The rituals of the suburban cocktail party play out predictably. Sometime during the late afternoon, amid the gleaming borrowed chafing dishes and the fluttering corporate wives, one of the guests, grown progressively less inhibited through drink, raises a glass to toast the beautiful hostess. She smiles demurely, allowing her husband, now even closer to stupor than the guest, to make the witty response. He reminds the company that it’s all in the make-up. In the mornings, he insists, she’s a real fright. Laughter from the guests, and again, the stylized smile from the wife. “We girls all have our little secrets,” she croons through clenched teeth.
Far From Heaven shows that these little secrets extend far beyond the mysteries of the dressing table. In this boozy exchange, writer-director Todd Haynes embodies the theme of his complex, disturbing new film. Nothing is quite what it seems; everything has its little secret.
Set in the suburbs of Hartford, Conn., in the autumn of 1957, the film opens on a field of pure red that gradually resolves itself into a branch of a maple tree turned to flame. It’s the fantasy of autumn in New England, courtesy of Technicolor. The camera cranes up to show a powder-blue and white Buick station wagon lumbering through the postcard landscape on its round of domestic errands. Mrs. Frank Whitaker—her girlfriends call her Cathy (Julianne Moore)—drives cautiously, ever protective of her two perfect children in the back seat. They whine about their chores, but call their mother “Ma’am.”
The Whitakers have everything. Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), a Navy commander during the war, got in on the ground floor of a new electronics company, long before there was such a thing as a Silicon Valley. In a few years he has climbed the corporate ladder to become marketing director of Magnatech, a growing manufacturer of television sets. Life provides an endless round of ballet lessons and football practice for the children, teas and gossip for the ladies, power lunches and working late for the men, and of course, the cocktail parties. To help the Whitakers keep up with this hectic schedule, they have Sybil (Viola Davis), their wise and dedicated colored maid. (Yes, that was the term in 1957, so very long ago.)
The racial vocabulary of the time provides a key that unlocks one of the ugly little secrets hidden beneath the facade of suburban gentility. Supporting liberal causes is expected, but associating with Jews and Negroes cannot be tolerated, as Cathy discovers. Despite her family obligations and social commitments, Cathy finds herself lonelier than she would like to admit. She needs a friend, and after several chance meetings and snippets of conversation, she discovers a sympathetic companion in her gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He is a widower, has a college degree, attends cultural events with his 11-year-old daughter, and after inheriting his father’s nursery and landscaping business, rests securely in the middle class. All of this, of course, makes no difference. He is a Negro, again the terminology of the day.
Their friendship remains platonic, but that makes no difference either. On matters of race, Hartford, like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, is a small town. After an ill-advised drive in the country, they stop for coffee and meet with patent hostility in a diner with white patrons, and with frosty contempt in a bar with black patrons. Neither group is able to cross the color line. One of the town’s most vicious gossips spots them socializing. She leaps to an ugly conclusion, and with her encouragement so does everyone else. Within hours the reputation of one of the leading couples in town is shredded into confetti.
Frank Whitaker rages about her stupidity, but he has secrets of his own. He drinks too much (that’s obvious), but when he fortifies his first morning coffee at the office from a bottle in his desk drawer, his thirst may extend beyond the good, manly country-club congeniality that is expected of business leaders. He seems oddly cold toward Cathy. After one more night of “working late,” he stops at a movie in a downtown theater. The feature is “Three Faces of Eve,” in which Joanne Woodward won her Academy Award for playing a schizophrenic tormented by the three personalities inhabiting her body. The male patrons, each alone, eye one another suspiciously.
Like Eve, Frank leads a schizophrenic life. He follows a man from the theater down an alley to a grim, cheerless gay bar. Never was the term more ironic. Some days later, when Cathy unexpectedly drops in on another “late night” at the office, to bring Frank his dinner, she discovers him in the embrace of a male companion. Determined to salvage his life, Frank and Cathy go to a psychiatrist to seek a “cure,” which the therapist warns them is by no means certain. As she waits for him outside the clinic, Cathy notices a young couple playfully kissing on a park bench. Her face magically dissolves into sorrow that no words can express. Almost imperceptibly, the garish colors of the New England autumn have faded to mid-winter, factory-town gray.
The material of this story could easily have lent itself to sordid treatment, or even worse, the filmmakers could have assumed a “now-ist” posture of contempt for the backward, hypocritical ways of the “Ozzie and Harriet” generation. Todd Haynes attempts something far more subtle here. From the opening title, with shadow letters arching across the screen and Elmer Bernstein’s romantic score on the sound track, he invites us to recall, respectfully as well as critically, the values of the Eisenhower era, before the civil rights movement, feminism or gay liberation: another era, another world.
In this world Frank and Cathy can have no happy ending; that precisely is their tragedy. In such a universe, women have a natural role, interracial romance is grotesque and homosexuality is an incurable disease. Cathy and Raymond cannot simply rise above their narrow-minded neighbors and find true love elsewhere. Raymond leaves town and tells Cathy it would not be wise for her even to visit his family. Frank cannot find peace by accepting his sexual identity. His career is ruined, and his future with a young companion in faceless hotel rooms provides little more joy than his furtive visit to the gay bar. Cathy remains lonely with her children; Frank remains ashamed of himself and the life he is forced to lead. Raymond will always be a hard-working Negro who realistically knows his place and how to survive in it.
Tragedy is the most adult form of drama because it is rooted deeply in awareness of the finite nature of the human person. Tragic heroes are able to look through their tears and see, in a way that lesser people cannot, the ultimate truth that they are not God and cannot fashion or refashion the world to make it more congenial to their own purposes. Through their ordeals, they realize that they inhabit a universe touched by sin and mortality, and nothing they do can change it.
Julianne Moore, through her brilliant interpretation of Cathy Whitaker, takes us by the hand and leads us step by step through her tragic journey. At the start, she had constructed her world and herself from the expectations of others. She hid behind too much makeup, artificial curls and puffy crinolines. Her speech patterns were too studied and pitched too deep in her throat, as though every line of casual conversation had been scripted for declamation. Perhaps she even thought that this was her authentic self. As the mascara runs and the sentences stumble, she discovers the woman behind the roles she plays is a real woman, but an unhappy one.
This cuts directly against the Hollywood grain. In most movies, the characters would shed their carapace of false identities, despise their former lives, embrace their true selves and find happiness. Cathy and Frank were truly happy with their old lives. They wanted to be “Ozzie and Harriet,” and for a while they were. For them, truth comes at a terrible cost, but they can never return to the lie, even if they wanted to.
Tragedy presents a grim universe, it is true. But often enough, as it offers an unblinking look at the evils that befall our tribe, it offers hope that the human journey will continue as the survivors sweep up the shards and move on with the business of the species. Tragedy rejects cheap storybook solutions to problems that cannot be solved in the real world, yet it offers a profoundly Christian, incarnational optimism that we will continue the journey, despite the setbacks, without miracles.
Thus the concluding shot closes the circle perfectly. It cranes up from the Buick rolling out of screen on a damp city street and pans across a colorless brick wall to a branch of a fruit tree in full flower. Where there is springtime, there is life. And where there is life, there is hope.