“Here’s to being the only one”
While Todd Haynes‘ Far From Heaven wears its “inspired by All That Heaven Allows” on its sleeves from aesthetic to subject matter to blatant homage, it’s so much more. He takes what Douglas Sirk brought to life and injects it with a healthy dose of complexity and jeopardy wherein the melodrama can’t simply be defused by laughter as true love conquers a town of self-centered lemmings slaving to adhere to the homogeneity of wealthy comfort. It’s not about the guilt of one woman swaying her away from her heart’s desire; it’s about the horrors of man and the threats of mob mentality dismantling morality through ignorance and fear. The actions taken by Haynes’ characters might pale in comparison to Sirk’s at times, but the ramifications risk far more.
So much is going on that you cannot merely accept everyone in terms of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore). She’s at the center like Sirk’s Cary Scott, but decisions made aren’t hers alone. Instead there’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), a successful marketing genius for Magnatech televisions trying to reconcile his place in the business world elite with a loving wife and children against his urges to be with another man. Opposite him is the new gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) who took over for his deceased father, an African American so determined to give his daughter Sarah (Jordan Puryear) the childhood he never had that he’ll gladly hold his head high as the only black person in a room and force her to follow suit.
Cathy isn’t therefore stuck between two worlds with heart unsure of a path—she’s merely trying to stay afloat as a headstrong woman in 1950s America with the freedom to make her own decisions. She loves Frank and will do anything to make their marriage work even if it means keeping his struggles private and feeding his alcoholism when in a mood after a psychiatric session with Dr. Bowman (James Rebhorn). She also loves her liberal leanings not because it provides a sense of superiority, but because she’s a compassionate soul who truly sees humanity as equal no matter skin color. In this regard her maid Sybil (Viola Davis) is more important than an employee and Raymond’s intellect and sensitivity the perfect qualifications for a friend and confidant.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit Cathy doesn’t have an affair with Raymond physically. There’s definitely an emotional connection as both prove kindred spirits when it comes to philosophies and entertainment, but it’s Frank who’s ruining her marriage with secrets. In this regard, one could say Cathy risks the least out of everyone. Frank’s teetering the line of becoming an unemployed social pariah and Raymond’s heading towards a violent end as both blacks and whites start to see him as a troublemaker rather than trendsetter. As shown in the film, Haynes’ world is one of carefully cordoned off spheres of existence. Stick to your section and everything will be okay. Attempt to move between them in any way possible and hellfire surely will come pouring down.
And it only takes one subjective interjection to tear a life apart. All Mona Lauder (Celia Weston) needs to do is plant the seed of what she witnesses for the town to prickle into a lynching mob. She doesn’t even have to add flavor because those listening will do it themselves. Face value doesn’t exist in this Connecticut town and loyalty to anything but the lifestyle will ultimately be revealed as tenuous at best. We hope Cathy’s friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) will stick by her in the firm belief of what her truth is explained as, but there’s no guarantees. At a certain point one must decide when to cut ties so that he/she doesn’t get dragged down too. What appears quaint quickly proves dog eat dog.
Haynes pulls no punches portraying exactly what could happen when the status quo is compromised. Quaid’s Frank isn’t allowed to be “cured” or concrete in his lifestyle choice—one can’t simply forget what he had even if his new life is a joyous dream. Haysbert’s Raymond is a strong man with strong ideals who can take care of himself if things get rough. He can defend his position on integration and his choice of lunch partners, but Sarah isn’t so lucky. And while most adults fear confrontation, many children do not. It only takes one racist parent running his/her mouth in front of the kids to spark a case of bullying that will spin out of control once anger transforms into an accident that cannot be taken back.
We watch this sleepy town with Technicolor vibrancy hiding a cesspool of closed-minded bigotry gradually baring its teeth. Smiles and laughter in response to journalistic puff pieces of grandiosity and ego turn into tabloid exposés while men like Frank forget the pain they’re causing in order to transpose blame for hardships faced onto another. What’s despised more here: homosexuality or racial harmony? Before you answer definitively one way or the other, remember that the correct answer in a perfect world is neither. More than that, the question shouldn’t exist because human is human. If you watch Far From Heaven and shake your head in response to the fallout, remember that hate for each community is still prevalent today. Melodrama doesn’t hide truth; it disarms us to expose it.
There’s a soapy theatricality to Haynes’ film, but the actors refuse to let it fool us. Some side characters like Frank’s coworker Stan (Michael Gaston) are one-note and Eleanor’s shallowly drawn until her true self’s revealed, but Quaid, Davis, Haysbert, and Moore pop off the screen. Davis’ Sybil is unsung, keenly aware and quick to let her friendship with Cathy trump her “place” in society. Quaid’s Frank is often over-the-top, but his nuanced regret—not guilt—shining through a final phone call forgives it. And Haysbert and Moore steal the show with their perpetual complexity. The world simply isn’t ready for them because love’s more complicated than man and woman when authentically portrayed without sanitation. Life may seem like a fairy tale, but it rarely if ever is.