When the call came about writing the music for Todd Haynes'”Far From Heaven,” Elmer Bernstein was initially dismissive. “The film alreadyhad a temporary score, and I won’t look at a film with a temporary score,” saidBernstein, who has received 13 Academy Award nominations and a 1963 Oscar for”Thoroughly Modern Millie.” His agent replied that he might make an exceptionfor this temporary score, because it happened to be Bernstein’s music from “ToKill a Mockingbird.”
“So I watched the movie, and I was stunned,” the jovialcomposer said in his Santa Monica office. “Then I had a Todd Haynes filmfestival at my house, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out more about thisdirector.'”
So began a collaboration that has yielded yet another Oscarnomination for Bernstein and a close friendship between the 80-year-oldcomposer and 42-year-old filmmaker.Â
“Heaven” is Haynes’ homage to the 1950s melodramas ofDouglas Sirk, who fled Hitler to Hollywood and transformed “women’s pictures”into slyly subversive critiques of American social taboos. The story revolvesaround perky Connecticut homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whoseseemingly perfect life unravels when she discovers her husband, Frank (DennisQuaid), is a closet homosexual and her friendship with her black gardener(Dennis Haysbert) is alienating the town. Because the year is 1957, whenhomosexuality wasn’t discussed, Bernstein’s score captures Cathy’s heartacheand other emotions the characters can’t verbalize.
If the ’50s cinematic style contrasts with the contemporarysubject matter, the director and composer also proved a fortuitous union ofopposites. Bernstein, who represents old Hollywood, has scored more than 200movies for filmmakers ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to Martin Scorsese.
He is the composer who “marched Steve McQueen through ‘TheGreat Escape,’ who led Chuck Heston … into the Promised Land carrying The TenCommandments … [and] who celebrated the gathering of cowboys as they bandedtogether as ‘The Magnificent Seven,'” according to the Dallas Observer.
By way of contrast, acclaimed renegade independent filmmakerHaynes, who is up for a screenwriting Oscar for “Heaven,” has deliberatelyremained a Hollywood outsider. Once a poster boy for the New Queer Cinema, hisunnerving, stylishly avant-garde films depict people pushed into various kindsof exile — from the housewife literally poisoned by suburbia in 1995’s “Safe”to the androgynous glam-rockers in 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine.”
Yet as the director and the composer began discussing”Heaven” in Bernstein’s Santa Barbara studio in summer 2001, their differencesquickly fell away.
“Elmer and I became friends very fast, which I think has alot to do with being Jewish, left-leaning and interested in the arts,” saidHaynes, who has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.
“We commiserated about ‘the world,'” Bernstein, the son ofEastern European immigrants, said with a laugh. “I heard from Todd the liberalviews I enjoy hearing from my own sons, and he heard from me what he would haveexpected to hear from his own grandfather.”
During a series of trips to Bernstein’s studio, thecerebral, exuberant Haynes often remarked how much the composer reminded him ofhis charismatic grandfather, Arnold Semler, who died in early 2001.
In fact, “Heaven” is dedicated to Semler, a.k.a. “Bompi,” ason of Romanian and Polish immigrants who started out in the Warner Bros. mailroom in the 1930s and worked his way up to head of set construction and unionorganizer. A Communist Party member, he quit his job during the McCarthy-erablacklists and founded a communications and electronics business. By the 1960s,he was living on an affluent Studio City street, it turns out, just two doorsdown from Bernstein’s home at the time.
“My whole life, we’d see films together,” Haynes said of hisgrandfather. “He helped me to go to college [at Brown University] andultimately, he became a primary financier of my films.”
The politically progressive Semler was pleased when Haynes’provocative first feature, “Poison,” not only won the top prize at Sundance butbecame the center of a National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy.
“He identified with the history of Jewish struggle,” Haynessaid. “All my films are about resilient outsiders, whether in terms of race orsexual orientation, and I think I inherited that from my grandfather.”
Bernstein, in turn, told Haynes about his grandfather, a”leather jacket socialist,” and described his banishment to low-budget sciencefiction and “cheesecake” films for a time during the McCarthy era. That ended,he said, when DeMille summoned him to his office, asked if he was a Communist.Bernstein said no, and DeMille hired him on “The Ten Commandments.”
The old Hollywood stories inevitably startled Haynes. “I wasreminded of whom I was working with, and I was, like, speechless,” he said byphone from his Portland, Ore., home.
Haynes never imagined he would engage a composer likeBernstein when, burned out on New York’s indie filmmaking scene, he closed hisBrooklyn apartment and drove to Portland to write “Heaven” — now up for a totalof four Oscars — two years ago. He had long intended to pen a domesticmelodrama inspired by Sirk, whose own life read like one of his tear-jerkers.
“His second wife was Jewish, and he had a difficult timegetting her out of Nazi Germany,” Haynes said. “Meanwhile, his first wife, aNazi sympathizer, made their son a star of the Nazi youth cinema. Because shewouldn’t let him see the child, he had to watch propaganda films to keepabreast of his little boy, on the screen wearing Nazi regalia. When the childdied, the Nazi cinema was his last connection to his son.”
From the moment Haynes began writing his own Sirkianmelodrama, he had the score in mind. During his first telephone conversationwith Bernstein, the composer referred “to all the detailed descriptions in myscript — ‘a dark mist of music gathers,’ ‘music bathes the shadowy quiet’…and we laughed,” Haynes said.
If the descriptions sounded over the top, the director andcomposer were adamant that the music should not be.
“It took us the better part of three minutes to realize wewere in total agreement as to what was to be done,” Bernstein recalled.
Nevertheless, scoring a melodrama for contemporary audiences”was like walking a tightrope,” he said.
“A failure … would have easily resulted in parody,” Haynessaid.
He knew Bernstein had succeeded when the composer sat at thepiano and played him the finished score as the movie ran on a video monitor.
The lush, lyrical music speaks out in ways the repressedcharacters can’t: piano sequences underscore Cathy’s fragility, whileotherworldly strains accompany Frank’s trek to an underground gay bar.
When Cathy walks in the woods with her African Americangardener, Bernstein introduces a rich melody that later repeats as she pinesfor the man. “It’s the only moment in the film where the music goes, shall Isay, sunny,” he said.
Almost a year after the composer agreed to watch “Heaven”with its temporary soundtrack, his score is eliciting the best reviews of hiscareer.
“One critic called my music ‘the sound of paradise,'” hesaid. So was his harmonious collaboration with Haynes, whom he continues to seesocially.
“One of the biggest bonuses of doing this film was findingTodd as a friend,” he said.
The “‘Far From Heaven’ Original Soundtrack” is now availablein stores.Â The Oscars air March 23, at 5:30 p.m. on ABC. Â