Todd Haynes made his feature film debut 25 years ago, with Poison, which won the top Prize at Sundance, and opened to a lot of acclaim. Since then, he has carved out a unique career for himself – even if he doesn’t work as often as many of us would like. Including Poison, there have only been six features in his career (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol), to go along with a few shorts (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Dottie Gets Spanked) and one HBO Miniseries (Mildred Pierce). It’s these 9 films that I will be revisiting in the next little while to give an overview of Haynes career.
What is it about Haynes that makes him so special a filmmaker? Part of it, inarguably, is the formal control he exhibits in each film – the meticulous craft. You’d be hard pressed to find many better looking films than Far From Heaven or Carol for example. Part of it is the ambition he has shown often – not many would want to tackle a Bob Dylan biopic for example, and no one else would approach it like Haynes does, having several actors portray not just different eras Dylan, but different personas. Its part of his way with actors – it’s arguable that great actresses like Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchatt have never been better than they have been for Haynes, and his focus on woman’s stories is unfortunately unusual for a male director. Part of it is also Haynes, who is openly gay, and his depiction of gay and lesbian life in America’s recent past, as well as present. He provides both a macro and micro view of these issues – and shows gay life in many different facets. Hollywood films often view gay life as a series of torments from the outside world, turning gay characters into noble victims – often sexless noble victims, because they feel that showing gay sex on screen would make too many people uncomfortable. Haynes doesn’t do that.
Haynes has one of the strongest filmographies of any director out there – often, when I embark on a filmmaker project like this, there are at least a few films I don’t want to revisit, but must. That’s not the case with Haynes – who was an easy choice for this series, not just because his latest, Carol, is arguably his best film – but because I really wanted to revisit every one of Haynes’ films anyway (or, in the case of the short, Dottie Gets Spanked, see it for the first time. As always, I will do an initial ranking of Haynes work – from memory – than provide an update at the end – and these often change more than I would ever think they would. I should point out that this is the rare case where I actually really like everything by the director – although certainly some more than others.
- I’m Not There (2007) – As a Dylan fan, I wondered if a feature could anything to the great documentaries – most notably D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home – but Haynes not only made the perfect Dylan biopic, but my favorite musical biopic ever. A masterpiece.
- Carol (2015) – A subtle, brilliantly well made love story for the ages, with amazing performances by Cate Blanchatt and especially Rooney Mara. A beautiful, deeply felt film. Another masterpiece.
- Far From Heaven (2002) – Haynes’ Douglas Sirk homage is actually better than just about any of the Sirk films I have seen. It does look at being gay in the 1950s, but interestingly looks at it from the more passive POV of the wife, who discovers her husband is gay. The film is brilliantly photographed and acted, and is perhaps another masterpiece.
- Safe (1995) – Perhaps the film I am most excited to revisit – as its been sometime since I’ve seen it, and many think it’s Haynes’ best film. I don’t remember it that way, but perhaps another viewing will shoot this one way up.
- Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) – Perhaps the most original film of Haynes’ career – a 45 minute Karen Carpenter biopic, where the characters are all Barbie dolls, that he manipulates to show her massive weightless do to anorexia. The film is officially “unavailable” – because it uses the Carpenters music without their permission (and given the portrait it paints, that won’t change) – and apparently Matel wasn’t thrilled about seeing their Barbie’s used this way – but it’s easy to find on YouTube, and other streaming sites.
- Mildred Pierce (2011) – Haynes’ muted noir, that isn’t quite as melodramatic or violent as the Michael Curtiz original, but every bit as good. It’s a five hour miniseries, with great performances by Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood – the reaction was respectful, but a little muted when it came out – but I quite loved it.
- Velvet Goldmine (1998) – I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw this – but it’s a film that has stayed with me, and I am more interested in the subject matter now than I was at the time. Out of all the films on the list, this is (along with Safe) my most anticipated re-watch.
- Poison (1991) – I may have ranked this last, but I quite like Poison – even if I think it’s better in concept than execution.
But that’s how I see things before I watch anything by Haynes. Over the next 9 posts, I will go through the films he has directed, before wrapping things up, and re-ranking. I hope you’ll enjoy the series.