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TV Land Exposed

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Civil-rights activist Will Campbell recalls being a Louisiana pastor at a relatively prosperous white Baptist church in the early 1950s. His congregation would nod with feigned sympathy when he would preach about racial equality. They thought their "little" pastor's concern for "darkies" was "cute." But that was before Brown vs. Board of Education. Once integration became the law of the land, they thought Campbell was a communist. Although relocated from the rural South to the suburban Northeast, these attitudes are revisited in writer-director Todd Haynes' powerfully affecting Far From Heaven, one of this year's best films.

Far From Heaven is the story of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a 1957 Connecticut housewife who seems to live in Rob and Laura Petrie's house from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Cathy wears the sprayed hair and full dresses favored by every 1950s mother from June Cleaver to Donna Stone, and she lives in a fantasy land where problems are what happen to other people. The fall landscape surrounding the Whitaker home seems to have been painted in bright, but artificial, reds and oranges.

Cathy's husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) works in advertising. Their children are as polite and obedient as those on Father Knows Best. Cathy has lady friends with whom she drinks coffee and for whom she hosts fancy cocktail parties where husbands don tuxedos and wives drape mink stoles over long dresses. The Whitakers' neighbors are "progressive." They go to art openings even when the exhibitions are curated by New York homosexuals. They compare themselves favorably to the people in Arkansas. The Little Rock school integration scandal would never happen in their town.

Then into this hypocritical Eden slithers the Satan of sex, even the act that dare not speak its name. Frank is struggling with his own homosexuality, and though he wishes he were not (with enough desperation to seek psychiatric counseling), he cannot control his desire. Despite the fact that Cathy and Frank have little in the way of a sex life, she remains blithely unaware of his sexual orientation until she catches him in the act. Even then she believes Frank can and will overcome his homosexual urges.

Ultimately, Far From Heaven compares 1950s attitudes toward homosexuality and race. Townspeople may whisper snide remarks about certain New Yorkers being "light in the loafers," but it occurs to no one that Frank might be gay. Cathy's life takes an unexpected turn when she becomes friendly with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a college-educated businessman who owns a gardening-supplies store and a contract gardening service. He is a widower, the father of a young daughter, a fan of modern art and a man who reflects thoughtfully on matters of philosophy and religion. He is also an African American. And however much Cathy may be allowed to tell her friends that she's a supporter of the NAACP, she's not allowed actually to have a black friend. If Cathy dares to talk to Raymond at an art exhibition, if she has lunch with him at a diner, that can only mean she's sleeping with him. And in this way the film is about 1950s attitudes toward gender as well. A white woman could not conceivably find any interest in a black man other than sex.

Despite stylizing his setting and costumes to fit a colorized version of 1950s family television, Haynes develops his characters in surprising depth. Frank is not merely a haunted homosexual unable to sustain the carefully created fiction of his own life. He is, in fact, ultimately a little less sympathetic than we first anticipate. He's a remote father, and he's capable of cruelty and even hot-headed violence.

Cathy isn't perfect either. She disciplines her children in a way most contemporary parents would regard as overbearing. And her naivete about racial matters waxes unintentionally close to rank insensitivity. A fascinating measure of how far we've come as a society can be found in audience reaction to some of Cathy's well-meaning declarations. Just as people guffawed at the scampering battalion of clean-suited gas-station attendants in Back to the Future, the sold-out crowd who saw Far From Heaven with me laughed when Cathy assures Raymond that she isn't prejudiced.

Dressed as if he stepped from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue and largely depicted with the same kind of unassuming nobility Sidney Poitier brought to his roles in the 1950s and '60s, Raymond would perhaps seem too good to be true. But surely there's as much deviltry as hunger in his decision to take Cathy to an all-black restaurant/nightclub.

In sum, in sketching three-dimensional characters trapped in a two-dimensional world, Haynes slyly turns an era on its head, exposes TV Land's happy endings for the hetero-WASP fraud they were and touches our heart in a way few pictures any longer dare. The only glimmer of hope that endures resides in the goodness of two human souls and points both to how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.

Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) and wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) seem to lead an idyllic life in Todd Haynes' stylized take on the 1950s, Far From Heaven.
  • Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) and wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) seem to lead an idyllic life in Todd Haynes' stylized take on the 1950s, Far From Heaven.

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