Written on the Wind (1956): Douglas Sirk’s Lavish Melodrama, Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack in Oscar-Winning Performances

Arguably no American filmmaker had contested the 1950s American myths of suburban bliss and desirable domesticity as masterfully and as critically as Douglas Sirk; perhaps it needed a more cyncial and detached foreign-born director to accomplish that goal.
 
This is evident in all of Sirk’s work, but particularly in “All That Heaven Allows” (1954) and “Written on the Wind,” the tale of the powerful Hadley clan, which owns a small Texas town. The town is named after the Hadleys–the family insignia is everywhere, on cars, on street signs. 
The Hadleys prove what happens when Texans have too much money and power.   Robert Stack is Kyle, the dashing drunken son.  Dorothy Malone is Marylee, the fun-loving sluttish daughter. Rock Hudson is Mitch Wayne, the poor, humble family friend who falls in love with Kyle’s new, good-hearted wife, Lucy (Lauren Bacall).
 
As a girl, Marylee had been part of the inseparable trio of Mitch, Kyle and herself; in flashbacks, we see picnics spent by the river. While Marylee never outgrew her puppy love for Mitch, he can love her only as a sister. A spoiled femme who finds no return for her true love, Marylee satisfies her animalistic libido with the roustabouts of the oil fields. Early on, she swears to Mitch she will have him either in marriage or out.
 
Dorothy Malone won the Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the spoiled rich girl, the self-indulgent and dipsomaniac sister, acting as a female Iago. A nymphomaniac, she is fond of luring gas-station attendants into motel rooms in the wrong side of the tracks, where “lousy cops” (as she says) keep finding her and dragging her back home.
 
Resenting Lucy, Marylee plants a seed of distrust in her brother’s mind, when she convinces him that Mitch and his wife Lucy are having a love affair. Marylee is brought home by the police who have found her together in a motel room with a gas station attendant she had picked up
 
Marylee holds the fate of Mitch and Lucy in her hands – she tells Mitch she will testify that he shot her brother. At the coroner’s inquest, she says Mitch killed her brother, but then, after a quick change of heart, describes what had actually happened. Her most effective appearance in a courtroom, when she wavers between dooming the man she loves with a lie or telling the truth which will tae him out of her life. This is the single honest act of her adult life, though she knows it will take the only man she ever loved out of her life forever, which indeed happens.
 
The film’s best-known scene is one of hysteria, when Marylee turns up the volume of the music and erupts into a fiendishly seductive dance of a mad rumba in her bedroom, while out in the hallway her father collapses on the staircase and dies of heart attack upon learning of his daughter’s promiscuity.
 
A prevalent device of Sirk’s baroque style is the use of mirrors and other glass surfaces, imbued with meanings that go beyond the merely decorative. At the bar, the camera swings left to show the characters reflected in the bar mirror. When Kyle is brought home, it is shown thru mirrors, and the same strategy is used when Marylee is brought back home, establishing a parallel between the siblings that the music also helps to underline.
 
Characters are often seen behind locked doors or windows, signaling the “framing” of individuals trapped, both physically and emotionally, often within themselves.  Unable to help each other, they are reduced to glass surfaces that can’t be penetrated. Imprisoned in their own fantasies, they have become mere “reflections” of human beings.
 
Many critics consider “Written on the Wind” to be Sirk’s most overtly subversive feature, due to its explicit and excessive representation of sex and sexuality.  Marylee Hadley is an extreme version of unbridled female sexuality, generating the kind of excess that dominant ideology and patriarchal culture, let alone conventional narrative, could not contain.  Thus, the very ironic closure, with Marylee sitting behind her father’s desk and caressing the phallic-like tower, which is a symbol of patriarchal power.
Oscar Nominations: 3
 
Supporting Actor: Robert Stack
Supporting Actress: Dorothy Malone
Song: “Written on the Wind,” music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
 
Oscar Awards: 1
 
Supporting Actress
 
Oscar Context
 
In 1956, the winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Anthony Quinn for the Van Gogh biopic, “Lust for Life.” Jay Livingston and Ray Evans won the Song Oscar for “Que Sera, Sera” (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be”), which Doris Day sang in Hitchcock’s thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
 
Cast
 
Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson)
Lucy Moore Hadley (Lauren Bacall)
Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone)
Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack)
Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith)
Biff Miley (Grant Williams)
Dan Willis (Bob Wilke)
Dr. Paul Cochrane (Edward Platt)
Hoak Wayne (Harry Shannon)
Roy Carter (John Larch)
 
Credits
 
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman, based on the novel by Robert Wilder
Camera: Russell Metty
Editor: Russell Schoegarth
Music: Frank Skinner
Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Clatworthy
Costumes: Bill Thomas, Jay A. Morley
 
Running time: 99 Minutes