The Master of Melodrama – Douglas Sirk and Magnificent Obsession

Award-winning filmmaker Steven Benedict will introduce a special screening of Magnificent Obsession as part of the Bigger Picture on Tuesday the 14th of February at the IFI. Here he writes about Douglas Sirk – The Master of Melodrama.

By the time German-emigre director, Douglas Sirk signed with Universal Pictures in the early 1950s, the melodrama had more than established itself as the mainstay of Hollywood studios. Of all the genres that American cinema has deployed over the decades; the western, gangster, musical, detective, romantic-comedy, and sci-fi, it is the melodrama that has proven to be the most durable (the cowboy and gangster have been supplanted by the superhero, sci-fi is the relative new-kid on the block, rom-coms age as quickly as we do and La La Land needs to be the musical’s own defibrillator).

By contrast, and as the decades roll by, the likes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment, American Beauty, Brokeback Mountain and Manchester by the Sea display the melodrama’s stability. More than that, they each exhibit its innate flexibility. Likewise, while other genres took decades to be reinvented or undergo revisions, the melodrama has consistently been modifying its tropes.

Yet for all those virtues, while Sirk was busily offering up deeply textured plots such as All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, critics were busily dismissing them as little more than “weepies” and “women’s pictures.” The truth is that for all their reinventions and revisions, no other genre equals the melodrama’s complex and seemingly contradictory perspective of America, while simultaneously celebrating and relentlessly examining the fundamental ideals and attitudes of its mass audience.

Of all the directors who specialised in the genre, there was no greater practitioner than Douglas Sirk. And of all of Sirk’s works, there was none more singular than Magnificent Obsession. What makes it so unique is the lengths to which it goes to conceal its message. Which means repeated viewings are always startling and revealing. And that means, whether you are seeing this for the first time or seeing it again, you are guaranteed to witness something new..

Steven Benedict is a multi-award winning filmmaker, as well as radio broadcaster, and college lecturer. His website, stevenbenedict.ie features his short films and documentaries, and video-essays. His highly popular weekly podcasts analyse contemporary and classic films from various vantage points.

Book tickets for The Bigger Picture Magnificent Obsession on the 14th of February at the IFI. 


The IFI is supported
by The Arts Council

Arts Council of Ireland