Getting Away With It

Constricted by the social taboos of the Eisenhower era, director and master melodramatist Douglas Sirk explored the mores of more

The studio loved the title All That Heaven Allows. They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way around.

--Douglas Sirk


The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind
The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind

From Orson Welles and Ida Lupino to Jane Campion and John Woo, any serious film artist who has ever taken money from a studio has pondered the question: What can I get away with? After all, the borrowing of funds in any field carries with it the obligation of reimbursement--and not least in cinema, the most expensive of all artistic mediums. To increase the allotted budget (or to ease the investor's mind, as the case may be), an A-list director might choose to cast, say, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman--at which point the director inherits an enormous debt to the stars' agents, to their personas, and to their audience. Now what can the filmmaker get away with?

If the master strategist Stanley Kubrick negotiated this business by selling both the actors and the audience on his patented form of unapproachable genius, a lesser-known auteur named Douglas Sirk got his own way through opposite means: Delivering a series of opulent melodramas to Universal-International in the mid- to late Fifties, Sirk dealt with the art-vs.-commerce conundrum by giving the public exactly what it wanted--and more. In Sirk's soap operas, the shadows are more dark, the colors more fiery, the characters more unhinged, the plot more implausible, the music more shrill, the symbolism more blatant (and often more phallic). Indeed, it's this extra something--call it lurid hyperbole, shameless sap, or American allegory, perhaps--that continues to distinguish intoxicating entertainments such as Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, and Imitation of Life, all of which will be screening in newly struck 35mm prints at Oak Street Cinema through September 2.

For the first of these, 1954's Magnificent Obsession (Tuesday at 7:20 and 9:40 p.m.), the journeyman Sirk enhanced his profile by taking on a pet project of actor Jane Wyman, a well-regarded star with the privilege of choosing her own material. Wyman's Oscar-winning role six years earlier had been as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda, so it's no surprise that she'd had her eye on playing the blind heroine of Obsession. Begrudgingly accepting the assignment, Sirk embellished the movie's tearjerking hokum into cheeky surreality, telling the ludicrous story of a playboy (Rock Hudson) who undergoes medical training to operate on the widow (Wyman) whom he blinded in a car accident. As the playboy's transformation requires his adherence to the Christian beliefs of a divinely inspired artist (Otto Kruger), the director himself had a philosophy of the film's outrageous aesthetic. "It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness," he told an interviewer in 1970. "But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic--there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art."

In navigating this aesthetic minefield, Sirk benefited immeasurably from the fact that the chief subject of his crazy cinema was postwar America. A left-wing intellectual theater and film director who emigrated from Germany in 1937, Sirk (born Detlef Sierck in Denmark, to German parents) was certainly no stranger to the cruel constrictions of society--which is also to say that he was right at home in 1950s Hollywood. On the one hand, the culture of Eisenhower-era conservatism kept the director busy making socially critical melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow; on the other, Hollywood's need to compete with the small-screen threat at home (and to cater to the craven tastes of those burgeoning rebels without a cause) gave rise to a swell of sex and violence in cinema--and Sirk was happy to work this side of the street as well. Taking such contradictory impulses to their logical extremes, 1956's Written on the Wind (Friday through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.) is the obscene cautionary tale of a corn-liquor-swilling billionaire (Robert Stack) and his nymphomaniac sister (Dorothy Malone), who wreak havoc on a Texas town spilling over with erect oil derricks. Naturally, the film gushed millions at the box office.

Still, Written on the Wind was hardly a critical sensation (despite Oscar nominations for Stack and Malone)--and neither was Sirk's more sober yet characteristically soapy The Tarnished Angels (Monday at 7:30 and 9:20 p.m.), nor his racially charged, dizzyingly prismatic Imitation of Life (Wednesday and Thursday, September 1 and 2, at 7:15 and 9:40 p.m.). One of the many things Sirk's cinema did magnificently was to expose the banality of "objective," literal-minded film reviewing: To the New York Times's levelheaded Bosley Crowther, the climactic funeral in Imitation of Life was "a splurge of garish ostentation and sentimentality." The New York Herald Tribune found the film's white characters less convincing than its black ones, with actress Sandra Dee resembling "little more than a vaguely animated doll in comparison to the vivid, vital young Miss [Susan] Kohner." And Time noted that "certainly not one soap-opera cliché is missing." True enough on all counts--but to what end? Why should annoying characters, over-the-top visuals, and the use of age-old conventions automatically signal "bad" filmmaking? Aren't these precisely the components of Sirk's vision--his imitation of life as an imitation of Hollywood melodrama?

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