is set to again play the voice of reason but in “Far From Heaven”, Haynes uses this character to warn against assuming a person on whom you have often relied is continuing to give good advice.
Haynes and his cast resist all temptation to parody the melodrama. It’s obvious that everyone who participated in the making of the film has respect for the genre and its ability as an artform to produce tension that surpasses its dramatic structure and dialogue. Haynes has taken care not to overdue the style, knowing that the inclusion of too many skewed angle shots on staircases would alienate his audience. He does make the most of shot composition common to the 1950s melodrama though, notably when Frank returns home after being caught kissing a man in his office by Cathy. Haynes establishes the emotional chill in the air by setting the scene with a tableau of the living room and intensifies the emotional distance between Frank and Cathy is his framing of the characters as the scene plays out.
Primarily using a tertiary palate, Hayes uses color and lighting to set tone. At times this can be a distraction as audiences have grown unaccustomed to the vivid colors of the films of the late 1950s, but Haynes makes it work by, if nothing else, forging ahead with his vision, viewer be damned. The warm autumn colors are so seductive that it’s easy to understand why one might aspire to the picture-perfect world that seemingly exists in Hartford, Connecticut. The greens and reds work well in the gay bar and in the restaurant visited by Cathy and Raymond. As complementary opposites, their mere presence creates a visual tension, generally unrecognized by those without knowledge of color and/or lighting. Here, this combination serves as a visual representation of the mixed feelings the characters have about being in places that on the one hand are taboo but on the other feel natural. As Cathy’s life unravels, her private, emotional moments are shot in cool, blue light as a means to mirror her blue mood.
Haynes’ use of color though doesn’t mask (as isn’t intended to) or distract from the plot of the film that like Sirk’s films, builds upon the tension between the public and private life of the protagonist. For Cathy, her public self is compromised as word is spread that she has a [too] friendly relationship with her Negro gardener. This creates turmoil in her private life, compounded by the secret she harbors about her husband’s deeply buried homosexuality (Frank’s story is brought closer to the foreground than in the melodramas of the 1950s). And poor Cathy, her home so closely resembles a theatrical set that she can’t even release her emotions for fear the curtain will go up and she’ll be caught, center stage.
These themes of interracial and homosexual love prove central to the plot and advance the narrative to a point where each of the main characters (Cathy, Frank and Raymond) is able to find at least partial resolution to their public/private conflict. Interestingly, Frank and Raymond each move from Hartford, leaving Cathy, the housewife, to clean up and get ready for whatever is next.
By the time Haynes was born in 1961, the melodrama was on its way to being condemned as a “lesser than” film genre and room was being made for the auteur. In appropriating Sirk’s overripe narrative mode and glorious Technicolor aesthetic, Haynes introduces a new audience to the melodrama and in the process, proves himself an auteur.
“The Women in Film” by Molly Haskell
“The Melodramatic Imagination” by Peter Brooks
“The Melodramatic Investigation” by Christine Gledhill
“It Will be a Magnificent Obsession: the Melodrama’s Role in the Development of Contemporary Film Theory” by Laura Mulvey
“Notes on Sirk and Melodrama” by Laura Mulvey
“Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations of the Family Melodrama” by Thomas Elsaesser
“Rock Hudson’s Body” by Richard Meyer
“Three-Way Mirror: Imitation of Life” by Lucy Fischer
“A Case of Mistaken Legitimacy: Class and Generational Difference in Three Family Melodramas” by Richard De Cordova
“Toward an Analysis of the Sirkian System” by Paul Willemen
“The Transfiguration of History: Ophuls, Vienna, and Letter from an Unknown Woman” by Virginia Wright Wexman
‘Stella Dallas” (1937)
“All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
“Written on the Wind” (1956)
“Home From the Hill” (1959)
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
“Far From Heaven” (2002)