April 26, 1897– Douglas Sirk was not gay, but the German born, yet thoroughly American filmmaker, made a particular kind of melodrama that explored the class-ridden nature of the American small town and its fear of women’s emotional and sexual needs that easily serve as an allegory for the perils of being gay in this country.
He was born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg, and left with the rise of Nazism in 1937, coming to Hollywood in 1939. Sirk made some excellent films about European life. His outsider view brought a distinctive look at American life.
Sirk has only one Hollywood screenwriting credit, but there is a thematic thread and that runs through all his work that has a writer’s complex core of context and concerns. Most of Sirk’s stories were based on other writers’ screenplays and novels, yet he still managed to work as a modern classicist inspired by mythology, but with suburbanites, vaudevillians, and pioneers standing in for warriors, queens and gods. The heavily reworked, re-thought out scripts became masterful melodramas with a modern twist, because of Sirk’s powerful visual style.
Sirk’s films have a look and feel that makes them so stylistically special, that if not for the pressures of censorship, I am certain he would have made gay themed films. With his dependence on euphemism, along with the gay sensibility brought by Ross Hunter, Sirk’s producer, who said of Sirk’s scripts: “Douglas, I want 500 handkerchiefs to come out right here!”, his stories depended on the pain, passion, pride, and prejudice of having to hide who you truly are.
All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written On The Wind (1956) and Imitation Of Life (1958) are all stories of the life lessons learned from the heavy toll taken by living a lie while society demands and provides the blueprint for melodrama so reliable that these films gave birth to television’s Dynasty, Scandal, and Empire, the whole rich = evil + always horny equation of the nighttime soap opera.
Sirk’s reputation currently rests on those four great melodramas he made during the 1950s: All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind, The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation Of Life. But he also directed frothy musicals and neurotic comedies like The Lady Pays Off (1951), Weekend With Father (1951) and No Room For The Groom (1952).
My favorite of his works is Magnificent Obsession (1953). It was Sirk’s first big box-office hit, and it made Rock Hudson a star. Hudson would serve as Sirk’s male muse for five more films. It features a plot that is as ambitiously moral as it is splendidly absurd: a rakish heir played by Hudson becomes a brain surgeon in order to operate on the woman he loves who had been blinded in an accident. Sirk:
“Rock Hudson was not an educated man, but that very beautiful body of his was putty in my hands.”
Sexual transgression is a frequent theme in Sirk’s flicks. The male characters are always cheating on their wives, impregnating secretaries, raping stepchildren, and discovering that their kids are not their own. The Hayes Code censors and The Catholic League Of Decency guaranteed that nothing could be explicit in the era’s films, and that is what gives the Sirk movies their special charm.
His characters are bombarded by our society’s taboos: illegitimacy, unwed pregnancy, impotence, frigidity, and nymphomania. In the delicious, demented Written On The Wind, when Robert Stack’s character realizes that he is sterile, turns down an invitation to dance at a gala with:
“No thanks. Someone just stole my little red dancing slippers”.
This week’s earlier #BornThisDay honoree, John Waters, names Sirk as his major influence. Polyester (1981) and Serial Mom (1994) would not exist without the territory that Sirk charted first: hyperbole, overwrought emotion, camp, and syrupy scores.
In 1958, when Lana Turner was living her own lurid Sirk-like melodrama after her mobster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death by her 13 year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, she had to experience the humiliation of seeing her sexually explicit love notes printed in the tabloids. Instead of hiding away, she chose to make Imitation Of Life for Sirk, playing a rich woman indifferent to her teenage daughter’s high-strung problems. It is a brilliant, brazen film about identity-shifting, in which a young black woman played by Susan Kohner passes for white and disavows her mother, played by the great Juanita Moore, whose skin color is darker. Imitation Of Life ends with a heartbreaking scene of saying good-bye. It is also filled with anger about the inequities in American society. The film was a direct parallel to Turner’s own life, a smash hit, and a happy ending for Turner, but Sirk’s Hollywood finale.
Between 1942 and 1958, Sirk made 28 films. By the 1970s, Sirk’s style of cinema had fallen out of favor. He retired from Hollywood, returned to Europe, and occasionally taught film classes. Sirk’s final credits rolled in 1987, just weeks before his 90th birthday. I cannot recommend his work enough. All of his films are available on The Criterion Collection.
“Happy endings all express the weak and sly promise that the world is not rotten and out of joint, but meaningful and in excellent condition.”
My town of Portland’s own gay filmmaker Todd Haynes made a fabulous homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven (2002), whose gay content finally went where Sirk could never dare. It should be on every gay film fan’s must list.
Sirk is now held by film fans as one of the most esteemed Hollywood auteurs. It is rather astonishing that it was long after he left Hollywood to return to Europe at the end of the 1950s that any serious critical attention was paid to his work. Now entire festivals are dedicated to his films, the Sirk oeuvre is part of college curriculums, and the films, even the obscure ones, are in regular rotation on TCM.
“I certainly believe that happiness exists, if only by the simple fact that it can be destroyed.”