So nice to see you again Henry. Now, is it me, or has fashion designer and branding guru Tom Ford made a feature-length, Los Angeles-based Mad Men spin-off? (To be fair, much of the production design team from that AMC series was tapped to work on this film.) It’s all about the sumptuous early 60s period porn and California Modernist architecture in this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 semi-autobiographical novel A Single Man. We follow a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British professor at a Los Angeles college, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The crisis preoccupying George, though, is the lingering grief from the death of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode in a few too many flashbacks), in a car accident—which we see the aftermath of in a Christmas catalog-looking opening dream sequence, from which George awakens with ink, the professorial equivalent of ejaculate, all over his sheets. In the course of the smoggy, sunny, SoCal day that follows, George is pursued by his absurdly pretty and perpetually smiling student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, the kid from About a Boy, all grown up) and seeks comfort, or at least to drown his sorrows, with lifelong friend, former lover and fellow lonely expat Charley (Julianne Moore).
I worry that the impulse behind adapting a classic of modern gay literature now has less to do with the crisis that America’s queer culture is facing today and more to do with our current culture-wide fetishism of 60s Americana (and with selling Ford’s clothes). He financed the film himself, which seems to have given him license to treat it, in some respect, like a big-budget, feature-length, moving fashion spread. He devotes much of his film to speechless, slow-motion pans across millions and millions of dollars of award-worthy costumes and sets for your consideration.
Not that I didn’t enjoy gawking at George’s various designer outfits, the beautiful wood and glass house he paces around, the lens flare-shooting car he drives down dreamy suburban streets, but very often these exquisite details seemed more important than the story itself. Likewise with all the flashbacks, each of which became an occasion to try out another fashion-spread aesthetic rather than add nuance to the lost love George can’t let go. A scene in which he’s cruised by a Spanish model outside a liquor store, with a hot pink sunset to one side and a dark blue Psycho billboard on the other, could probably stand alone as an ad for the jeans the Spaniard wore. But I’m letting the period porn distract me again. We should probably talk about how Colin Firth is a pleasure to watch even when he’s taking a shit (which he proves here), and how Julianne Moore might have stolen the film if she’d appeared in more than one scene. Don’t you think?
Aw, I’ve missed you Ben, as I’m sure our readers have missed our startlingly insightful chats here. You’re right about this film’s attractive gloss: if anyone was wondering what it’ll feel like in the future, when Vanity Fair’s ad pages contain short films on paper-thin screens rather than static images, the answer is: a lot what it feels like to watch A Single Man, which is obsessed with the styles and textures of the early 60s: the haircuts, the vending machines, the clocks, the wood-paneling at the bank. (Ford employs a palette of almost exclusively browns and grays, with some blacks and curdled greens.) I like an exquisitely aestheticized movie as much as the next guy, but Ford gets carried away here with the copious slow motion set to Haunting Strings. There’s an emphasis on the superficial here—making it the kind of movie that cuts a great trailer—that not even Firth’s layered performance can overcome. (By the way, did you see how conspicuously done-up to look like Mastroianni he is in the poster?)
So, yeah, this is definitely a lock for nominations in all visual categories—design, make-up, costumes, cinematography—and maybe even some others if it can amass some hype. Ford seems to have self-consciously tailored the movie to the Academy—he included so many Things That Oscar Voters Like: the prestigious literary source material (with the opening voice-overs to prove it); the swelling, urgent score; the self-conscious elegance; the grave historical backdrop; a large and revelatory lead performance; and, most of all, gays. With disapproving family members.
A Single Man does a great job of evoking the pre-Stonewall (or pre-Studio 54? Pre-Will & Grace?) era of homosexuality: the talking around it, the hints and winking intimations. No one ever asks someone else whether they’re gay, and no one ever admits to it in frank language. Then again, they don’t really have to. Ford falls into that common, contemptible Hollywood habit of making the gays fuh-laming—because America is only comfortable with gays as long as they can spot them from a mile away? Firth, notably, looks like any old ordinary man, but did you notice that none of the film’s other gays look like Firth? They’re all effeminate and boy-ish, with soft features and man-hungry eyes. You can turn your gaydar off when you enter the theater. It’d be redundant.
That said, the supporting player who excited me the most (as a critic, not sexually) wasn’t Julianne Moore, whose role felt like a lamely desperate attempt to get a female character into the movie. It was Matthew Goode as Firth’s late lover, seen in a handful of flashbacks. Is there a more effortlessly charming actor working today? In a world of just awards, there’s your Best Supporting Actor. But this is the Oscars, so I’d fall out of my chair if he even got a nod.
Categories Baited: Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Julianne Moore), Best Art Direction (Ian Phillips), Best Cinematography (Eduard Grau), Best Original Score (Abel Korzeniowski), Best Costumes (Arianne Phillips), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tom Ford and David Scearce), Best Make-Up (lots of people, listed here).
(Photo credit: Eduard Grau/ The Weinstein Company 2009.)