Todd Haynes

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Todd Haynes
Born (1961-01-02) January 2, 1961 (age 54)
Encino, California, U.S.
Years active 1985–present

Todd Haynes (born January 2, 1961) is an American independent film director and screenwriter. He is best known for his feature films Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Poison, Velvet Goldmine, Safe, and the Academy Award-nominated Far from Heaven and I'm Not There.


Early life[edit]

Haynes was born January 2, 1961, in Los Angeles, and grew up in nearby Encino. His father, Allen E. Haynes, was a cosmetics importer, and his mother, Sherry Lynne (née Semler), studied acting (and makes a brief appearance in I'm Not There). Haynes is Jewish on his mother's side.[1] His younger sister is Gwynneth Haynes of the band Sophe Lux.

Haynes developed an interest in film at an early age, and produced a short film, The Suicide (1978), while still in high school. He studied semiotics at Brown University, where he directed his first short film Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud (1985), inspired by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (a personality Haynes would later reference in his film I'm Not There). After graduating with a BA in Arts and Semiotics, Haynes moved to New York and became involved in the independent film scene, launching Apparatus Productions, a non-profit organisation for the support of independent film.

Superstar (1987)[edit]

In 1987, while an MFA student at Bard College, Haynes made a short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which chronicles the life of American pop singer Karen Carpenter, using Barbie dolls as actors. The film presents Carpenter's struggle with anorexia and bulimia, featuring several close-ups of Ipecac (the prescription drug Carpenter was reputed to have used to make herself vomit during her illness). Carpenter's chronic weight loss was portrayed by using a "Karen" Barbie doll with the face and body whittled away with a knife, leaving the doll looking skeletonized. The film is also notable for staged dream sequences in which Karen, in a state of deteriorating mental health, imagines being spanked by her father.

Superstar featured extensive use of Carpenter songs, showcasing Haynes' love of popular music (which would be a recurring feature of later films). Haynes failed to obtain proper licensing to use the music, prompting a lawsuit from Karen's brother Richard for copyright infringement. Carpenter was reportedly also offended by Haynes' unflattering portrayal of him as a narcissistic bully, along with several broadly dropped suggestions that he was gay and in the closet. Carpenter won his lawsuit, and Superstar was removed from public distribution; to date, it may not be viewed publicly.[2] Bootlegged versions of the film are still circulated, and the film is sporadically made available on YouTube.

Poison (1991)[edit]

Haynes' 1991 feature film debut, Poison, garnered Haynes further acclaim and controversy. Drawing on the writings of "transgressive" gay writer Jean Genet, the film is a triptych of queer-themed narratives, each adopting a different cinematic genre: vox-pop documentary ("Hero"), 50s sci-fi horror ("Horror") and gay prisoner romantic drama ("Homo"). The film explores traditional perceptions of homosexuality as an unnatural and deviant force, and presents Genet's vision of sado-masochistic gay relations as a subversion of heterosexual norms, culminating with a marriage ceremony between two gay male convicts. Poison marked Haynes' first collaboration with producer Christine Vachon, who has since produced all of Haynes' feature films.

Poison was partially funded with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The film subsequently became the center of a public attack by Reverend Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, who criticized the NEA for funding Poison and other works by gay and lesbian artists and filmmakers. Wildmon, who had not viewed the film before making his comments publicly, condemned the film's "explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex", despite no such scenes appearing in the film.[3] Poison went on to win the 1991 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize, establishing Haynes as an emerging talent and the voice of a new transgressive generation. The film writer B. Ruby Rich cited Poison as one of the defining films of the emerging New Queer Cinema movement, with its focus on maverick sexuality as an anti-establishment social force.

Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)[edit]

Haynes' next short film, Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), explores the experiences of a quiet and gentle six-year-old boy in the early 1960s who has various indirect encounters with spanking, most significantly involving his idol, a TV sitcom star named Dottie. The film was aired on PBS.

[Safe] (1995)[edit]

Haynes' second feature film, [Safe] (1995), was a critically acclaimed portrait of Carol White, a San Fernando Valley housewife (played by Julianne Moore, who has become a frequent Haynes collaborator) who develops violent allergies to her middle-class suburban existence. After a series of extreme allergic reactions and hospitalization, Carol diagnoses herself with acute environmental illness, and moves to a New Age commune in the New Mexico desert run by an HIV positive "guru" who preaches both that the real world is toxic and unsafe for Carol, and also that she is responsible for her illness and recovery. The film ends with Carol retreating to her antiseptic, prison-like "safe room", looking at herself in the mirror and whispering "I love you" to her reflection.

The film is notable for its critical (though not entirely unsympathetic) treatment of its main character. Haynes observes Carol coolly through a series of static deep-focus shots, placing her as an invisible woman who appears anesthetized in her materially comfortable but sterile and emotionally empty life.

The ending of the film is highly ambiguous, and has created considerable debate among critics and audiences as to whether Carol has emancipated herself, or simply traded one form of oppression (as a housewife) for an equally constricting identity as a reclusive invalid. Julie Grossman argues in her article "The Trouble With Carol" that Haynes concludes the film as a challenge to traditional Hollywood film narratives of the heroine taking charge of her life, and that Haynes sets Carol up as the victim both of a repressive male-dominated society, and also of an equally debilitating self-help culture that encourages patients to take sole responsibility for their illness and recovery.

Carol's illness, although unidentified, has been read as an analogy for the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s, as a similarly uncomfortable and largely unspoken "threat" in 1980s Reaganist America.

[Safe] was widely critically acclaimed, giving Moore her first (and much-admired) leading role in a feature film, and gave Haynes a measure of mainstream critical recognition.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)[edit]

Haynes took a radical shift in direction for his next feature, Velvet Goldmine (1998), starring Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Toni Collette. Filmed and set mostly in England, the film was an intentionally chaotic tribute to the 1970s glam rock era, drawing heavily on the rock histories and mythologies of glam rockers David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Starting with Oscar Wilde as the spiritual godfather of glam rock, the film revels in the gender and identity experimentation and fashionable bisexuality of the era, and acknowledges the transformative power of glam rock as an escape and a form of self-expression for gay teenagers. The film follows the character of Arthur (Bale) an English journalist once enraptured by glam rock as a 1970s teenager, who returns a decade later to hunt down his former heroes: Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), a feather boa-wearing androgyne with an alter ego, "Maxwell Demon", who resembles Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust incarnation, and Curt Wild (McGregor), an Iggy Pop-style rocker. The narrative playfully rewrites glam rock myths which in some cases sail unnervingly close to the truth. Slade flirts with bisexuality and decadence before staging his own death in a live performance and disappearing from the scene, echoing Bowie's own disavowal of glam rock in the late 1970s and his subsequent re-creation as an avowedly heterosexual pop star. The film features a love affair between Slade and Wild's characters, recalling rumors about Bowie and Reed's supposed sexual relationship. Curt Wild's character has a flashback to enforced electric shock treatment as a teenager to attempt to cure his homosexuality, echoing Reed's teenage experiences as a victim of the homophobic medical profession.

The narrative structure of the film is a tribute to Citizen Kane : the journalist meets characters close to the pop-star and each of these encounters allows flashbacks. Todd Haynes complexifies the plot by intertwining the own past of the journalist, as a previous fan of the pop star, with the central plot.

Haynes was keen to use original music from the glam rock period, and (no doubt learning his lesson from Superstar) approached David Bowie before making the film for permission to use his music in the soundtrack. Bowie declined, leaving Haynes to use a combination of original songs from other artists and glam-rock inspired music written by contemporary rock bands for the film, including Suede. Velvet Goldmine premiered in main competition at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, winning a special jury award for Best Artistic Contribution. Despite initial critical praise and fearless performances from its leads (notably Rhys-Meyers and McGregor, who performed all their musical numbers), the film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. Costume designer Sandy Powell received an Academy Award nomination for her costume design, and won the Oscar in the same year for her work on Shakespeare In Love.

Far From Heaven (2002)[edit]

Haynes achieved his greatest critical and commercial success to date with Far From Heaven (2002), a 1950s-set drama inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk about a Connecticut housewife Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) who discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is secretly gay, and subsequently falls in love with Raymond, her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert). The film works as a mostly reverential and unironic tribute to Sirk's filmmaking, lovingly re-creating the stylized mise-en-scene, colors, costumes, cinematography and lighting of Sirkian melodrama. Cathy and Raymond's relationship resembles Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson's inter-class love affair in All That Heaven Allows, and Cathy's relationship with Sybil, her African-American housekeeper (Viola Davis) recalls Lana Turner and Juanita Moore's friendship in Imitation of Life. While staying within the cinematic language of the period, Haynes updates the sexual and racial politics, showing scenarios (an inter-racial love affair and gay relationships) that would not have been permissible in Sirk's era. Haynes also resists a Sirkian happy ending, allowing the film to finish on a melancholy note closer in tone to the "weepy" melodramas of 1940s and 1950s cinema such as Mildred Pierce.

Far From Heaven won widespread critical acclaim and a slew of film awards, including four Academy Award nominations for Moore's lead performance, Haynes' original screenplay, Elmer Bernstein's score, and the film's cinematography. Far From Heaven lost in all four categories, but the film's success was hailed as a breakthrough for independent film achieving mainstream recognition, and brought Haynes to the attention of a wider mainstream audience.

I'm Not There (2007)[edit]

Todd Haynes and actors of his 2007 film, I'm Not There posing at the 64th Venice Film Festival in 2007.

In another radical shift in direction, Haynes' next film I'm Not There (2007) returned to the mythology of pop music, portraying the life and legend of Bob Dylan through seven fictional characters played by six actors: Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale. Haynes obtained Dylan's approval to proceed with the film, and the rights to use his music in the soundtrack, after presenting a one-page summary of the film's concept to Jeff Rosen, Dylan's long-time manager.

I'm Not There casting

Each character (none of whom is called Dylan) represents a different aspect of Dylan's life or musical career. Franklin, a teenaged African-American actor, plays a character called Woody, referencing Woody Guthrie's influence on Dylan's early career, and making a playful visual joke on Dylan's early habit of passing himself off as a drifter from the Dustbowl Southern states and denying his own middle-class Mid-Western origins. Bale plays two roles: an earnest young folk musician involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and dueting with folk singer Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore, impersonating Joan Baez), and later as a middle-aged born again Christian in the early 1980s. Gere plays a reclusive character called Billy, retreating from the world in an American pastoral, referencing Dylan's interest in American folk mythology and his performance in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid; the sequence also alludes to Dylan's period of exile living in Woodstock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whishaw plays a character called Arthur, filmed undergoing an interrogation-style interview about the responsibility of the artist to society; the character is named for and heavily based on the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose work Dylan admired, and whose precocious career as a teenaged genius and rebel Dylan to some extent emulated. Ledger plays Robbie, a method actor involved in a relationship with a painter, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he has children and subsequently divorces. Claire's character is based on both Dylan's former girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his first wife Sara Dylan, and the Robbie sequence considers accusations made against Dylan of his misogyny in his life and work. Blanchett plays Jude, a pop singer based closely on Dylan in his mid-1960s "Electric" era and his involvement with Pop Art and Warhol's Factory; Jude chases an on-again off-again relationship with socialite/model Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams), a character based on Edie Sedgwick, with whom Dylan is reputed to have had an affair. The Jude sequence also features David Cross as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.


Haynes intended the film to reverse conventions of the film biopic genre, and to represent what he perceived as Dylan's chameleonic musical persona and his resistance to easy interpretation and categorization. The film narrative, dialogue, characters, scenes and visuals are drawn from and heavily influenced by details from Dylan's music, lyrics and personal history. Each storyline in the film is made in a different style, mostly referencing 1960s art cinema, notably Fellini's , Godard's Masculine Feminine and Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film features extensive use of Dylan's music, including songs drawn from Dylan's bootleg recordings, and includes Dylan's original recordings as well as covers by Calexico (who appear in the film), Gainsbourg and other musicians. The beginning of the film features voiceover narration from singer/actor Kris Kristofferson.


The film debuted at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival and won widespread critical acclaim. Blanchett's performance received particular acclaim for her uncannily accurate impersonation of Dylan, and won a slew of awards and nominations, including the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Haynes has reported in interviews that the film I'm Not There was praised by Rosen, one of Dylan's sons and others close to Dylan, but he was unaware as to whether Dylan himself had viewed the film.[citation needed]

Mildred Pierce (2011)[edit]

Haynes' most recent project was a five-hour miniseries for HBO of Mildred Pierce based on the novel by James M. Cain and the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. The cast starred Kate Winslet in the title role and featured Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Melissa Leo, James LeGros and Hope Davis. Filming was completed in mid-2010 and the series began airing on HBO on 27 March 2011. It was awarded multiple Emmy Awards, and Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe Award for her performance.

Style and themes[edit]

The All Movie Guide writes that "Haynes is known for making provocative films that subvert narrative structure and resound with transgressive, complex eroticism…. Although he doesn't characterize himself as a gay filmmaker who makes gay films… Haynes' name has become synonymous with the New Queer Cinema movement and its work to both explore and redefine the contours of queer culture in America and beyond."

Haynes’ work is preoccupied with postmodernist ideas of identity and sexuality as socially constructed concepts, and personal identity as a fluid and changeable state. His protagonists are invariably social outsiders whose "subversive" identity and sexuality pits them at odds with the received norms of their society. In the Haynes universe, sexuality (especially “deviant” or unconventional sexuality) is a subversive and dangerous force that disrupts social norms and is often repressed brutally by dominant power structures. Haynes presents artists as the ultimate subversive force, since they must necessarily stand outside of societal norms, with an artist's creative output representing the greatest opportunity for personal and social freedom. Unsurprisingly, many of his films are unconventional portraits of pop artists and musicians (Karen Carpenter in Superstar, David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

Haynes's films often feature formal cinematic or narrative devices that challenge received notions of identity and sexuality and remind the audience of the artificiality of film as a medium. Examples include using Barbie dolls instead of actors in Superstar, or having multiple actors portray the protagonist in I'm Not There. Stylistically, Haynes favors formalism over naturalism, often appropriating and reinventing cinematic styles, including the documentary form in Poison, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There, the reinvention of the Douglas Sirk melodrama in Far From Heaven and extensive referencing of 1960s art cinema in I'm Not There.

Personal life[edit]

Haynes is openly gay. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon. An edited book of personal interviews was published in 2014, entitled "Todd Haynes Interviews".[4]


In 2003, Haynes was honored with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival.


Feature films[edit]


Short films[edit]


Music videos[edit]



  1. ^ Jewish Journal[dead link]
  2. ^ "Todd Haynes Biography". New York Times. 2010. 
  3. ^ Barbara Gamarekian: "Frohnmayer Defends Grant for Prize Film", in: New York Times, 30. March 1991
  4. ^ "Todd Haynes Interviews". National Library of Australia. 24 June 2014. 
  5. ^ Full credits and video on Boards

Further reading[edit]

  • Padva, Gilad. Claiming Lost Gay Youth, Embracing Femininostalgia: Todd Haynes's Dottie Gets Spanked and Velvet Goldmine. In Padva, Gilad, Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture, pp. 72–97 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978-1-137-26633-0).

External links[edit]