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Oncology Times:
doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000293955.36479.ef
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TURRISI TAKES ON THE MOVIES

Turrisi, Andrew T. III MD

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Professor and Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, Medical University of South Carolina

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‘Far From Heaven’ ****

Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson, and Celia Weston. Written and Directed by Todd Haynes. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes

Todd Hayne's “Sirk du Soleil” tackles tough topics. The 1950s are remembered for the apparent tranquillity. There was great complacency during the Eisenhower years when America assumed its role as a heroic figure of the globe. Many of us grew up during those times, and now have gauzy recollections of childhood experiences from this era and vague remembrances of these dreary things past.

Ronald Reagan was an actor who emceed The General Electric Theater, where “progress was our most important product.” And concepts about supply side were considered to be problems of how to support a Wagon Train or prospectors in Death Valley Days.

Problems were never “heard” (nor were discouraging words), and they were “licked” by real men. Divorce occurred to only one marriage in five. Communism was the problem, not women's lib, race relations, or homosexuality.

The disease we worried about was polio, not AIDS or cancer. Problems existed but they were buried beneath the surface and certainly not discussed.

Cinematically, movies were restrained in many ways, but they surely were not asleep. Todd Haynes, auteur of the Velvet Goldmine, pays homage to one of the 1950s archetypes, director extraordinaire, Douglas Sirk.

Sirk, never heralded in the mainstream, directed memorable classics of what are now referred to as “women's movies,” melodramatic stories of impossible love. The melodrama with starkly drawn “good” and “bad” characters occurs when ordinary people are caught up in a tangle when they step out of prescribed roles and violate societal boundaries.

Of course, in the era of Joseph McCarthy and Bishop Fulton J Sheen, the topics themselves had to be carefully chosen if a director or screen playwright expected another job. The Sirk movies, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and My Magnificent Obsession went about as far as they were timidly allowed, but were always done in sumptuous and vivid Technicolor.

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Recreates the 1950s in Tone & Texture

Sirk's techniques were focused, acutely aware of the America of these times. In Far From Heaven, Haynes meticulously retrieves Sirkian methods and techniques, and recreates the 1950s in tone and texture.

He breathes new life into a Sirk icon than many of us did not know. An example is the rescued back-projection footage (car driving scenes, where the actors sit at the car's steering wheel, and the vintage scenery seemingly passes by through the auto's windows) from Written on the Wind archives.

Haynes applied the actual footage to his film, which added authenticity to the film's vintage character as well as paying respect to Sirk.

Haynes does double duty in trying to outdo Sirk in the use of color. Every shade of color washes each scene in full spectrum, as well as its full multi-layered symbolic value. Blues bathe street scenes, as our soon to fall male lead heads toward the gay bar, so you do not have to hear lurid saxophone themes to cue sexual tension. Flashing throbbing red lights signal danger.

Human color, black and white, provides a major theme in the plot of this movie. Haynes bravely and boldly stakes out subjects that were taboo within the era—the one surreal departure that Haynes makes from recapturing the 1950s as an isolated time capsule.

These topics were out of bounds to Sirk, but Haynes captures the precise nuance of what it was like to live in a perfect community, as a perfect white couple, with two perfectly adorable children, suddenly thrown into chaos when characters broach societal norms.

Suddenly boundaries are crossed, and we are far from heaven on the verge of the hell of societal opprobrium. Sirk is honored, and the bright sunshine is shed on subject matter that Sirk couldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Bright sunshine, as well as vivid color, dominates this movie. The opening titles blaze across the screen in brilliant cyan blue. The tapestry of fall colors is in full hue with ochre yellows and contrasting flaming crimsons of the leaves.

The perfect exteriors of the Whitaker colonial home contrast with the high-tech, even modern, interiors of the Whitaker home—a reflection of the characters, superficially traditional but cauldrons of modernity within. The costuming offers coordinating and contrasting colors almost like bridesmaids outfits at a wedding.

A lavender scarf blows off Cathy's neck and freely over the Whitaker residence, almost like Maid Marion signaling the beginning of a joust. This joust will jostle the seemingly stale marriage and upset the superficially calm community.

As Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) retrieves her scarf, Raymond Deagin (Dennis Haysbert) utters the ironic line: ”Everything seems to be in control here.”

The skill is that the line is delivered flatly and without a wink or a nod, allowing you to believe he's talking about pruning, planting, and leaf raking rather than the forerunner of three lives veering out of control.

The vintage autos, disproportionately Buicks and Oldsmobiles even for upper-middle-class districts like Hartford, but the colors are two-toned perfections of the era. Absent are the typical '57 Chevy's and bug-eyed Fords. The exceptional Whitaker estate Buick wagon is two-toned white with powder blue, like the cyan titles, as if to announce that this was what we were to watch. Also, Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), siren of society normalcy in this movie, pilots a screaming salmon super-finned 1957 Plymouth.

The cars and the scenery provide a vibrant palette of autumnal colors.

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Near Pitch Perfect

The taboo subjects are interracial relationships and homosexuality. The trio starring in this movie is just about pitch perfect in dealing with the delicate subjects as they were in 1957, not as one would, perhaps, today.

The movie does not judge or pander, but flatly portrays the moving forces. These affect Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), our perfect couple, and Raymond Deagin the African American gardener of higher status and aspiration, with the gentle demeanor, business degree, widower status, and father who wants his daughter to grow up in a better world.

Frank and Cathy are “Mr. and Mrs. Magnetech,” written in a script that evoked the era's TV and stereo electronics leader, “Magnavox.” (In the '50s, high-end electronics were American designed and owned and actually the industry leader – Sony did not exist in the USA then!)

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They were a team to be written about in society pages. Mona Lauder (Celia Weston) wants to capture the magic of their life for the Hartford, Connecticut society pages. She snaps a photo of our happy couple with a candid shot of them passionately kissing goodbye. Turns out this is pure sham, because Frank is gay and is about to give up the ghost of pretense and follow his nature, the lavender theme that remains whispered today when we do not ask and do not tell.

Shortly thereafter, a Negro (this is 1957—”African American” was not yet invented) appears in the Whitaker garden. Alarmed but controlled, Cathy heads to the yard despite cries that perhaps the police should be summoned. We meet Raymond Deagin, who tells us that he replaces his father.

The verbal exchange is polite and formal, almost mannered and stilted—it feels 2003 awkward, but captures the moment of racial inequality of 1957. The South had the hideous Jim Crow rules with separate water fountains and seats on the bus, but the North, as accurately and uncomfortably portrayed in this movie, had this— the unspoken class consciousness and ignorance that some still allow to pass for normalcy.

Haynes captures this without irony or scorn; interracial relations are formal, stilted, and uncomfortable. The South codified this with what now appear to be absurd rules, but the North tiptoed through its discomfort on egg-shells.

And we quaintly referred to syphilis and gonorrhea as social diseases, as these social atrocities and codes were silently accepted and built into how civilized people behaved and thought.

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Vehicle for Julianne Moore's Formidable Skills

The movie provides a vehicle for Julianne Moore to demonstrate her formidable skills. She was four months pregnant through the shoot, and ample dresses hid her obvious state. Her demeanor in dealing with an increasingly distant and estranged husband has shades of Donna Reed and Loretta Young. Her patient management of her two children evokes the parenting of the period—children were to behave, and commonly to be “seen and not heard.”

Her cozy but apparently superficial friendship with Eleanor Fine provides context and contrast between the two women. Threatened by rumors of an interracial intimate relationship, the friendship seems to wear thin, underscored by Cathy's withholding of marital violence and abuse, and Eleanor's sincere but maudlin offers of ”anything I can do”—except, of course, accept evolution beyond societal norms.

“This ‘Sirk du Soleil’ by Todd Haynes tackles tough topics, breathing new life into an icon than many of us did not know.”

Cathy's behavior with Raymond seems formal, but on the verge of the bloom of enlightenment. She reinvents herself from “Mrs. Magnatech” and part of a superficially happy couple, to a strong woman, who begins to probe who she is, what is in fact right and moral, what she wants from life, and what indeed is changeable and what is not.

More like the other Sirk title, she pushes what heaven allows and finds herself far from heaven.

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Underwritten Role for Dennis Quaid

Dennis Quaid has a thinner part. I find his role profoundly underwritten, so his talent and range have little to work with. He comes off brutish and unsympathetic, superficial and weak—more the writing than a weak performance.

Haynes writes a great vehicle for Cathy, but where that role is bravely and heroically depicted, Frank's character sways between alcoholic and abusive. While he orders his scotch “neat,” his language, demeanor, and comportment reveal a spineless and unsympathetic individual.

When Cathy is spotted with Deagin and the community tongues wag, he exposes himself as a whining hypocrite victimized by his wife's indiscretion.

The entire subject of coming out in the 1950s is relegated to subplot, with stereotyped characters, who check IDs at the secret bar and effeminate arty relatives from New York dressed in ascots and “charmed” by introductions. Frank becomes a victim of inner demons and a wandering eye for pretty boys.

Cathy and Frank's escape to Miami introduces an inexorable attraction to an unattached young man that makes himself available and his interest known. While their love dare not be spoken, their existence in motels and making cloying phone calls underscore that they are ignoble.

Perhaps this 1950s' sentiment continues in 2003. We laugh at the lunacy of anti-miscegenation laws of today, but do not have to look very far to find sniggering anti-gay sentiment remaining pervasive if not the norm. Haynes contrasts the taboo subjects of interracial relations and homosexuality by how these issues are portrayed. The movie allows the director to firmly plant his tongue in cheek, and burdens the audience with a moral choice.

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Othello-like

Haysbert's black tragic heroic role is reminiscent of Othello. He gets to be noble and the victim of an ugly culture that refuses to allow him to perform to the best of his seeming endless talents. Society is Iago— brainlessly undoing a deserving capable person because his Desdemona is white.

His performance in the restaurant with Esther, the third of the witches three that guard the treasures of society: the Madonna of the upper crust society (Mona Lauder), the lady of the well-wed women (Fine), and now the Guardian of Black cultural values, has Haysbert falter into caricature. The scene provides the backdrop for Cathy to almost ask him to call her by her first name, but boldly to suggest that they dance. You have to suspend disbelief that there would be such a wonderful live combo playing in the late afternoon at the best black lunch spot.

The movie has its flaws, but is a triumph in every attempt at evoking a period and its spirit. It tackles issues that could not be approached in that time. It has a draconian un-Sirk ending—not at all happy, not at all redemptive, but on tragic and unresolved notes.

The Elmer Bernstein score sets the tonal mood, with recognizable themes. Haynes crafts a devotional paean to Sirk, yet peppers the movie with taboo subjects dealing frontally with race, but only obliquely and unsatisfactorily with gay awakening and how men dealt with this then or now.

In the end, it is a success. The greater role and performance is Julianne Moore, who parlays this victorious role with an award-worthy performance in The Hours. She has come into her own in these movies.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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