DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Far from Heaven, All that Heaven Allows

, Imitation of Life  (2 films), Goodbye Again, Just Like Heaven, Heaven Can Wait, Defending Your Life    


Title:  Far from Heaven

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language: USA

Running time: 120 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  USA Films/Focus

Director; Writer: Todd Haynes


Cast:  Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert


Relevance to doaskdotell site: W&M



First, this film should not be confused with the Italian Miramax release Heaven (2002, Miramax, dir. Tom Tywker, Italy/Germany) about a female terrorist who befriends and escapes “to heaven” literally in a balloon, this film featuring spectacular footage of the Italian countryside.


Far from Heaven presents a continuously bifurcated story of an upper-class couple in Hartford in the 1950s. Both Frank and Cathy fight irrational and statist prejudices in their community. Frank is having clandestine homosexual encounters, and works through the motions of an arrest for loitering, then a pickup in a 50s speakeasy, bringing his trick up to the office, still to be caught by his wife. He soon tries the psychiatric route, all so familiar to me from my young days. Cathy gets the couple in trouble by even speaking to her African-American gardener, and this becomes a bigger deal than her husband’s homosexuality.


This period piece does create the mood of the early chapters of my own Do Ask, Do Tell book, except that the reality of homophobia and racism in those days tended to be more even more subtle than the opulent screenwriting of this film suggests. 


All that Heaven Allows (1955, Universal / Criterion Collection, dir. Douglas Sirk, story by Edna L. Lee, 89 min). A wealthy Connecticut widow (Jane Wyman) falls for a younger and lowlier gardner Kirby (the rugged Rock Hudson, in his prime), as she is entranced by his naturalistic, Thoreau-like lifestyle. Her society girls disapprove (just before that, one of them tries to talk her into buying a television set, a big deal in those days; my 11th Grade English teacher didn’t have one, she used to brag). Later, Wyman’s character has to fend off suggestions that her children can be hurt by what other people think and gossip (sort of “reputation defender” issues in the pre-Internet world), because everyone will “think” that she and Rock slept together before getting married (since she marries out of her economic class). Then even the adult children do object! The music score has lots of muted classical (a Liszt Consolation and some Brahms). The Technicolor is garish and looks indeed like a composition of plates (like Technicolor in the days that it mattered; it doesn’t look sharp in the distant landscape shots).


The DVD contains a long excerpt from the BBC Documentary interview of Douglas Sirk, by Mark Shivas, Behind the Mirror (1979). Sirk discusses a number of this films, especially Magnificent Obsession (1954) in which one person dies so that another may live – this film is still not on DVD, as several of this other filsm are not. He says films should not “teach” and yet many of his films (like this one above) have an obvious social importance. He discusses his early film career days in Nazi Germany, before he left. At one time Universal had him typecast “comedy director.” He says that most American films are viewed in Europe as lacking artistic value (even the melodramas, like many of his films). One of his films “The Tarnished Angels” (also not yet on DVD) is in black and white Cinemascope, but he said (like Hitchcock) that he does not like Cinemascope.


Imitation of Life (1959, Universal, dir. Douglas Sirk, novel by Fannie Hurst, 125 min) hits hard on the melodramatic implications of a mixed African American child resenting being born in a socially and legally inferior “class.” Right after World War II, Annie Johnson (Juliana Moore) becomes a housekeeper for ambitious actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) on Coney Island (home of the “Seaside Courts”), and soon Annie’s  daughter  Sarah Jane (Karen Dicker) resents being treated as inferior by society just because of who her mother is. She eventually colors her skin to pass as white, incurring the inevitable existential family tensions: why should she be loyal to family members who by definition would hold her back? At the same time, Lora’s ambition is tested by ethical problems. Her boss and eventual boyfriend Steve Archer (John Gavin, who looks a bit like Rock Hudson) wants her to “do anything” to get a job, but she talks a screenwriter into changing a sexist script that is offensive to women. The plot threads thicken over the years, as by then Sarah Jane has been living as “white” and asking her mother to have nothing to do with her, while Lora’s own daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) has attraction to Archer. There is a spectacular sequence at the Moulin Rouge that recalls the earlier 1952 French film. This doesn’t make  much of the potential love triangle, inasmuch as Annie comes to a tragic end, leading to a spectacular funeral procession that ends the film. The earlier film (1934, Universal, dir. John M. Stahl, same novel) is on the backside of the Netflix DVD now, and starts with the Universal Valyries trademark, then the motion picture seal of approval, and then the old Universal trademark with a prop plane flying around the globe. Effective. The movie more or less follows the same story, with some characters named differently. Claudette Colbert is Beatrice Pullman, who rents a shop for a Coney Island business, and takes in Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers, who plays the part like an “Aunty Pittypat”) as a subordinate “Negro.” That’s how it comes across, and Delilah accepts her subordination gracefully, even when her Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour (Aunt Jemimah’s) makes her rich – she still wants to take care of her master. But her daughter Jessie (played by Rochelle Hudson once she’s grown) rebels. “You make me black.” There are lines like “you have to learn to take it” and “where’s the blame.” Warren William is the businessman Steve Archer, and the love triangle is still played down. 


Goodbye Again (“Aimez-vous Brahms”, 1961, United Artists, dir. Anatole Livak, novel by Francoise Sagan, 120 min, music by Georges Auric and Johannes Brahms, France) is a complicated love polygon between people of different ages with a lot of social disapproval and heartache. The music from Brahms is used extensively, especially the slow “minuet” from the 3rd Symphony, to give a sad effect. I saw this in Williamsburg (in the city’s one theater then, two blocks from Brown Hall – I also saw “Splendor in the Grass” there) that forlorn fall of 1961 with a friend who was quite a music aficionado and composer.  Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins.


Just Like Heaven (2005, Dreamworks, dir. Mark Waters, PG-13, 102 min) is a romantic comedy that tosses around issues about life after death and commitment to life, seeming to follow in the heels of the Theresa Schiavo case. Landscape architect David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) moves into a San Francisco Victorian apartment, and finds it inhabited by the “ghost” or spirit of its former tenant, an emergency room physician Dr. Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon). In time we learn that she is actually in a coma after an auto accident, and her spirit is floating free. A young sage Darryl at the local occult book store (Jon Heder, from Napoleon Dynamite) may be pulling all the strings, it seems. (Jon utters the last line of the script as he manipulates a fantasy bowl, “righteous!”) Along the bump road there are ghostbusters and ectoplasm sensors, before the movie turns more serious. Of course, David and Elizabeth will eventually fall into a platonic love. You get to see Mark Ruffalo in the shower, with his hairy chest, and spread out on the bed in one curious shot like a gigolo, but his face is loosing harder edged than before. David pulls off his heroics, seeming to talk to himself, as he saves a young man in a restaurant by slicing into his chest to relieve a “pneumothorax” and then saves Elizabeth at the end by stealing her body from life support.


Heaven Can Wait (1978, Paramount, 101 min, dir. Warren Beatty and Buck Henry, PG) was a classic comic spoof. A football quarterback almost dies in a car accident, and is taken away to heaven prematurely by an angel. So he needs a new body, so a murdered financial tycoon is chosen.


Defending Your Life (1991, Warner Bros/Geffen, dir. Albert Brooks, 101 min, PG) is another fantasy of what happens when you “die.”  Here we have an ornate Judgment City, where you have to prove you overcame your fears in some task. When off duty, your accommodations are posh, and you can eat all you want without getting fat. There are long tunnels taking you to the next stage. Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) and Julia (Meryl Streep) will have the inevitable romance.





Related reviews: What Dreams May Come     Written on the Wind (Sirk)


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