Friday, November 4, 2011

Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven
last seen online via Hulu

I'm gonna pass on writing about the racial aspects of Far From Heaven because, frankly, they're pretty obvious - bigotry existed in the 50s, BIG SURPRISE - and instead talk about a concept whose inner workings have long eluded me: gaydar.

In this movie, Dennis Quaid's character, Frank, is held up as a paragon of All-American masculinity and virtue, 50s style, but it turns out that he's secretly gay, and try as he might, he can't resist the yearnings he has for other men that threaten to undermine his marriage. We see him eying younger men, and sometimes they give him the eye right back. 

What interests me is how gay people recognized each other back then. Today, gays are much more out in the open and Western society in general is more accepting of them now than fifty years ago (all things being relative, of course). Back then, though, it was a lot harder. Nothing about Frank screams gay. He's basically the man in the gray flannel suit, the picture of the 50s suburban working-class man - which, of course, is the point, since, as he explains at one point, he has suppressed his homosexual longings most of his life. And yet other gay men can still mark him as one of their own.

It should come as no surprise that modern science has tried to find a biological basis for gaydar, but it's unlikely this sort of information was common knowledge back then. (Hair whorls? Really?) In the movie, it's unclear how exactly Frank knows a dude is gay. We see him looking fixedly at a guy or guys, and presumably, gears start turning in his head. He's never wrong, either. I'd imagine he'd be taking a huge risk every time he went after these guys. God forbid he pegged the wrong dude as gay who wasn't, like the son of a politician or a policeman - one can imagine how deep into trouble he'd be then - yet he clearly felt it was worth the risk. However, I trust the judgment of writer-director Todd Haynes, a gay man, and these scenes didn't ring false to me.

Of course, in some cases, there's little to no room for doubt. The movie acknowledges that in one scene where Patricia Clarkson tells Julianne Moore about a New York art dealer who is so obviously "that way," and when we see him later on at an gallery exhibit - yep, he's gay! Sometimes the stereotypes fit.

When I talked about Paris is Burning, I mentioned how the gay people in that film discuss dressing like straights as a way of proving that they can "play the game" as well as anyone else. It's an intriguing idea because the way they see it, it's not hiding from straight society so much as mocking it, in a sense. This, however, requires an awareness and an acceptance of oneself as gay, something Frank doesn't have in Heaven. He really is hiding, and yet he can't completely conceal his gay identity. Because Haynes crafts this film in the style of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, this is seen as a tragedy, but - and I'm sure Haynes would agree - the fact that Frank can now be himself and not live a lie is undoubtedly a happy ending.

A brief aside: it was a bit of a shock to see Viola Davis as a maid again. When I first saw Heaven, I didn't know who she was, and of course her role here is nowhere near as prominent as it is in The Help, but I couldn't help but make comparisons.


  1. I'm in a film buff group, and we watched the Sirk film All that Heaven Allows, which is the basis for Far from Heaven. It was wild to then revisit the newer film, and see how the concept was pulled out of (rescued from?) the melodrama of the original. The additions of the racial and homosexual aspects made it fresh and relevant for today. I appreciate Far From Heaven much more than I did before, even though I liked it a lot the first time.

    I agree, I was amazed at the gaydar. Viola was a surprise for me, too! The first time I saw the movie, she wasn't "Oscar Nominated" Viola Davis. :)

  2. It's not too hard to imagine Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman - or, for that matter, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray - in the Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid roles. Haynes did a marvelous job of recreating the late 50s.


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