April 26, 1897– Douglas Sirk was not gay, but the great German born yet thoroughly American filmmaker, made a particular kind of melodrama that explored the class-ridden nature of the small town & its fear of women’s emotional & sexual needs that easily serve as an allegory for the perils of the homosexual.
Sirk’s films have the look & feel that make 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 sensibility brought by gay 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, & prejudice of having to hide who you truly are.
All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written On The Wind (1956) & Imitation Of Life (1958) are all life lessons on the heavy toll of living a lie as society demands & provided the template for melodrama so reliable that they gave birth to TV’s Dynasty, Scandal, Empire, & the whole rich = evil + horny equation of the nighttime soap opera.
My favorite of his works, Magnificent Obsession (1953), was Sirk’s first big hit, & it made Rock Hudson a star. Hudson would serve as Sirk’s male muse for 5 more movies.
Sexual transgression is the frequent theme. The male characters are always cheating, impregnating secretaries, raping stepchildren, & finding out that their kids are not their own. The Hayes Code censors & The Catholic League Of Decency guaranteed that nothing could be explicit, & that is what gives the Sirk films their special charm.
His characters are bombarded by society’s taboos: illegitimacy, unwed pregnancy, impotence, frigidity, & nymphomania. In Written On The Wind, when Robert Stack realizes that he is sterile, he turns down an invitation to dance with:
“No thanks. Someone just stole my little red dancing slippers”.
This week’s earlier birthday gay, John Waters, names Sirk as a major influence. Polyester (1981) & Serial Mom (1994) would not exist without the territory that Sirk charted first: hyperbole, overwrought emotion, camp & syrupy scores.
In 1958, when Lana Turner was living her own lurid 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 made Imitation Of Life for Sirk, playing a rich woman indifferent to her teenage daughter’s highstrung problems. The film was a smash hit, a happy ending for Turner, but Sirk’s Hollywood finale.
Between 1942 & 1958, Sirk had made 28 films. By the 1970s, Sirk’s style of cinema had fallen out of favor & he retired, returned to Europe, & taught film classes. Sirk’s final credits rolled in 1987, just weeks before his 90th birthday. I cannot recommend his work enough. They are available on The Criterion Collection.
“Happy endings all express the weak & sly promise that the world is not rotten & out of joint, but meaningful & in excellent condition.”
Portland’s own gay filmmaker Todd Hayne’s fabulous homage to Sirk, Far From Heaven (2002), whose gay content finally went where Sirk could not, should be on every gay film fan’s must list.