In 2002, writer/director Todd Haynes released the film that may be remembered as his masterpiece, Far From Heaven. Julianne Moore starred as Cathy Whitaker, a wife, mother and homemaker in 1957 New England suburbia who appears to be living the perfect life. She has a handsome and successful husband (Dennis Quaid), two beautiful children, a lovely home and good friends.
But then the cracks start to show. Quaid’s character is a closeted homosexual and Cathy catches him one night with another man. As her life unravels, Cathy turns to Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her sensitive African American gardener who lives with his young daughter, for solace. Their friendship grows and, although there is nothing illicit going on between them, tongues start to wag and Cathy finds herself shunned by her conservative white friends/community. Here’s the original trailer:http://www.dailymotion.com/videoxc07v
I love Far From Heaven—I think it’s one of the great and underrated films of the last ten years. Taking its inspiration from the 1950s melodramas of director Douglas Sirk, Haynes took Sirk’s template—glossy, over-saturated Technicolor Hollywood productions with big stars that often dealt subversively with the underbelly of suburban American life—and updated it; addressing more directly the issues of race and sexuality that could barely be touched upon in Sirk classics like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life (my favorite Sirk).
As much as I enjoyed Far From Heaven, when Raymond is introduced as the gardener, my first thought was he could have been an Asian American character. So instead of Moore and Haysbert:
It could have been Moore and, say, my fellow Offender Sung:
Let me explain why this casting makes sense. Many Japanese Americans were gardeners in this post-World War II period. After being interned during the war, some JAs moved to places where they had not previously lived like the New England of Far From Heaven to start anew. If Raymond were a Japanese American character and had been played by someone like Sung, it would have made perfect sense.
If this story takes place in 1957, our version of Raymond could have been a young high schooler at the time of the internment fifteen years before. He met his future wife in the camps, fell in love, went off to fight in Europe with the 442nd Unit and returned to marry his sweetheart who is by now out of the camps. They have a daughter but his wife dies soon thereafter. Maybe a relative or another JA friend has started a gardening business in the town where Cathy resides and invites Raymond to move there and join him. It is here that Raymond meets Cathy.
The hostility that Cathy experiences from the community because of her friendship with Raymond would still be intact if he were Japanese/Asian American. With the memory of Pearl Harbor and WWII still fresh, there would be strong anti-Asian sentiment. In one scene, Raymond’s daughter is chased and attacked by a group of white boys because she is black. Is it too far of a stretch to imagine the same scene with the boys chasing and attacking an Asian girl and calling her a “dirty Jap?”
Maybe some would argue that because Far From Heaven is a tribute to Sirk, the relationship needs to be white-black since that is what Sirk dealt with in his films. But I think that’s exactly why a white-Asian relationship in a 1950s American suburban setting would be more interesting. So much of the dialogue about race back then (and still today) was defined in solely black and white terms. But history tells us that Asians were as much a part of this world as African Americans were. It would be something to see that reality finally reflected in the movies.