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What is the Far From Heaven effect?



Article: Jack Foley

Creating a Fifties-era melodrama today and playing it straight, smack in the midst of this pumped-up, adrenaline-crazed era, might seem like a perplexing impulse. Yet the strongest melodramas are those without apparent villains, where characters end up hurting each other unwittingly, just by pursuing their desires.

To impose upon the seeming innocence of the 1950s themes as mutually volatile as race and sexuality is to reveal how volatile those subjects remain today - and how much our current climate of complacent stability has in common with that bygone era - Director's statement, from Todd Haynes.

Far From Heaven explores several social themes: racism, homosexuality, and the role of women in families. In making the film set in the 1950s, Haynes notes he 'was very aware of the sense of superiority that we all feel about the '50s because, in some ways, the decade has been reduced to a series of cliches around suburban, conservative Americana'.

"It's shocking to think that the same year that Marilyn Monroe was at her peak, Joan Baez released her first album and was an instant sensation," he continues. "Those two examples of femininity that we now put into such separate categories existed at the same time.

"So there are all kinds of contradictions to the idea that the '50s was just one thing. It's exciting to use some of those expectations as a way of disarming the audience a little bit for Far From Heaven."

The theme of maternal sacrifice, which runs throughout the film, is also central to many of the greatest Hollywood melodramas, from King Vidor's Stella Dallas, to Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life.

In Far From Heaven, the character of Cathy (played by Julianne Moore) shows how much women were forced to give up to sacrifice to their family, while the men ultimately move on in search of their happiness.

Continues Haynes: "Sadly, it's at the point where she gives up, gives up her desires or hope for satisfaction, that she gains her voice."

He adds: "We're also still struggling with racism to an incredible degree. People are still grappling with their sexuality, even in a world that offers positive alternatives all over the place. Racial and sexual orientation are still ingrained as conflicts in our culture - they're still very pertinent."

It is a point with which Moore agrees, saying: "In this film, there are issues of bigotry and prejudice, but this is ultimately Todd's most feminist movie. His point is that here might be sexual differences and cultural differences and racial differences, but the first and most important difference is determined at birth - whether you're a boy or a girl.

"Everything in Cathy's life is defined by her very femaleness. As much as the men in the film are going through all these things, they're the ones who manage to go on. Cathy is the one left behind, because she is female."

Like Haynes, Moore genuinely believes that the story in the film is not dated and completely relevant to our modern lives. She explains: "Although people are kind of loath to say it, I think that there is a way that we publicly live our lives.

"In Far From Heaven, you see people being forced into certain social situations and having to behave in a particular way because of the place they're in and the people they're speaking to. But then there are the private moments, where they reveal other things. As an actor, it's a wonderful thing to do, to be able to do both the public and the private in the same film."

Another central theme of the movie is sexuality, especially homosexuality, and people's attitudes towards it. As Haynes points out...

"At the time, homosexuality was considered an illness. Even in the most civil and well-educated circles, that was considered the tolerant way of looking at the condition.

"Yet, when I did research on homosexuality and its treatment at that particular time, I was surprised. You think of the '50s, you assume shock treatment and all of those horrific, panicky things because we think of the '50s as so patently repressive.

"In fact, there were breakthroughs in the late '40s and in some writings, doctors were saying that this was not a sickness and that you really can't change it. So it was actually more progressive than I thought.

"But I feel that for someone like Frank [played by Dennis Quaid in the film], there are no examples around him of any positive way to look to, to be, to live, to exist in this moat. So the only way for him to get through the day was to decide he was going to fix it: there must be a way to stitch it up and let it heal, or take a medicine or whatever, and that's the way he approached it. But that doesn't work, and it shouldn't and it can't."

The final theme of the movie was race and racism, as explored in the burgeoning relationship between Cathy and her African-American gardener, Raymond, played by 24's Dennis Haysbert.

As Haysbert notes: "Raymond is a good man born at the wrong time. He and Cathy live in a time where they just don't fit in with what people perceive to be normal.

"They're two people caught in this world and they're not going to be able to be together because they have too many people close to them that will be hurt. So they sacrifice....

"...This is probably the film I've done that I'm most proud of," he continues. "It's a very interesting period for me to portray. It's so uncomfortable in a lot of ways. People can't seem to get beyond the colour of Raymond's skin. But, in trying to act on his sensibilities, he gets it from both sides: the people of colour as well as their white counterparts. It's pretty balanced among unbalanced ways of thinking.

"Raymond represents, for Cathy, a possible liberation from her life and her fate. Raymond represents integrity, but he's flawed too. He believes, too much, that the white world and the black world can co-exist. He encourages his 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, to interact with white culture and then they're both punished."

So with all this in mind, what is it that the makers of the film hope to achieve? What is the Far From Heaven effect meant to be?

Haysbert comments: "What I would hope for is that when people watch Far From Heaven, they'll look back over their lives and see opportunities they've missed and say, 'I'm never going to let this happen again.

"The next time I find love, no matter who it is, no matter what the colour or size or religion or whatever, I'm going to go for it'. If someone can walk out of the theatre with that in mind, then we will have succeeded."

When asked how he hopes people will respond to the film, Haynes adds: "With tears, tears of recognition - where the heightened stylistic experience only clarifies how much, in this all-too-human story, we recognise ourselves."

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