In Far From Heaven (opening Friday at the Manor), writer/director Todd Haynes' sumptuously designed homage to the highly stylized 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk -- including the Turner vehicle Imitation of Life and Wyman's Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows -- Julianne Moore plays a decidedly prim and proper suburban wife and mother in 1957 New England who's confronted with a level of hand-wringing personal crisis those Sirk heroines never could've imagined.
To simply look at Haynes' new film, audiences might think they'd stepped back in time. Beneath the surface, though, the indie sensibilities he flaunted in his previous films Poison, Safe and Velvet Goldmine enable Haynes to challenge a lot of the social and studio-mandated conventions under which Sirk operated. Moore's Cathy Whitaker pays the price for it: Not only is her husband (played by Dennis Quaid) secretly gay, but she also finds herself intimately drawn to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
"I don't think you can grow up without turning on the late-night movie at some point and catching one of those old Douglas Sirk films," Moore observes during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "I wasn't familiar with them in any kind of scholarly sense, like Todd is, but I always loved watching them. They struck me as social commentary couched as melodrama, so it was fun to reference them here and to take everything a step further by dealing with certain issues the studios wouldn't have touched back in the 1950s."
For her part, the actress says she had no trouble getting in touch with a character of such a different time and mindset -- "Sandy Powell's gorgeous costumes definitely helped set the mood," she admits -- and she hopes the deliberately mannered performances in the film aren't too offputting for contemporary audiences who may not get the Sirk-ian connection. "Aside from the particular circumstances of this story, Cathy's struggling with things all of us deal with, our relationships with our family and our community," she explains. "She's ultimately a very decent person, deeply moral, somebody who wants her life to be good and wants the world to be a better place.
"I think Todd's film is about the failure of American optimism. Cathy wants to believe she can change the world, but she comes to realize that life isn't always what she thinks it's going to be. That's what I identified with and what I hope audiences will respond to."
Such so-called "women's pictures" were a Hollywood staple in Sirk's heyday, but they've become considerably riskier propositions in the more recent moviemaking climate. As Moore puts it, "There's this attitude that stories about women belong on network or cable TV, and I think that's incredibly sad. With the current globalization of the film business, the studios feel they can make the most money on action films that aren't dialogue driven, which tend to be male-oriented projects. They can sell them internationally and none of the action or the special effects get lost in the translation. Just because films about women are traditionally dialogue- and character-dependent, I don't necessarily agree that makes them harder to sell to a worldwide audience."
In true Cathy Whitaker spirit, Moore is doing everything she can to challenge the system and put that unconventional theory to the test. Later this year, she co-stars with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in The Hours -- based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and directed by Billy Elliot's Stephen Daldry -- although, unfortunately, she didn't actually work with either one of them. "It's about a day in the life of three women from different time periods, so our scenes never overlapped. But it's been great getting to see them on press days, at least," the actress notes with a laugh.
Interestingly enough, Moore's subplot in The Hours casts her as another frustrated 50s housewife. However, she notes that "any similarity between the two characters ends there. Despite the similar setting, the stories are totally different. The Hours character is incredibly depressed, almost drowning in it, whereas I found Cathy to be much more self-possessed and controlled."
Indeed, although she may not undergo Billy Bob Thornton-like physical transformations from role to role, Moore's characters tend to be all over the proverbial map. At 41, her prolific movie resume has run the gamut: For every run-of-the-mill comedy (Nine Months), thriller (Hannibal), sci-fi satire (Evolution) or box-office blockbuster (The Lost World: Jurassic Park), there's an off-the-beaten-path Vanya on 42nd Street, Short Cuts, The Big Lebowski or Magnolia. A two-time Academy Award nominee -- as a heartbreaking porn star in Boogie Nights and for the repressed romantic drama The End of the Affair -- she's generating more Oscar buzz this year for both Far From Heaven and The Hours.
"I feel so incredibly fortunate to have two movies out right now that I care so deeply about," Moore concedes. "I just like playing characters who are complicated and real, kind of confused maybe, but ultimately only human. There's a place for all different kinds of movies, but I'm getting to a point where I'm only excited about something if the script really moves me or provokes me on some level. Hopefully, if the story somehow reflects the human condition, I guess that's what intrigues me."