Far from Heaven

By Naomi Pfefferman


This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, March 5, 2002–When the call came about writing the music for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Elmer Bernstein was initially dismissive. “The film already had a temporary score, and I won’t look at a film with a temporary score,” said Bernstein, who has received 13 Academy Award nominations and a 1963 Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie.

His agent replied that he might make an exception for this temporary score, since it happened to be Bernstein’s music from To Kill a Mockingbird. “So I watched the movie and I was stunned,” the jovial composer said in his Santa Monica office. “Then I had a Todd Haynes film festival at my house and I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this director.'”

So began a collaboration that has yielded yet another Oscar nomination for Bernstein and a close friendship between the 80-year-old composer and 42-year-old filmmaker. Heaven is Haynes’ homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, who fled Hitler to Hollywood and transformed “women’s pictures” into slyly subversive critiques of American social taboos. The story revolves around perky Connecticut homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whose seemingly perfect life unravels when she discovers her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a closet homosexual and her friendship with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) is alienating the town. Because the year is 1957, when homosexuality wasn’t discussed, Bernstein’s score captures Cathy’s heartache and other emotions the characters can’t verbalize.

If the ’50s cinematic style contrasts with the contemporary subject matter, the director and composer also proved a fortuitous union of opposites. Bernstein, who represents old Hollywood, has scored more than 200 movies for filmmakers ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to Martin Scorsese. He is the composer who “marched Steve McQueen through The Great Escape, who led Chuck Heston . . . into the Promised Land carrying The Ten Commandments . . .[and] who celebrated the gathering of cowboys as they banded together as The Magnificent Seven,” according to the Dallas Observer.

By way of contrast, acclaimed renegade independent filmmaker Haynes, who is up for a screenwriting Oscar for Heaven, has deliberately remained a Hollywood outsider. Once a poster boy for the New Queer Cinema, his unnerving, stylishly avant-garde films depict people pushed into various kinds of exile–from the housewife literally poisoned by suburbia in 1995’s Safe to the androgynous glam-rockers in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine.

Yet as the director and the composer began discussing Heaven in Bernstein’s Santa Barbara studio in summer 2002, their differences quickly fell away.

“Elmer and I became friends very fast, which I think has a lot to do with being Jewish, left-leaning and interested in the arts,” said Haynes, who has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.

“We commiserated about ‘the world,'” Bernstein, the son of Eastern European immigrants, said with a laugh. “I heard from Todd the liberal views I enjoy hearing from my own sons, and he heard from me what he would have expected to hear from his own grandfather.”

During a series of trips to Bernstein’s studio, the cerebral, exuberant Haynes often remarked how much the composer reminded him of his charismatic grandfather, Arnold Semler, who died in early 2001.

In fact, Heaven is dedicated to Semler, aka “Bompi,” a son of Rumanian and Polish immigrants who started out in the Warner Brothers mail room in the 1930s and worked his way up to head of set construction and union organizer. A Communist Party member, he quit his job during the McCarthy-era blacklists and founded a communications and electronics business. By the 1960s, he was living on an affluent Studio City street, it turns out, just two doors down from Bernstein’s home at the time.

“My whole life, we’d see films together,” Haynes said of his grandfather. “I shared my obsessions with him all the time. He helped me to go to college [at Brown University] and ultimately, he became a primary financier of my films.”

The politically progressive Semler was pleased when Haynes’ provocative first feature, Poison, not only won the top prize at Sundance but became the center of a National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy.

“He identified with the history of Jewish struggle,” Haynes said. “All my films are about resilient outsiders, whether in terms of race or sexual orientation, and I think I inherited that from my grandfather.”

Bernstein, in turn, told Haynes about his grandfather, a “leather jacket socialist,” and described his banishment to low-budget science fiction and “cheesecake” films for a time during the McCarthy era. That ended, he said, when Cecil B. DeMille summoned him to his office, asked if he was a Communist (Bernstein said no) and hired him on The Ten Commandments.

The old Hollywood stories inevitably startled Haynes. “I was reminded of whom I was working with and I was, like, speechless,” he said by phone from his Portland, OR, home.

Haynes never imagined he would engage a composer like Bernstein when, burned out on New York’s indie filmmaking scene, he closed his Brooklyn apartment and drove to Portland to write Heaven–now up for four Oscars–two years ago. He had long intended to pen a domestic melodrama inspired by Sirk, whose own life read like one of his tearjerkers.

“His second wife was Jewish, and he had a difficult time getting her out of Nazi Germany,” Haynes said. “`Meanwhile, his first wife, a Nazi sympathizer, made their son a star of the Nazi youth cinema. Because she wouldn’t let him see the child, he had to watch propaganda films to keep abreast of his little boy, on the screen wearing Nazi regalia. When the child died, the Nazi cinema was his last connection to his son.”

From the moment Haynes began writing his own Sirkian melodrama, he had the score in mind. During his first telephone conversation with Bernstein, the composer referred “to all the detailed descriptions in my script –‘a dark mist of music gathers,’ ‘music bathes the shadowy quiet’ . . . and we laughed,” Haynes said.

If the descriptions sounded over-the-top, the director and composer were adamant the music should not. “It took us the better part of three minutes to realize we were in total agreement as to what was to be done,” Bernstein recalled. Nevertheless, scoring a melodrama for contemporary audiences “was like walking a tight rope,” he said.

“A failure . . . would have easily resulted in parody,” Haynes said.

He knew Bernstein had succeeded when the composer sat at the piano and played him the finished score as the movie ran on a video monitor.

The lush, lyrical music speaks out in ways the repressed characters can’t: Piano sequences underscore Cathy’s fragility, while otherworldly strains accompany Frank’s trek to an underground gay bar.

When Cathy walks in the woods with her African-American gardener, Bernstein introduces a rich melody that later repeats as she pines for the man. “It’s the only moment in the film where the music goes, shall I say, sunny,” he said.

Almost a year after the composer agreed to watch Heaven with its temporary soundtrack, his score is eliciting the best reviews of his career. “One critic called my music ‘the sound of paradise,'” he sai

About Naomi Pfefferman

Naomi Pfefferman is Arts and Entertainment editor for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.