Film Reviews


By • Nov 22nd, 2002 •

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Released by Focus Features/Vulcan Productions
Rated PG-13 / Running time: 107 min

The Fifties Redux. Writer/Director Todd Haynes’ homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or Ross Hunter, crosses a time portal in this movie about movies. Retro or Repro? Either way, Heaven, heavenly acted by a stellar cast, is a curious return to those not quite thrilling days of yesteryear, when overt sex was a no-no, women weren’t yet liberated (and stayed virgins till marriage), fathers knew best, and everyone lived happily ever after. Or pretended to.

If you’re unfamiliar with Sirk, his catalogue of pop culture classics include Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession and especially, 1955’s All That Heaven Allows—whose plot points were lifted for this update (with Moore and Haysburt echoing the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson roles). Shot in vivid technicolor with splashy period costumes and matching décor, it’s an on-the-mark recreation of the films—and repressed behavior—typical of the conservative mentality of the time. But just so you’ll know, in his cinematic doppelganger, Haynes made some significant changes.

Haynes (Poison; Safe; Velvet Goldmine) puts into sharp focus issues untouched onscreen in those days, giving us a heightened understanding of what people were really going through. Though he didn’t revise the source material, his visual, verbal reworking of that era for contemporary audiences highlights the obvious cultural chasm and diverse sensibilities between then and now.

This is a movie like they used to make—but did Haynes have to do it so literally? The result: His daring foray into the past involves us intellectually but not emotionally; we’re purposely left on the outside looking in. Passions, subliminally implied, are suppressed, exemplifying the period in movies when, for example, women were as personally constricted as the girdles they wore. Though brilliantly reenacted, the characters, as conceived and directed, practically sleepwalk through scenes that cry out for action—no doubt causing problems with our modern mindset.

Post-WW II, circa 1957, when a man on the moon was a pie in the sky, everyone liked Ike, and Vietnam was an obscure Asian locale. Paul McCartney was 15; “3 Faces of Eve” graced local movie marquees, “Bridge on the River Quai” won the Oscar (beating out “Peyton Place,” “Sayonara,” “12 Angry Men” and “Witness For the Prosecution”), and Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat” and “Jamaica Farewell” were at the top of the Hit Parade, though the term “African-American” was not yet coined, and he was still a “colored” man.

Pretentious Bourgeois. White collar Hartford, CT, filled with (gorgeous vintage) Chevrolets, cocktail soirees and Stepford wives with an ‘attitude’ who shop at the grocery decked out in full makeup, high heels, and designer frocks with crinolines. (Apparently slacks and jeans weren’t yet invented—or at least hadn’t filtered down to suburbia.) It was a time when bigotry abounded (“Negroes” were socially unacceptable), and mothers did little more than carpool, gossip and cater to the whims and whines of their upwardly mobile husbands— execs who played at golf and partying when not otherwise ruling the roost.

A nuclear family at the point of detonation. The Whitakers- devoted wife Cathy (Moore) and adman Frank (Quaid) w/customary 2 kids, and conventional in all respects as they play out the American Dream…

…until she impulsively brings a late night dinner (boxed in Tupperware) to hubby’s office, catches him in the arms of another guy and discovers her loving spouse is a homosexual. (Note: Of course there were gays then, though not according to Hollywood. Cases in point: ‘46s “Night and Day” about Cole Porter, or ‘48s “Words and Music” about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with both Porter’s and Hart’s sexual proclivities totally ignored.)

Frank’s “going to beat this thing!” so their solution: hie to a shrink (Rebhorn), where three remedies are proposed to cure his “condition”: talk, shock therapy or hormonal imbalance treatment. Later, when none work (no surprise) and in a state of abject frustration, Frank hauls off and slugs her. Cathy’s docile response (and talk about a time warp here): “Perhaps you can get me some ice, dear.” Which he does.

Poor Cathy. She can’t tell anyone, not even best friend Eleanor (Clarkson). The only person who offers solace is her handsome groundskeeper Raymond (Haysburt), a courtly black man who happens to have a business degree. (Meeting by chance at a local art show—where he turns out to know more about painter Joan Miro than she does—she assures him “I’m not prejudiced. I support the NAACP.”) Slowly, shyly, they enter into a loving though chaste friendship, but when they’re seen together in town, it provides a venomous field day for gossips.

When Frank takes off with his lover of the moment, can Cathy defy custom and find true happiness with Raymond?

No question Heaven might be puzzling to Baby Boomers and beyond who might legitimately ask “Did people really live that way?” Just ask anyone older (me, for example). The answer is a resounding “Yes!” But then, sitting in the dark movie house every Saturday afternoon, I believed it all. (So did practically everyone else.) I was weaned on and tearfully wallowed in Sirk’s and Ross Hunter’s lily-white squeaky-clean cinebaubles known as “women’s films”—often starring Hudson, Wyman and Doris Day. It wasn’t till reaching the age of reason, inspired by the logic of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, that I discovered what I’d learned at the movies wasn’t real. (Matter of fact, eons ago, I’d thought about writing a book called “Doris Day, You Ruined My Life.”)

Two diverse thoughts crossed my mind viewing this update of the best of Douglas Sirk’s films. For one, with its ingredients: old-fashioned conceits and stilted conversation spoken in deadly earnest, “Heaven” is pure, sappy soap, a la the ‘50s. On the other hand, Haynes has created an audacious copycat that gives us much cause for reflection—to ask ourselves, sophisticated as we’ve become, if we’ve changed all that much?

Maybe it’s a little of both. If you look behind the obvious, you’ll realize there’s more here than meets the eye. The acting is superlative. Moore, twice an Oscar nominee in recent years (“End of The Affair” and “Boogie Nights”) might finally find the golden statuette within her grasp. Her radiant performance is on the mark. She IS ‘50s Woman Incarnate, evoking sympathy and compassion where, in lesser hands, her Cathy might have been perceived with ridicule as a flake. Quaid and Haysburt, too, playing it straight in retro turns as men beset by the times, similarly imbue their roles with utter credibility. And Clarkson, a perfect clone of the Agnes Moorehead part in “All That Heaven Allows,” is a standout.

Kudos are also due for Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein, whose stunning score brilliantly evokes the film music of that bygone era. But, finally, it’s to Haynes whose bold reënactment of the psyche, sounds and sense of an age long past, deserves the lion’s share of notice. For better or worse, he’s reminded us of the way we were.

Directed and written by Todd Haynes.
Dir. of Photography-Edward Lachman, A.S.C.;
Production Designer-Mark Friedberg;
Editor-James Lyons;
Costume Designer-Sandy Powell;
Music-Elmer Bernstein;
Art Director-Peter Rogness
Producers: Christine Vachon, Jody Patton.
Executive Producers: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney.

Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker),
Dennis Quaid (Frank Whitaker),
Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan);
Patricia Clarkson (Eleanor Fine);
Viola Davis (Sybil);
James Rebhorn (Dr. Bowman);
Bette Henritze (Mrs. Leacock);
Michael Gaston (Stan Fine);
Ryan Ward (David Whitaker);
Lindsay Andretta (Janice Whitaker).

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