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Movie Review: Far From Heaven

After seeing Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, I am certain of one thing:
Dennis Haysbert should run for President in 2004.

In real life, Haysbert has no political ambitions, but in addition to his role as kind-hearted gardener Raymond Deagan in FAR FROM HEAVEN, Haysbert also stars as the first African-American President, David Palmer, on the TV show “24,” and Palmer is not President in some far-off future fantasyland, but right here now today.

Having a black President is very believable in the world of “24” due to good writing, but mostly due to Haysbert’s strong portrayal of his character. His David Palmer is a man of strong convictions; capable of making a firm decision and sticking by it no matter what, whether it could ruin his campaign or his marriage. He’s the kind of politician you wish existed, especially amongst the Democrats these days.

However, “24” has wisely — unless I’ve missed something — never revealed Palmer’s party affiliation. That way the show doesn’t alienate any segment of the population. But it’s a pretty safe assumption he’s not a member of the Green or Socialist parties. From my own bias, though, I imagine Palmer as a Democrat.

Anyway, Haysbert oozes that same sort of grave confidence and air of genuine authority to his role in FAR FROM HEAVEN. The only difference is that in the film he’s even more so of the male ideal, the type of perfect man similar to John Corbett’s Aidan Shaw in HBO’s “Sex and the City.” It’s not hard to see why Julianne Moore’s frustrated suburban housewife character, Cathy Whitaker, would welcome her gardener’s companionship. He’s the epitome of absolute good.

If it were any other movie, it would be easy to criticize having a character like Raymond Deagan painted with such broad strokes. It’s too easy and certainly not believable. However, for his film, Todd Haynes has aped the style of Douglas Sirk. I myself am not a big fan of old films, so I’m not familiar with Sirk’s work, but he’s mostly famous for directing weepy melodramas in the 1950s.

FAR FROM HEAVEN’s stroke of genius is that the film isn’t set in the actual ’50s, but in the highly artificial world that Hollywood tried to sell as the real world. From what I gather about Sirk is that he was highly aware of the phoniness of the Hollywood vision of American life, but worked in an exaggerated version of that vision to comment on the hypocrisies of the American social system, which doesn’t seem too far off from what Jane Austen did for England in her novels. Sirk, by the way, was a German who fled his country after the Nazis came to power.

Haynes has then taken the Sirk sensibility to the next level, most notably by making Cathy’s husband, Frank (played by Dennis Quaid), a homosexual who can’t stay in the closet anymore. Sirk did deal with the issue of racism in IMITATION OF LIFE — which came out in 1959, right when the civil rights movement started gaining momentum — but for him homosexuality was a totally taboo topic. This is particularly amusing since Rock Hudson starred in many of Sirk’s films, especially ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) in which he plays a stoic gardener who has a scandalous affair with a wealthy widow. As we know now, Hudson was of course a private homosexual, but a public hetero sex symbol.

By lovingly and painstakingly recreating a former era of filmmaking and then infusing it with current sensibilities, Haynes has created a thoroughly modern film. It was a daunting move, working in an existentialist age, to produce a film totally devoid of irony and condescension about an era that nowadays is typically derided.

Luckily, the movie has been a critical darling with Oscar buzz swirling about, which is drawing people in. It’s an audacious film, and one of the most original and unique pictures of American mores made in a long time. Even if you hate, hate, hate, hate old movies, FAR FROM HEAVEN is worth spending some time with.