Socialist Worker

A suburban paradise lost

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1842

MUSICALS, WESTERNS and good old fashioned love stories dominated Hollywood films of the 1950s. On the surface many of those films appear to be politically innocent. But beneath the surface, and using only the subtlest of references, a moral, sexual, ideological and political battle took place.

These films were a reflection of the time they were made in. The US economy was booming and the vast majority of people saw their standard of living rising. However, the US was also a society scarred by racism and sexual repression and haunted by the McCarthyite witch-hunts, during which ten Hollywood film writers and directors were imprisoned for belonging to the Communist Party.

It is in this period that director Todd Haynes has set his brilliant new film, Far From Heaven. In fact, the film is very much a homage to the 1950s Hollywood director Douglas Sirk.

Sirk was responsible for some of the great Hollywood love stories including All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

He used what was described as at the time as 'weepies' or 'women's pictures' to probe and explore the anxieties simmering quietly in a decade which was notable for its conformity.

Far From Heaven is set in the New England town of Hertford, Connecticut, in 1957, where Cathy Whitaker, played by Julianne Moore, is a pillar of the community. At first glance everything is 'apple pie America'. There is the perfect house, the perfect husband, played by Dennis Quaid, angelic kids and a caring circle of friends.

But, as the title of the film suggests, everything is far from heaven. Things begin to fall apart when Cathy makes a surprise visit to see her husband at work and finds him kissing another man. As their marriage crumbles Cathy finds true friendship with her black gardener.

The film captures the repressive and suffocating nature of the period perfectly. Everything takes place behind the curtains. No one is able to express their true feelings.

Love and friendship can't cross the racial divide and Cathy isn't even able to talk about her problems with her best friend. But the outside world also begins to interrupt the lives of the rich in Hertford.

In the background news reports flash across the TV showing black school students in Little Rock protesting against segregated schools. The chatter at dinner parties is dominated by the question of the Civil Rights movement. Hayes looks behind their smiling faces and exposes the bigotry of the rich.

Thankfully cinema has come a long way forward since the 1950s. Far From Heaven is able to deal with issues like racism and homophobia in a way that actors like Sidney Poitier and Rock Hudson could only have dreamt of.

Far from Heaven was filmed using coloured filters and has a luscious musical score by Elmer Bernstein so it is a treat for the ears and eyes. If there is one weakness in the film, it is in the relationship between Cathy and her hired gardener. I just find it hard to believe that a white middle class woman would head downtown to a black bar and dance the afternoon away with him. But that is a minor quibble.

If like me, you're a great fan of old school Hollywood films then Far from Heaven, with its modern take on the 1950s classics, is about as perfect as it gets.

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Sat 15 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1842
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