Thursday, August 1, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "WRITTEN ON THE WIND"

WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956)

Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman based on the novel by Robert Wilder



“Written on the Wind,” is one of those movies where the plot depends on when, where and whether characters know certain pieces of information, or in some cases misinformation, and that those characters will behave predictably in regards to that information. Another term for this is “melodrama,” which is what Director Douglas Sirk was most well-known for. Reaction to Sirk’s work over time has been interesting. In the 50s, his work was beloved by audiences but dismissed by critics; this film for instance, is the only one of his movies to ever win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for Dorothy Malone. Now, however, people have totally dismissed Sirk’s work, and it’s not popular at all, but now critics and filmmakers have suddenly taken a great interest in his films, for upon closer inspection, his films include many hidden subtexts. A widowed wife of a cheating spouse would cause controversy being seen with her “younger,” gardener in “All that Heaven Allows,” which seems odd even in the '50s, such barely shocking behavior causing stirs, unless you think the man isn’t young, but maybe something else, and maybe the husband with the problem staying faithful, could mean he’s trying to cure himself of another “illness.” The interesting exception to this in Sirk’s work is “Imitation of Life,” his last film, a remake itself of a 1934 film, in which a woman passes herself off as white, but is actually Black. And a few years ago, Todd Haynes’s film “Far From Heaven,” a nearly direct remake of “All that Heaven Allows,” earned four Oscar nominations, by imitating the style of Sirk, and blatantly revealing the gardener to be Black, and the husband, to not only be cheating, but gay.

In “Written on the Wind,” often considered his best film, these subtexts do exists, sometimes when a character chooses an odd time to dance to loud music in her room, or when in the relationships between the characters themselves seem slightly hard to believe until it’s looked at in another way. The melodramatic aspects of the story itself also remains fascinating, from the flawed characters to the way they hide information from some, tell lies to coerce actions from other characters, the film plays like… hmm, no, not “Desperate Housewives,” which is a parody, this film especially is a direct ancestral relative to “Dallas,” and other similar primetime and daytime soap operas, the daytime variety were also popular in the 50s. The story involves Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) an oil heir and tabloid playboy drunk, who falls in love and marries Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) a secretary. Kyle’s childhood best friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) is also in love with Lucy, but pines her from afar, as he protects Kyle from the rest of the world, since his family took him in from his poor roots. Kyle’s attention-craving, manipulative, nymphomaniac sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone, in hindsight maybe somewhat overacting) is desperately in love with Mitch, but he doesn’t feel the same back, and she lashes in even worse behavior than her brother, who is a constant drinker, and particularly so, when he learns troubling news from a doctor. I don’t call the conclusion of this film tragic, for a tragedy shouldn’t be so foreseeable. Sirk knows this, and opens the movie with a brief glimpse at the ending. It is contrived, but not in a way that makes it feel incorrect, contrived in the way natural instincts and desires determine destinies. I’m not going to say I necessarily like the movie, but it is continually fascinating, how each viewing reveals something else that might have just been hidden before, behind those picket fences and large gates houses. It's easy to mock and dismiss now, but it's really a sharp satire, that has finally peered out of it's lavish Hollywood artifice of a love triangle gone wrong. And educated viewer watches "Written on the Wind" and wonders what others secrets does Sirk’s film hide. 
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