March 13, 2003




Laura Rosenthal

Far From Heaven

In a post-screening Q&A last month with filmmaker Todd Haynes, one Back Stage West reader said she felt that every face in his gorgeous film Far From Heaven, right down to the extras passing on the street, seemed to have a character and a story behind them. Haynes replied that his main casting criterion was old movie references rather than "real life": If someone looked like they stepped off the set of an old movie--particularly a 1950s melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk--they had a shot.


Helping Haynes assemble this troubled but picture-perfect world was New York-based casting director Laura Rosenthal (Celebrity, Jesus' Son, Judy Berlin, Chicago).


There were specific references for the leads, Rosenthal explained recently, particularly for the role of a handsome, mellow black gardener, for which the models were a young Sidney Poitier and the Rock Hudson role in All That Heaven Allows. Tall, deep-voiced, sweet-faced Dennis Haysbert (24) was their inspired choice. Julianne Moore was attached before Rosenthal was hired, but Dennis Quaid, who plays Moore's torturously closeted husband, was on a list the casting director came up with for Haynes, who then went about studying Quaid's work and was particularly struck by his performance as a washed-up former football star in Everybody's All-American.


Haysbert's and Quaid's work in Far From Heaven is arguably the best of their respective careers--all the more remarkable given that the film is squarely centered on Moore's repressed housewife. "It's always hard to find men who are brave enough to support women, and this is a movie about that," raved Rosenthal about her male leads.


For the rest of the cast, she looked for actors with a certain kind of "theatrical" flair who could nail the script's unironically heightened rhythms--what she called its "melodic" quality.


"It was about the way they could deliver lines," she explained. "A kind of texture in one's delivery that either worked or didn't work. I can't say that all the actors we saw understood that. This was definitely one case where theatre actors could work more appropriately on film."


There's seasoned theatre actor Michael Gaston, who plays Quaid's glad-handing workmate with a forced joviality, shaded with sincere puzzlement, that feels dead-on; Patricia Clarkson as Moore's disapproving friend; Viola Davis as her tamped-down maid; Celia Weston as a snooty socialite, and James Rebhorn as a stern therapist. In smaller roles, including a busybody social columnist (Bette Henritze), a fey big-city art critic (Reginald Carter), or a sassy juke-joint barmaid (Mylika Davis), Rosenthal's choices reveal an eye for the broad but not harsh stroke. "The irony wasn't at all mean; Todd loved his people," she said.


She even found a glaring man at the smoky gay bar, the man Quaid's character leaves to make out with, and the blond hunk he falls for--none had lines, all were essential to get right. Even a prim pair of NAACP volunteers who meet Moore at her door with a petition, who have only a few lines, Haynes was "really picky about," Rosenthal recalled. "He didn't want them to be too trendy or too modern."


Rosenthal's expert, expressive work is as crucial to the film's success as its justly lauded visual design and score.


--Rob Kendt