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Known for making provocative movies that undercut standard genre tropes, writer-director Todd Haynes became associated with the so-called New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, as coined by Sight & Sound critic B. Ruby Rich, even though Haynes long maintained that he was more than just a director of gay movies. He burst onto the scene with the cult classic short film "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987), which was banned from being seen in public after the pop star's brother, Richard Carpenter, filed a successful lawsuit. He earned further controversy with his first feature length film, "Poison" (1990), a gay-themed film funded by the National Endowment of the Arts that contained graphic depictions of homosexuality and naturally sparked an angry reaction from right-wing circles. But it was his ambitious, if somewhat flawed "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) that announced Haynes as a filmmaker to watch, thanks to that film's "Citizen Kane"-like search for a missing glam rock star. From there, Haynes used the 1950s domestic melodrama to depict repressed sexuality, suburban ennui and forbidden love amidst racial prejudice in "Far From Heaven" (2002), arguably one of his most realized and...
Known for making provocative movies that undercut standard genre tropes, writer-director Todd Haynes became associated with the so-called New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, as coined by Sight & Sound critic B. Ruby Rich, even though Haynes long maintained that he was more than just a director of gay movies. He burst onto the scene with the cult classic short film "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987), which was banned from being seen in public after the pop star's brother, Richard Carpenter, filed a successful lawsuit. He earned further controversy with his first feature length film, "Poison" (1990), a gay-themed film funded by the National Endowment of the Arts that contained graphic depictions of homosexuality and naturally sparked an angry reaction from right-wing circles. But it was his ambitious, if somewhat flawed "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) that announced Haynes as a filmmaker to watch, thanks to that film's "Citizen Kane"-like search for a missing glam rock star. From there, Haynes used the 1950s domestic melodrama to depict repressed sexuality, suburban ennui and forbidden love amidst racial prejudice in "Far From Heaven" (2002), arguably one of his most realized and accessible pictures of his career. He next returned to his experimental roots with "I'm Not There" (2007), an unusual biopic that used six different actors - including one African-American and one female - to depict various aspects of Bob Dylan. Though perhaps not palpable to mainstream audience's tastes, there was no doubt that Haynes remained one of cinema's most challenging inventors.
Born on Jan. 2, 1961 in Encino, CA, Haynes was raised by his father, Allen, a perfume sales representative, and his mother, Sherry, an interior decorator. Haynes first developed an interest in film while attending the alternative Oakwood School in North Hollywood, where he made his first film, "The Suicide" (1978), an experimental short that explored the pain of adolescence in an extended montage of conflicting voices and points of view. The budding director moved on to Brown University, where he studied linguistics while continuing to make experimental films like "Letter from a Friend" (1982) and "Sex Shop" (1983). Two years removed from Brown, Haynes burst onto the scene with his now-infamous 43-minute cult treasure "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987), in which he used Barbie and Ken dolls to recount the story of the troubled pop star's death from anorexia. Haynes spent months making miniature props in an audacious and inspired film that left the audience weeping for the tragic singer. Unfortunately, Richard Carpenter's enmity for the film led to serving a cease and desist order in 1989, since Haynes had never procured the rights to the Carpenters' music, though some felt his portrayal of Richard as a bully and closeted homosexual helped spur the legal action. Despite Haynes' offer to show the film only in clinics and schools with all proceeds going toward anorexia research, "Superstar" was left unseen by the general public following Carpenter's successful lawsuit.
Haynes moved on to helm his first feature, "Poison" (1990), which featured three intercut stories connected by moral and social transgressions in the homosexual world. Each story was stylistically different, reflecting divergent genres. Shot in the talking-head manner of TV newsmagazines, "Hero" reconstructed the story of a patricide; meanwhile, "Horror," a parody of 1950s B-level sci-fi flicks, depicted a repressed medical worker who isolates a liquid version of the human sex drive which transforms him into a pathetic, pus-oozing ghoul; and "Homo," which showcased a passionate and sometimes brutal infatuation between two prison inmates. Inspired by the writings of Jean Genet, "Poison" was steeped in obsession, violence and rape, and was not for the faint of heart; the film prompted walkouts during its 1991 Sundance Film Festival screening and spurred outrage from right-wing critics. Partly funded by a $25,000 NEA post-production grant, "Poison" became a rallying point for both sides in a then-raging debate about what constituted appropriate use of NEA moneys. Pilloried by the American Family Association as government-sponsored homoerotic filth, "Poison" established Haynes elsewhere as a socially conscious artist for the AIDS era, despite never addressing the disease directly.
Haynes returned to the short form for the 27-minute comedy-drama "Dottie Gets Spanked" (1993), which also marked his first foray into television, with Independent Television Services (ITVS) providing the funds. Airing as part of "TV Families" (PBS) in November 1994, the film followed a six-year-old boy (J. Evan Bonifant) obsessed with a Lucille Ball-like television star (Julie Halston), which results in a hostile reaction from his classmates and his father (Robert Pall). But when the boy wins a trip to the set of the show, the filming of an episode where his Dream Girl gets spanked unleashes a torrent of visual and emotional complications. His already rich fantasy and dream life runs amok with cross-dressing body doubles, mustachioed Dotties and spankings galore. Haynes returned to features with "Safe" (1995), a restrained study of a woman (Julianne Moore) suffering from an environmental illness. "Safe" functioned as both a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic as well as for the general malaise of late-20th century life, without giving a concrete clue what the filmmaker was really thinking. When Moore's Carol seeks out an alternative lifestyle as a cure, Haynes presented the New Age retreat she opts for as equally life-denying as the banal suburban existence at the root of her illness. Her character clearly fit the outline of the director's earlier social victims - bombarded by her environment, form-fitted into family mores and held down by a number of patriarchs.
With his next film, Haynes took a highly personal look at the British glam rock scene of the early 1970s with "Velvet Goldmine" (1998), his first truly recognized work. Self-consciously structured as a "Citizen Kane"-like investigation into the life and career of a vanished superstar (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the film brilliantly portrayed the period as a brave new world of electrifying theatrical and sexual possibility followed by a descent into darkness. Recalling Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese - particularly "The Last Waltz" (1978) - and Francis Ford Coppola for its 1970s style of filmmaking, Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" won the director a Special Jury Prize for Artistic Contribution at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Dazzlingly surreal with a vibrant glam-era soundtrack - which lacked a representative sampling of obvious inspiration, David Bowie, who refused to release song rights due to a movie of his own pending - the film put ordinary period filmmaking and time-capsule musicology to shame. Haynes' ambitious step beyond his previous work also proved less cohesive and satisfying to his earlier fans.
A revisionist filmmaker whose canon consisted of clever and insightful re-workings of genre tropes, Haynes' next film, "Far From Heaven" (2002), was a logical extension of the thematic and stylistic elements that had already defined his career. Drawing its style from the 1950s, the film starred Julianne Moore as a 1957 Connecticut housewife and mother who one day finds out that her idyllic suburban life has been a lie after realizing her husband (Dennis Quaid) has been having a homosexual affair. Utilizing the genre's propensity for heavy handed symbolism and dramatic mis-en-scene, Haynes exploded the mythical shell of innocence from that era's films by exploring the contradictions concerning gender, sexuality and race that define the melodrama as the quintessential fifties film genre. In doing so, Haynes managed to deconstruct the nostalgic view of an era gone by, while reminding audiences that confining concepts of sexuality and the rigid pursuit of complacency were very much alive in modern suburbia. Hailed by critics as his best work up to that point in his career, "Far From Heaven" earned numerous award nominations, including an Oscar nod for Haynes for Best Original Screenplay.
While "Far From Heaven" was his most accessible film to date, Haynes took a turn back toward the unrelentingly unconventional with "I'm Not There" (2007), an inventive biography on Bob Dylan that used six different actors to represent different aspects of the singer-songwriter's life. The film starred Marcus Carl Franklin as the Woody Guthrie-obsessed young Dylan; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, the young acoustic Dylan from his early career; Cate Blanchett as folk singer Jude Quinn, who controversially turns on the electricity; Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, which referred to Dylan's appearance in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973); Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, representing Dylan's complex personal life; and Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, who quotes from Dylan's own writing and interviews. Also featuring an all-star supporting cast that included David Cross, Michelle Williams, folk hero Richie Havens and Haynes alum Julianne Moore, "I'm Not There" gained favorable reviews from critics while Blanchett stood apart from the rest of the cast, winning several critics awards and earning an Oscar nomination. Taking a rare turn into television, Haynes was tapped to direct the cable miniseries "Mildred Pierce" (HBO, 2011), a remake of the 1945 Joan Crawford melodrama that starred Kate Winslet as a former housewife-turned- successful businesswoman who loses control of all she has after a playboy (Guy Pearce) seduces both herself and her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). The director earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special.
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Haynes received a Golden Gate Award for "Superstar" in 1987.
"Mr. Haynes's accomplishment and future are beyond doubt. Like Genet, whose release from a lifelong prison sentence was accomplished with the help of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Mr. Haynes has gone from being the outlaw creator of "Superstar" to being a praised filmmaker taken up by the intelligentsia. Soon he will probably be eminently acceptable to the mainstream. Who knows yet whether that is Mr. Haynes's blessing or his curse. Meanwhile, there is "Poison", the most iconoclastic little film ever made popular by right-wing politics." --Caryn James in THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 14, 1991
"I can't not make films right now that don't deal with illness, I can't. There's just no way. So instead of setting it in the transgressive world of 'Poison', I wanted to put it ['Safe'] about as far away from my reality and my experiences as possible--in a seemingly safe, undisturbed world. So I chose my family's world. I guess in a way, to make myself find the universal, the empathetic, to challenge my own critical instincts." --Haynes quoted by Manohla Dargis in "Endangered Zone: With Safe, Director Todd Haynes Declares His True Independence", VILLAGE VOICE, July 4, 1995
"Films reflect and instruct us at the same time, and that's strong stuff. So I do delight in the idea that by playing around, tinkering or upsetting that process of identification a little bit, people have to think more about what they're seeing, who's telling then what and why. A viewer has to ask the question: where is this idea coming from? Without losing all the pleasure that's part of the process. . . . I'm always surprised when films of mine which I think are intellectual experiments are received by a wider audience." --Haynes quoted in BOMB, c. July 1995
His feelings on finishing "Velvet Goldmine": "I don't want to touch another film for a few years. I was miserable, and it was largely due to how little money we had and how much I was demanding of myself. I didn't have much fun making the film, and that's sad. It's made me think about the way I work, and what I might want to do differently. Having a real budget would be the first step.
"I don't have a lot of good ways of releasing the enormous tension all directors feel. Often they get rid of it in cruel ways that aren't fair to people around them--I don't like hearing that about directors whose work I love, but I have a feeling they have more fun. When you're a little more sadistic, you get it off your chest." --Todd Haynes, SIGHT AND SOUND, September 1998
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