– Dorothy Malone to Rock Hudson, “Written on the Wind” (1956)
The story of a family’s ugly secret and the stark moment that thrust their private lives into public view!
Written On The Wind
By Michael Hadley
It’s challenging to find another film from the 1950s that has been as equally admired and dismissed as “Written On The Wind”. At the time of its release in 1956, most critics considered it another glossy, over-the-top melodrama and they either overlooked or ignored the indelible thread of irony that distinguishes Douglas Sirk’s direction. But the years have been kind and the film has garnered its fair share of notable admirers, including highly regarded directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and Kathryn Bigelow.
Those who openly express their admiration don’t equivocate when they talk about the film or the director’s singular style. Almodovar, for example, said “I have seen “Written On The Wind” a thousand times and I cannot wait to see it again.” American film critic Roger Ebert called the film “a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama in which you can find the seeds of “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and all the other prime-time soaps. Sirk is the one who established their tone, in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody bubbles underneath.” Kathryn Bigelow, director of the 2010 Oscar winning film, “The Hurt Locker,” cited “Written on the Wind” as the inspiration for her 1982 cult film “The Loveless.” She enthusiastically praised Sirk’s “powerful, imagistic and emotionally acute” direction. As Laura Mulvey observed in her thoughtful analysis of the film, Sirk exhibited a “personal style” that “transcended the rigors of the Hollywood studio system and made his work worthy of being judged according to new aesthetic principles.”
Sources: IMDB, Wikipedia; the Douglas Sirk special feature on the “Magnificent Obsession” DVD; and Laura Mulvey’s article from The Criterion Collection.
According to Wikipedia, “The screenplay by George Zuckerman was based on Robert Wilder’s 1945 novel of the same name, a thinly disguised account of the real-life scandal involving torch singer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Zachary “Smith” Reynolds. Zuckerman shifted the locale from North Carolina to Texas, made the source of the family wealth oil (rather than tobacco) and changed all of the character names.
Reynolds, the youngest son of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, was a 20-year-old playboy who had a complete disinterest in the family business, an inexhaustible allowance and a volatile temper. He owned a plane and literally stalked Broadway musical comedy star Holman until the 27-year-old singer married him in 1931. Their marriage was a clash of wills and, during an alcohol-fueled July 4th holiday party in 1932 at the family’s estate, Libby announced she was pregnant. Stories differ, but there was reportedly a tense confrontation, a gunshot and the young Smith was dead. Libby Holman and Ab Walker, a close friend of Smith’s who was whispered to be her lover, were indicted for murder. Fearing scandal over their son’s activities, the intensely secretive Reynolds family ‘persuaded’ authorities to drop the charges. The death was officially ruled a suicide.”
A lush visual palette and a sly commentary
As Roger Ebert observed, Sirk’s “interiors are wildly over the top and his exteriors are phony – he wants you to notice the artifice, so that he’s not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style.” His comment pinpoints what Sirk mastered during his prolific years in Hollywood. He gave the American movie going public a fabulously rich visual presentation that featured extreme characters behaving in wildly exaggerated and inappropriate ways. At the same time, he injected a tart social commentary underneath the surface glamour about American values and mores that probably went unnoticed by most moviegoers. Ebert goes on to say “the actors are as artificial as the settings. They look like Photoplay covers and speak in the cliches of pulp romance.” In this respect, Sirk both satirized and pandered to the 1950‘s American middle class and their obsession with upward mobility and materialism.
The story revolves around the super-rich Hadley family whose fortune has been made from Texas oil wells. Heir apparent Kyle Hadley as played by Robert Stack is a spoiled, insecure rich boy who leans heavily on a liquor bottle to mask his weakness. Stack, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, plays the character as a flashy playboy who is terrified that he will never measure up to his father’s expectations or, more pointedly, the imposing shadow cast by his self-made best friend, Mitch Wayne, played by Rock Hudson.
Kyle says of Mitch early in the film: “He has the kind of assets you can’t buy with money.” Some have taken this to signal Kyle’s repressed sexual attraction to his best friend but that is open to interpretation. Reluctant to challenge the Hays code, the filmmakers do not make any overt references to homosexuality or imply anything untoward about their friendship. The viewer can read it either way, but the bottom line remains: Kyle intuitively knows he will never be the man Mitch is and he is woefully incapable of doing anything about it.
Kyle’s unhinged sister, Mary Lee, is played by Dorothy Malone who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her flamboyant portrayal. Mary Lee can be considered the prototypical spoiled rich girl, but Malone takes it up several notches by revealing a simmering layer of unrequited love underneath her flashy exterior. She’s as revved-up as the red sports car she drives all over town, picking up random men to compensate for the lack of attention Hudson’s character pays her. Relying on his trademark use of visual cues, Sirk dresses her in boldly saturated colors of red, hot pink and black for most of the film. Eventually, her irresponsible behavior triggers a downward spiral of reactions that results in the deaths of two major characters.
None of this is particularly subtle or restrained. During the big party scene, Malone wears a tight, low-cut black evening gown and matching elbow length gloves. Her exaggerated gyrations dominate every frame against the formal white interiors of the Hadley mansion. In another segment, after she is escorted home by the police for taking a local to a shady motel, Malone changes into a sheer pink negligee and does a feverish mambo in her bedroom, while a blaring version of “Temptation” plays in the background. It is no accident that Sirk strategically placed a provocative arrangement of red Anthurium flowers in the room with her. As Malone undulates to the music, her distraught father slowly climbs the staircase and falls dead just as he reaches the top.
Laura Mulvey describes this climactic sequence as follows: “In one of the film’s key moments, Malone performs a wild solo dance of rebellion in her bedroom. As her loud, jazzy music fills the house, her father slowly climbs the sweeping staircase, only to collapse and fall to his death. With Sirk’s instinct for melodrama (in the literal sense of music plus drama), the intercutting between the spaces occupied by father and daughter quickens to create an innovative, cinematic rhythm for a montage sequence that was rare in studio-system Hollywood.”
– Laura Mulvey from The Criterion Collection
Among the four leading characters, the outsider is played by Lauren Bacall. Up to that point, Bacall had mostly played glamourous tough-girl roles or cooly detached women who stood their ground and knew what they wanted. Here, however, she plays demure Lucy Moore, a professional woman whom Kyle Hadley pursues and marries after a whirlwind attempt to dazzle her with his opulent lifestyle. For most of the film, Bacall is dressed in neutral grays, beiges and browns which convey her basic decency and affinity with the simple, earthy qualities that Mitch (Hudson) embodies. But In the final shot, she is wearing a pink dress and leaves the Hadley mansion with Mitch by her side.
Mary Lee, who watches helplessly as they drive away, is shown in a conservative gray suit that is virtually identical to the one Bacall wears in her early scenes. Thus, Sirk has reversed the two female characters by end of the film. Bacall is transformed to be with the man she was meant to love, while Mary Lee has lost Mitch, her brother and her father. To many, the last shot of Mary Lee clutching the miniature oil derrick is painfully blatant in its phallic imagery. No arguments here, but it fits beautifully with Sirk’s unforgiving take on post-war American excess and its hypocritical value system. Popular culture at the time encouraged material acquisitiveness to the point of ostentation; however, moral arbiters insisted that social transgressions must be punished. Sirk sees to it that Kyle (alcoholic and possibly gay) and MaryLee (defiant town slut) get the punishment they deserve in the end. But he also makes them by far the most compelling reasons to stay with the film to its predictable conclusion.
Sirk on the final scene:
Malone has lost everything. And I have put a sign there indicating this – Malone, alone, sitting there hugging that goddamned oil well, having nothing. The oil well which is, I think, a rather frightening symbol of American society.”
– Written on the Wind article by Laura Mulvey.
The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows your own opposite.” – Douglas Sirk
“Sirk, whose reputation blossomed in the generation after his 1959 retirement from Hollywood filmmaking, was born Hans Detlef Sierck on April 26, 1900, in Hamburg, Germany, to a journalist. Both of his parents were Danish, and the future director would make movies in German, Danish and English. His reputation, which was breathed to life by the French nouvelle vague critiques who developed the “auteur” (author) theory of film criticism, casts him as one of the cinema’s great ironists. In his American and European films, his characters perceive their lives quite differently than does the movie audience viewing “them” in a theater. Dealing with love, death and societal constraints, his films often depend on melodrama, particularly the high-suds soap operas he lensed for producer Ross Hunter in the 1950s: “Magnificent Obsession” (1954); “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and his last American film, “Imitation of Life” (1959). Sirk’s favorite American film was the Western “Taza, Son of Cochise” (1954), which was shot in 3-D.
His cinema technique was influenced by his interest in painting, particularly the works of Daumier and Delacroix, which he later claimed left “their imprint on the visual style of my melodramas”. He made eight films in Germany up to 1937 and the German Minister of Propaganda who oversaw the film industry, Dr. Josef Goebbels, was an admirer. However, Sirk left Germany in 1937 after his second wife, stage actress Hilde Jary, fled to Rome to escape persecution as a Jew. Sirk’s first wife and the mother of his only child, Lydia Brinken, a follower of Adolf Hitler, denounced Sirk and his relationship with Jary, necessitating their departure. Sirk never saw his child again, who died during World War Two.”
Sirk left Hollywood in 1959 at the height of his commercial success with American audiences. His last Hollywood film, “Imitation of Life” was Universal’s top grossing film of that year. But Sirk became increasingly dissatisfied with the Hollywood studio system and living in the United States and he moved to Switzerland. Afterward, he made only a few short films and a 1963 feature film in Germany.
Sirk passed away on January 14, 1987 in Lugano, Switzerland. – IMDB.
This was Hudson’s fifth film with director Douglas Sirk. Sirk apparently savored the irony of Hudson’s super-masculine public image, which bore scant resemblance to his closeted personal life. To varying degrees, Sirk leveraged that in all five of the films they did together. Always the Hollywood outsider and observer, Sirk could not resist making a statement about the artificiality of the Hollywood dream machine. Even the character’s name, Mitch Wayne, is a play on 1950’s movie culture which had a fondness for bestowing manly monickers on closeted gay actors, including Hudson and Tab Hunter among others. But Sirk does nothing to undermine Hudson or his reputation as an actor. In fact, Hudson gave some of his most affecting performances under Sirk’s confident direction. Despite his towering physical presence, Hudson conveys a charming passivity and reactivity in many of his films. Quite often, he is the primary object of desire in Sirk’s films, most notably, “All That Heaven Allows” and “Written on the Wind”.
Bacall’s film career had cooled off when she accepted the lead female role. It’s never been clear why she took the role but perhaps it was the impressive track record Sirk and Hudson had at the box-office. Although she gives a satisfactory performance, her part is underwritten and pales in comparison to the outrageous antics of the Dorothy Malone character. Bacall acquits herself nicely, but she was capable of handling far more challenging roles.
Stack, after appearing in a series of marginal films, took the pivotal role of the spoiled son of oil baron Jasper Hadley. Stack overplays the part to the brink of parody but mercifully he does not make him a one dimensional jerk. He is very effective at projecting Kyle’s insecurity and the reckless playboy bravado that obscures what he knows all too well: he is incapable of greatness.
Malone had mostly played non-flashy supporting roles up to this point, but Sirk must have realized she had a lot more to offer than playing book store clerks or supportive sisters. Malone rises to the tawdry occasion with absolute abandon and commitment to the role. Her character could have easily become a parody of a spoiled rich kid, but happily, Malone invests it with convincing doses of poignancy and yearning. At every turn, given the overwrought tone of the script, she could have crossed the line into laughable caricature. Instead, she creates a convincing portrait of unrequited love and self-destruction. During her memorable turn on the witness stand, she lays out the definitive template for every great soap opera villainess who has taken center stage in a fictional courtroom. Everyone from Alexis Colby-Carrington to Cruella DeVille should tip their wide brimmed hats to Dorothy Malone.
Critical reaction then and now
“The trouble with this romantic picture – among other minor things, including Mr. Stack’s absurd performance and another even more so by Miss Malone – is that nothing really happens, the complications within the characters are never clear and the sloppy, self-pitying fellow at the center of the whole thing is a bore. Outside of that, it is luxurious and the color is conspicuously strong, even though it gets no closer to Texas – either geographically or in spirit – than a few locations near Hollywood.”
– Bosley Crowther, New York Times – January 1957
“The art of out-and-out melodrama is not dead: “Written on the Wind” is entertainment of the old school. Don’t get me wrong. Basically, this is slick magazine stuff, pretty trashy, but so entertainingly done that you can’t help but have one hell of a good time. It is wholly absorbing, wholly entertaining, and it has some surprises.”
– Ronald B. Rogers, The Village Voice – February 20, 1957
“Sirk’s directorial style spread so pervasively that nobody could do melodrama with a straight face after him. In countless ways, visible and invisible, Sirk’s sly subversion skewed American popular culture and helped launch a new age of irony.”
– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times – January 18, 1998
“Favorites today with formalist film critics and cultural studies professors alike, these movies were once held in nearly complete contempt by the gatekeepers of good taste, who resented their overtly sentimental appeal and dismissed them as soap operas.
The tendency these days is to see them in almost opposite terms. Sirk, who left Hollywood in disgust at the height of his career to return to his native Europe, is viewed as a deft and subtle ironist who used visual cues — mirrors and hard surfaces, images crisscrossed with tense diagonals, unnatural and effulgent colors — to undermine and criticize middle-class values.”
– Dave Kerr, New York Times – October 13, 2010
Dorothy Malone won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Supporting Actress.
Robert Stack was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Additional Credits: Screenplay by George Zuckerman based on the novel by Robert Wilder. Cinematography by Russell Metty.
Written and researched by Michael Hadley