Movies We Like
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.
The first thing we see is a beautiful yellow sports car tearing through the streets of a small Texas town at dusk. A tender ballad plays over the opening credits—the kind of thing that sounds like it was sung by four men in plaid pants and cardigans. We see the name Hadley on everything that passes by. Robert Stack plays Kyle Hadley, the ne’er-do-well heir to Hadley Oil. He looks eaten away and full of disgust as he swigs from a bottle of cheap whiskey while driving out-of-control. He screeches to a halt at a palatial estate and the principle actors of the film stare down at him with the full force of their judgment from different rooms in the mansion. He goes inside and the next thing we know a gun is fired and someone is dead.
A flashback structure is introduced by way of a gust of wind blowing pages off a calendar until we land on the date of origin for our story. Kyle and his lifelong best friend Mitch, played by studly Rock Hudson, meet Hadley company secretary Lucy (Lauren Bacall) on a trip to New York for a steak sandwich at 21. Mitch is forced to be wingman to Kyle whenever Kyle feels like jet setting with Daddy’s dough even though Mitch is more woodsman than playboy. Kyle is drunk and shallow and his self loathing repulses everyone at the table. “I went to college. All they found were rocks in my head.” Lucy finds Kyle’s rich kid come-ons a little pathetic and just wants to finish her glass of champagne and get back to the office. But after a trip “up in the blue” aboard his private plane she sees a tender side to Kyle. He talks about his disappointed father. She likes his vulnerability. She knows she should like Mitch, who is the kind of strong silent type that women go wild for, but she falls for the wounded boy in Kyle. Mitch, so impressed with Lucy for initially turning Kyle down cold, is crushed by her choice.
Newly married and whisked to Texas, where the Hadleys own everything in sight, Lucy realizes what she has gotten herself into. Her new father-in-law seems to like her and Mitch more than he likes his own kids. Marylee Hadley (played by the fantastic Dorothy Malone who won an Oscar for her role) is Kyle’s nymphomaniac kid sister. Marylee is a blonde hellion in hot pants who waters her new sister-in-law’s plants with her glass of bourbon and carries a burning torch for Mitch who has never taken her bait. Marylee copes with Mitch’s rejection by having sex with pretty much every guy she meets and dreaming of the day when Mitch will give in to her volcanic desires.
It should be mentioned here that over the course of several films Douglas Sirk and Rock Hudson had one of those rare director-actor collaborations that brings out the best in both parties. As a supreme ironist it is generally understood that Sirk loved using Rock as the red blooded American lover in his films. Rock Hudson, you may have heard, was a homosexual and, by all accounts, a happy and satisfied one with a long list of sexual conquests while at the same time having a public image that demanded of him to live a semi-closeted existence. This duality of character was put to wry use by Sirk. It isn’t just that he’s using a gay man to play a heterosexual man; it’s that he’s using a gay man to embody a mythological representation of American masculinity. Rock the man’s man and Rock the ladies’ man—who is a more ideal American male for the 1950s than sturdy Rock Hudson? Sirk understood that and the paradox it represented in a homophobic society and thus an ideal thematic undercurrent to his films.
I can’t help but think that in this film in particular the truth of Rock’s sexuality is made apparent in his character, Mitch. Mitch and Kyle are self-described as closer than brothers. Kyle resents Mitch’s alpha male appeal but needs him in part because he can only feel safe and secure when Mitch is around. Left to his own devices Kyle is a train wreck. Mitch, for his part, is resigned to Kyle and the intensity of their relationship. This is not a friendship born out of choice. They need each other for reasons both obvious and mysterious. When Lucy enters the picture and ends up falling for Kyle, Mitch is destroyed. He can’t even see the panting hysteria he induces in Marylee—who is electrified in his presence to the point of needing to hump the nearest object. What’s going on here? I’d say it’s complicated.
Kyle, on the wagon after marrying Lucy, has pledged to put away childish things and be a man as he basks in the first glimmer of his father’s affections for having married the right girl. But the demons of his misspent youth come roaring back at the first sign of trouble. Eager to start a family he wonders what is taking so long for Lucy to get pregnant. The advice from his doctor annihilates what vestige of security he had found in marriage. “There’s nothing wrong with Lucy,” his doctor ominously tells him. This devastating news leads him back on a boozy bender and he never recovers. Kyle hates himself. Kyle hates Lucy for loving him. Kyle hates his kid sister for taunting him. He hates his father for not trusting him, and finally, he hates Mitch for besting him yet again when Lucy gets pregnant and he thinks, wrongly, the baby is Mitch’s.
Things go from bad to worse after Marylee’s latest gas station conquest is led away in handcuffs. The presumed seducer doesn’t mince words to her father, “I didn’t take her to the motel. She took me. Face it, Mister, your daughter’s a tramp!” Upstairs Marylee performs a lurid dance of erotic mania while blaring a cha-cha record. As she shimmies around in her lingerie lost in a demented trance her father, finally confronted with the truth of his family, goes into cardiac arrest and tumbles to his death down the grand staircase.
It’s at this point that Lucy realizes that she fell for the wrong guy and longs to get off of the merry-go-round of doom that she spins on. She and Mitch turn to each other to escape this crazy family and Kyle dies a lost tragic figure while his sister becomes head of the company, left alone in the cold dark Hadley mansion with only the figurine of an oil well to clutch for comfort, which she does really suggestively.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote about Written on the Wind that we come to care more about the characters of Kyle and Marylee than we do Mitch and Lucy. It was on repeated viewings of this film that I came to understand that conclusion. Mitch and Lucy are good and that’s why they are the stars and why they must fall in love at the end. But the ferocity and tragedy of unloved Kyle and Marylee are what you remember. Their loneliness resonates. The film is about the loneliness of being alive. Written on the Wind can’t be dismissed as lurid kitsch. The intense dreamlike quality of the film and its go-for-broke performances certainly make it stand out as a Technicolored fantasia of human wreckage. The film speaks of loneliness written large enough to read across the sky and its epic quality may alienate modern audiences. But Douglas Sirk isn’t laughing and neither should we. This film and its characters mean too much.
Another thing that Fassbinder wrote was that among the films that Douglas Sirk directed are some of the most beautiful ever made. It’s so true. To put it another way there’s a scene in Pulp Fiction that Quentin Tarantino uses to pay homage to Sirk. Uma Thurman and John Travolta’s characters are having dinner at a 1950s theme restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Vincent (Travolta) orders the Douglas Sirk steak. If Douglas Sirk’s movies are steaks, then Written on the Wind is the juiciest of them all.
Written on the Wind won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Dorothy Malone) and was nominated for 2 additional Oscars: Best Original Song and Best Suporting Actor (Robert Stack).