The Other Woman
Chris Wisniewski on Far from Heaven

“Feminist theory has left an indelible mark on my own critical—and creative—thinking . . . For me, everything I questioned about what it meant to be a man—and how much my sexuality would perpetually challenge those meanings—could be found in arguments posed by feminists. What can I say? I identified.” —Todd Haynes, Three Screenplays: An Introduction

I was recently discussing the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There with a friend, who asked if I thought Haynes’s gayness mattered at all to that particular movie. The question took me off guard, because I thought the answer was obvious—of course it did, I reasoned, not least because Haynes had cast a woman as one of his six Bob Dylans but also because of the nature of the project itself: I’m Not There takes the (de)construction of identity as its starting point. If Bob Dylan is the film’s ostensible subject, it is also, like Velvet Goldmine, about the way that identity is communicated semiotically and performatively—the idea that identity is something we put on, demonstrate, and act out, as much as, if not more than, it is something intrinsic to us. This isn’t necessarily a “gay” idea, but smart gay folks like Haynes are often acutely aware of how people communicate a sense of themselves to others, partly because they, or rather, we (to both flatter and out myself), spend much of our lives adjusting those communications, emphasizing or deemphasizing our gayness depending on the company we happen to be keeping.

So, yes, I told my friend, of course Haynes’s gayness is essential to understanding I’m Not There. But even though he loved the film, he’d never really given the issue much thought, and I realized there was something dubious about my certainty. It’s fine to see a natural affinity between the movie’s project and an abstract notion of Haynes's queer sensibility. It might also be fair to assert that I’m Not There would never have been made by a straight filmmaker, though that's a rather meaningless assertion to make: only Todd Haynes (gay, American, male, white, and all the rest of it) could have made it, just as only Ang Lee could have made Brokeback Mountain or only Kimberly Peirce could have made Boys Don't Cry; in the hands of other filmmakers, they'd all be different movies.

At this point in his career, Haynes has transcended the queer ghetto and connected with broad, diverse audiences who approach his cinema from a multiplicity of perspectives and for whom Haynes’s biography matters less than their own in determining how they understand and appreciate his movies. To my friend, Haynes’s gayness might not be essential to understanding I’m Not There. To me, it is. To Haynes, it may be as well, but is that important? When queer filmmakers become more than just queer filmmakers, how much does queer authorship matter, in what ways, and to whom?

These questions are irresolvable, but they are at least slightly easier to tackle in the case of Far from Heaven, partly because the film actually has a major gay plotline, and partly because that 2002 film is itself a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, a movie made by a straight filmmaker. We should be careful about attributing the differences between the two solely to their directors' respective sexual preferences, though. A director's race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation may affect his or her moviemaking, but so do the historical, aesthetic, and intellectual traditions that shape him or her as an artist and craftsperson, as well as the trends of the moment. If Douglas Sirk had been around in 2002, he may well have made a movie much like Far from Heaven. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, meanwhile, despite his queerness, did something completely different from Haynes with his own All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, adapting the basic story of the Sirk film to the social and political context of 1970s West Germany and emphasizing the formal and narrative aspects of Sirk’s cinema that have been described, by some critics, as Brechtian (more on that later).

Unlike Ali, Far from Heaven doesn't update and adapt so much as revisit and reimagine All That Heaven Allows. In Sirk’s 1955 original, Jane Wyman plays Cary, a middle-class suburban widow who falls for her young, hunky Thoreau-spouting gardener (Rock Hudson), much to the dismay of her generally awful kids, who force her to dump him and then give her a television set to make up for it. Far from Heaven, which studiously apes the look and shooting style of Sirk’s Fifties-era women’s pictures, mostly without the aid of 21st century tools, tells the same basic story with a twist. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is happily married to Frank (Dennis Quaid) until his closeted homosexuality tears the marriage apart and drives Cathy to seek solace in an unconsummated romance with her sensitive, art-loving African-American gardener Raymond Degan (Dennis Haysbert). Where the conflict in All That Heaven Allows principally concerns age and class, in Far from Heaven the central issues are race and sexuality. In his introduction to the screenplay, Haynes goes so far as to assert that Far from Heaven “impose[s] upon the seeming innocence of the 1950s themes as mutually volatile as race and sexuality,” but that’s only half true. Sirk’s masterpiece Imitation of Life, which Haynes references in his movie, was itself about race—neither Sirk nor the 1950s need Haynes to do any imposing on this count, though it’s noteworthy that he chooses to downplay the class angle in favor of race in adapting the story.

Sexuality is a different matter. Aside from the gay subtext that we can retroactively read into Hudson’s performances (“I can’t shoot straight anymore,” he complains in All That Heaven Allows), Sirk’s films never directly explore the topic of homosexuality. The closest thing to a forerunner to Frank Whitaker in Sirk’s oeuvre is Robert Stack’s tortured oil baron Kyle Hadley in the lurid 1957 melodrama Written on the Wind, but Kyle’s problem is a kind of catch-all masculine inadequacy—the oil wells and whiskey bottles that proliferate Sirk’s mise-en-scène mock Kyle’s sterility, but if he could get Lauren Bacall’s Lucy pregnant, we reckon he would. Far from Heaven's Frank is a different creature altogether.

Gay panic is a common theme in social and cultural histories of 1950s America, and in Far from Heaven, Haynes deliberately violates the taboos of the period he depicts. After Cathy finds Frank kissing another man in his office, they have a stammering conversation (“I can’t.” “I don’t.” “What?” “You see…uh, once, a long time ago…a long, long time ago I had…uh…uh, problems”), as though the topic of homosexuality lingers just beyond language for them. Yet Haynes’s camera follows Frank as he loiters in the lobby of a movie theater, watching two men exchange furtive glances and climb the green-lit stairs to the balcony; Frank later trails the men down a street and into an alleyway in canted frame, descending into an otherworldly green- and magenta-lit gay bar (Haynes uses similar lighting in the African-American bar Raymond brings Cathy to, and the walls of the Miami hotel where Frank meets his unnamed lover are aqua and magenta). As Haynes’s camera travels into these jarringly over-stylized spaces, it’s as though he takes us beyond what his characters are able to articulate, past the representational limits of his period into spaces that could never fit in a Sirk film.

All of this may seem to add up to a very simple and obvious point: Haynes’s largest single departure from Sirk is to explicitly introduce gay content into his melodrama. This makes it all the more surprising, then, when Haynes doesn’t take Frank’s side in the narrative. Though he depicts Frank’s anguish and torment with sensitivity, and Quaid plays it with wrenching intensity, Haynes concerns himself less with Frank than with how Frank’s sexual awakening affects Cathy. Two thirds of the way into Far from Heaven, in a wordless scene, Frank takes a young male lover in Miami. Three quick scenes later, he confesses to Cathy that he’s fallen in love with the boy, and is dispatched from the narrative. When he tells Cathy he is leaving her, Haynes holds her reaction shots at length. We hear Frank crying offscreen, but rather than directing our attention to Frank's competing feelings of failure, sadness, guilt, and desperation, Haynes places the emphasis on Cathy, isolated in the frame as she is in life. The boy he leaves her for has no name and no dialogue in the film, and Frank appears in only one more scene, in which he and Cathy have a phone conversation about divorce papers. We’re given no evidence with which to decide if this resolution constitutes a happy ending for Frank or a false start. Once he no longer plays a role in Cathy’s day-to-day life, he simply disappears. Because Far from Heaven is Cathy’s story.

Haynes’s emphasis on Cathy reflects a very specific understanding of Sirk and Hollywood melodrama—one that owes a significant debt to the work of the feminist film theorists who rose to prominence in the early Seventies. They were not alone in their focus on Sirk’s melodramas, which have been among the most analyzed and debated movies in the film studies literature of the past four decades. By the late Sixties, Susan Sontag had already famously written about the emergence of camp, the reappropriation of vulgar, “low” cultural texts, frequently by educated, urban gay audiences. The antinaturalist visual flare of Sirk's movies, their garish emotional excess, and, as it became known, Hudson's homosexuality, made them perfect camp objects. Indeed, as scholars and critics began writing seriously about his films, they actively rejected these camp readings of Sirk. These critics were led by Paul Willemen, whose seminal article “Distanciation and Douglas Sirk,” which ran in Screen in the winter of 1972-73, established what would become a standard Brechtian reading of Sirk's films.

Though Sirk distanced himself from Brecht in interviews he gave at the time—on the grounds the he found Brecht too didactic—Willemen argued somewhat persuasively that Sirk employed a number of formal distancing strategies through which he mounted a pointed critique of 1950s bourgeois culture. Fassbinder’s writings on Sirk from the early 1970s combined elements of the Brechtian readings (perhaps quite independently of any scholarly work) with a more playful camp sensibility, but it was the contemporaneously emergent feminist film studies movement that came to most strongly define a standard interpretation of Sirk—and classical Hollywood melodrama—in later years. To distill and oversimplify their arguments, they believed Sirk's films invited a complicated, indirect emotional identification with a woman protagonist who suffers because of her powerlessness, and that the emotional excess produced by the heroine's irremediable suffering, a consequence of the patriarchal social order, was displaced onto the filmic elements of the movie itself—the mise-en-scène, color, and music. Though the feminists, like the Brechtians, took Sirk's films seriously and saw them as vehicles of social and political critique, they broke on the issue of identification: for the Brechtians, identification in Sirk is effectively alienated; for the feminists, it is subverted and directed towards its female characters circuitously, through film form.

In his introduction to the screenplay for the film, Haynes pays tribute to the influence feminist film theory had on him as a cinephile and artist, and he quotes these theorists repeatedly in his audio commentary on the DVD. Haynes's profound interest in feminism as a critical approach can be seen in the other films he labels his “women's pictures,” Superstar and Safe—and it's also present in Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There— but Far From Heaven may be its purest expression, especially in the way the film resists naturalism while still evoking powerful emotional engagement with Cathy, who occupies the center of the movie visually and narratively. Through color, costume, and makeup, Cathy comes to function semiotically as the almost literal embodiment of the return of the repressed. Towards the beginning of the film, she loses her lavender scarf (a stand-in for her gay husband?), and her search for it leads her to Raymond. In the scene where she discovers Frank kissing another man, she goes to deliver food to him at work, wearing a green dress with pink gloves. The color scheme of her outfit in this climactic moment recalls the lighting of the gay bar and prefigures the walls in the Miami hotel, as Haynes again displaces the visual markers associated with Frank's gayness onto Cathy. When the two of them host a cocktail party, a drunken Frank makes light of Cathy's beauty, insisting, “It's all smoke and mirrors.” “Every girl has her secrets,” Cathy replies. The exchange explicitly links Cathy's physical appearance to “her” secret, which is actually Frank's secret (his homosexuality). As a melodrama conceived in the feminist mode, Far from Heaven is all about “smoke and mirrors,” the way that oppression and repression are concealed by the superficial, and the way they reemerge superficially, through colors and costumes, music and makeup. After the party, Frank strikes Cathy, and the bruise becomes the film's strongest physical marker of the failure of their marriage, which she tries, unsuccessfully, to cover up.

Haynes's indebtedness to feminist film theory may help to explain his emphasis on gender, race, and sexuality over and above class. Where All That Heaven Allows fixes on the question of status, Far from Heaven turns more on the issue of identity (and, in a cinematic sense, identification), the “surface of things,” as Raymond puts it, and the way those surfaces seem to demarcate, limit, and circumscribe our idea of the possible. Frank is able to disappear down alleyways, into offices, and up the stairs into balconies, because he's white, and because he's a man. He does not bear Cathy's burden of representing and maintaining the illusion of bourgeois domesticity. When rumor spreads to Frank that Cathy has been socializing with their black gardener, he confronts her, asking, “Do you have even the slightest idea of what this could mean? Don't you realize the effect this could have on me, and the reputation I have spent the last eight years trying to build for you and the children and the company?” Frank's indiscretions never figure in this calculus. Like Frank, Raymond has an escape: he has the African-American bar, a place where “everybody looks like” him, and the possibility of fleeing this small suburb to start a new life.

Cathy, the embodiment of suburban domesticity, has nowhere to go and no way to disappear once it becomes evident that the ideal she represents is a sham. At a modern art show, she discusses a Miró painting with Raymond. She is stared at, not simply by the other women of the town but also by one of her neighbor's gay uncles. At the African-American bar, too, Cathy is the subject of stares by the black people inside. These scenes are noteworthy for positioning Cathy as a woman, as the subject of judgment even by those who are also oppressed. This doesn't mean that Haynes or his film depicts patriarchy as a more toxic social ill than racism or homophobia; rather, it simply reveals the film's narrative and political priorities. In All That Heaven Allows, Cary's middle-class environment becomes a sort of prison that Sirk contrasts with nature and the nature-loving lower middle class. For Cary, Ron and his ilk represent an alternative and an escape—even if Sirk leads us to doubt Cary's capacity to accept Ron's lifestyle and milieu. In the Sirk film, it is possible, albeit improbable, that Cary will choose to escape her social prison, even to the point that Cary gets a happy ending. In Haynes's, Cathy has no escape. Save one brief, fleeting idyll in the woods, the surveillance and judgment of Cathy is ubiquitous, and there is never really the possibility of her transcending her circumstance or achieving happiness. Late in the film, she and Raymond meet at a diner. Driven out by patrons who are uncomfortable with the interracial pairing, they walk to the movie theater where Frank first spied the gay men flirting. Cathy and Raymond pause to talk, but they are quickly assailed by passersby, who mistake their conversation for something more insidious. For Frank, the theater marks a space of anonymity, somewhere where he can disappear. For Cathy, though, the movie theater doesn't offer anything of the kind, because she has nowhere to escape to.

Haynes has written quite eloquently about the theoretical gap feminist scholars filled for him as a young queer artist and a student. In the absence of a compelling gay film studies literature, feminism helped Haynes grapple with the issues of identification and film form in a meaningful way, to understand how film could interrogate questions of identity and its relationship to the social order. Biographically, the path that led Haynes to discover and exploit feminist film theory is inextricable from his queerness. But, by approaching his genre and protagonist through the frame of feminist film theory, Haynes foregrounds the emotional sincerity that makes melodrama so compelling, rather than leaning towards irony or pastiche. Far from Heaven proves so effective—and so affecting—because Haynes plays it completely and totally straight.