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Todd Haynes' new film captures look and values of 1950s films

TORONTO--We have a saying in Chicago: Don't drive the Dan Ryan expressway until you've driven it three times. Nobody should see Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven" unless they've seen a lot of movies, especially from the 1950s. Unless you know what he's doing, you're likely to hate it.

This is the most daring film so far in the Toronto Film Festival, and it is likely to be the most misunderstood.

The movie has been made in the style and tone of those Universal-International social melodramas of the 1950s, especially such Douglas Sirk titles as "All That Heaven Allows," "There's Always Tomorrow," "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life." It copies the look down to the leisurely treetop pans past autumn leaves. It is a period movie in the most difficult way possible--a movie not simply set in a period, but filmed as if it were made at the time, and with the values of the time.

Most period films are set in the past but embody the values of the present.

Like the Sirk films, "Far from Heaven" deals with characters who risk society's disapproval in order to follow their hearts. In Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows," the movie that most resembles this one, middle-aged widow Jane Wyman falls in love with her young gardener, Rock Hudson. In the Haynes version, the housewife (Julianne Moore) finds herself drawn to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), while her husband (Dennis Quaid) struggles with his homosexuality.

Homosexual romances were usually dealt with by implication in the 1950s. It takes an act of deconstruction like Mark Rappaport's "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" to understand, for example, what was going on between Hudson and Robert Stack as they go through the motions of competing for Dorothy Malone in "Written on the Wind." If homosexuality dared not speak its name in the 1950s, interracial romance was as deeply buried, in convoluted plotlines like "Imitation of Life," where the daughter of the movie star's maid passes for white.

Haynes' "Far from Heaven" is frankly about the homosexuality of the husband and the attraction between the wife and the gardener. Here is the daring thing: Haynes treats these two elements as they would have been treated in 1957. Homosexuality is a "problem" that Quaid tells a shrink makes him feel "despicable." And Moore and Haysbert, who never so much as kiss, have their lives so destroyed by gossip that he has to sell his business and leave town.

The movie shows that both forms of love were forbidden by society, but finds there is something poignant about the interracial couple and something shameful about the gay man. There is sadness as the woman smiles to the man as he leaves town on the train (in a quote of the last shot from "In the Heat of the Night"), but no joy when we see her husband in a hotel room with his lover. This, too, is true to the period: Gay rights lagged at least a decade behind civil rights in terms of public enlightenment.

"Who's gonna go see this movie?" I was asked after the screening, by a friend who is one of the most knowledgeable movie people in Canada. He said he admired it, "but I'm old enough to remember the 1950s, and the movies of the 1950s. Show this to a young audience today, and the gays will hate it and the blacks will laugh at it."

Perhaps they will, because they will bring today's values to a film that deliberately does not embody them. The movie is valuable precisely as a time capsule. It reconstructs how ordinary suburbanites in middle America (Hartford, Conn.) dealt with race and sex by not dealing with them at all.

It depicts "liberals" who "support the NAACP" but know no blacks except their domestic servants.

One scene is a mirror of "All That Heaven Allows," where Rock Hudson was the gardener and, like Haysbert here, wore plaid shirts, drove a pick-up and always seemed to be pruning something in the garden just when the lady of the house needed a heart-to-heart. Haysbert tells Moore he needs to pick up some plans and asks her to "come along for the ride," just as Hudson does with Wyman, and in both movies nosy neighbors see them together and start whispering. The thing many people suspected about Sirk's films at the time--the thing that attracted gay directors like Fassbinder and Haynes to his style and material--is that he always seemed to be hinting that his story lines were really about something else that Hollywood wouldn't let him represent.

Everyone is polite and chirpy and maddeningly conventional in "Far from Heaven," and the conversational tone is set early, when Moore's son tells her: "Aw, shucks." He is of an age when today's suburban white boys enrich their vocabularies with hop-hop. There is a jolt when Haynes breaks the form, brilliantly: Quaid, drunk, angry and in anguish, shouts at his wife and uses an f-word that would never have been heard in a 1950s movie.

They are both shocked, he apologizes, and they hug one another; the moment shows a ruder but more truthful age preparing to break through.

Will blacks laugh at the movie? Will gays be angry? Well, blacks have had decades of experience at not laughing out loud at white Hollywood product. Both black and gay critics have written about watching mainstream films for the oblique hints of stories beneath the surface. My feeling is that perceptive viewers will be able to see what Haynes is attempting. And "Far from Heaven" does work as drama. I sensed that the audience was as involved, and in much the same way, as they would have been while seeing a good 1957 movie.

Certainly "Far from Heaven" has been the hottest ticket so far at the Toronto Film Festival; there was a mob scene at the press and industry screening, as two theaters filled up early and hundreds of angry people were shut outside. A volunteer muttered into her walkie-talkie, "Things are getting ugly." When hundreds of people spontaneously turn up an hour early for a screening, that indicates a particular desire to see the movie. Most audiences at Toronto form 15 minutes before showtime.

I was among those shut out. When I was finally able to see the film, later that evening, I noticed that every single member of the audience remained seated until the last credit had rolled and the last note of Elmer Bernstein's period score had played. Usually festivalgoers bolt for the doors. Were they deeply moved, or just contemplative? Hard to say.

Haynes has made the film in utter sincerity. There is not a shred of irony in it. No satire, no condescension to the characters or the story. He has made it as seriously as Sirk would have. "It made me feel," said my friend the veteran filmgoer. "I felt something. I really did." Haynes cares for his characters.

You have to experience "Far from Heaven" in the terms of the time.

You can't approach it as if it were made this year, even though it was. If Hollywood had been able to make movies that dealt openly with homosexuality and race in 1957, it might have made this one. And we would have been the better for it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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