If ever there was a movie to reap the visual benefits of a Criterion Collection Blu-ray digital restoration, it is Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film, All That Heaven Allows. This lushly photographed work is Sirk’s most scathing and insightful commentary on subversive Hollywood cinema and the sociocultural norms it sought to challenge. With venerable cinematographer Russell Metty behind the camera, the film is radiant with rich, pulsating color, giving visual vibrancy to lives of complacency and routine. It was Sirk’s follow-up to his successful Magnificent Obsession from the year before, which has similar themes and tones and was another gorgeous melodrama. Universal kept what worked, bringing back Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, and Metty. In many ways though, it’s All That Heaven Allows that stands as the defining work of Sirk’s career, the greatest of his films made in the midst of a decade in which he turned conventional “women’s pictures” or “weepies” into profound, virtually unparalleled conflicts played out in domesticated arenas.
Here, Cary Scott (Wyman) and Ron Kirby (Hudson) personify opposite poles of suburban life (both still quite ordinary), but their societal daring — hers by choice, his natural — bring them together in defiance of cultural presumptions. She is a modest widow, not much of a “club woman,” but still with plenty of money thanks to the business work of her late husband, a pillar of the community. Ron is a class below Cary, but by no means as destitute as some of the townsfolk would suggest. He has taken over his deceased father’s nursery business and plans to get into growing trees full time. Ron has worked at the Scott house for years, even when the husband was still alive. (Was something perhaps already brewing between Cary and Ron back then? No, but still, the scandal!) One fall New England day, he and Cary stop and talk, and while neither probably had the intention of falling in love, the attraction is abrupt and powerful, and it threatens to shake up the relatively stolid lives of all those around them. And one certainly has a stolid life when such an innocuous affair is indeed a grand tragedy.
The objections to this union are many, but for Cary the most important and prevailing come from her son, Ned (William Reynolds), and daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott). Their mother remarrying isn’t the problem; it’s that they thought it would be to Harvey (Conrad Nagel), someone they know, someone who fits in, someone more appropriate than a mere gardener (never has this profession been uttered with such derisiveness). Ned and Kay’s objection proves the most aggravating. This martini-making Princeton man and this Freud-citing New York social worker behave like sniveling children, and yet, once Cary calls off the marriage, they quickly go about their own business, all but ignoring their mother. He leaves for Paris, she gets married, their mom gets a TV. Cary’s supposed friends also don’t condone the relationship between her and her “nature boy.” Their reasons vary from accusations of gold digging to insinuations about their age gap (in reality, Wyman was 38, Hudson, 30). But the heart wants what it wants, and for a time, the two happily flaunt societal conventions.
To Cary, Ron represents a whole other way of living. His worldview is based on a life inspired by Thoreau’s “Walden,” a text with a message he embodies: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is completely foreign to Cary, the dutiful housewife who had previously existed as pure conformity. Ron and his friends, on the other hand, are totally devoid of pretense. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They are who they are and don’t need to be anyone else for anybody.
Points of societal contrast come across in a number of other ways throughout the film, first in clothing choices. In their commentary track for the Criterion release, scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald note how, in the opening scene, Cary is in a subdued grey outfit. For his part, Ron is in earthy tan work clothes. For now, they blend right in. But eventually color comes into their lives (her red dress, his red flannel coat), and they suddenly stand out. They’ll occasionally revert back to the drabness throughout the film, but that potential is always there. There is also the difference in interior spaces. Cary’s house is a nice but confined location, comfortable though somewhat claustrophobic. Ron lives basically in a greenhouse, his glass ceiling open to the stars. Eventually, he fixes up an old mill for he and Cary to live in, and one of its grandest features is a large window. Cary and others like her are shut in; Ron never wants to be too far removed from the outdoors. (Surely there’s something to be said about throwing stones and glass houses here. But it’s Cary’s associates who throw the stones and Ron who lives in glass…)
The imagery of glass is also prominent in the constant appearance of reflexive surfaces: windows, mirrors, a television set. It’s all about seeing something real in a mediated form; it’s never quiet wholly authentic. An ultimate distortion of the real comes in Kay’s room when a candy colored glass takes in the exterior light and casts a falsified rainbow of illumination. And even with Ron’s large windows, while one can see outside, they’re not really outdoors. There’s still a separation. Similarly, in mirrors, one can see their reflection, but it’s not really them. Sirk openly acknowledged his famous affinity for mirrors as a metaphoric device, a way to break up the space of the frame and to suggest alternate emotions and meanings. (An aside here to bring up an amusing quote from the venerable John Waters who, when asked by Vanity Fair what he would choose what to come back as when he died, answered, “A mirror in a Douglas Sirk film.”)
Kay is frequently spouting off psychoanalytical drivel, attempting to scrutinize sex and relationships to the point that they are beyond any real feeling. When confronted by her mother’s decision to marry Ron, she proclaims that there’s no point in approaching the issue emotionally. They should try to remain objective. But it’s exactly personal passion that is missing here. This is where the sumptuous color scheme of the film takes on a more than decorative purpose. The hypnotic look of the picture is probably its most pleasing virtue, like it was kissed by the Crayola gods, and while it certainly looks good, it also hints at an undercurrent of vitality that lies dormant in much of this world. Sirk will oftentimes compose a single shot or frame in reasonably tame colors — tans, browns, creams, etc. — but then there is a yellow curtain, a green light, a red dress, and the image pops. The colors are like hidden emotions normally kept in check and suddenly bursting forth. The film is all about the release of passion — emotional and aesthetic passion.
Of course, all of this does give All That Heaven Allows an obvious look of artificiality. Shot on the Universal Studios backlot, the film is a study in artful cinematic arrangement. There is impossibly blue moonlight and snow as thick as marshmallow cream. It’s not necessarily meant to look real though; it’s all part of a heightened experience. Compositions in this film are so mannered in their careful inclusion and so purposefully crafted in their design that nearly every shot seems to suggest something else, some theme or symbol. There may be a few, such as those mentioned above, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Along these lines, All That Heaven Allows is also an ideal film for one to explore the biography of Rock Hudson, as Mark Rappaport does in his 1992 film, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, included as part of the Criterion package. Knowing what we now know about Hudson’s homosexuality, it seems like hints were everywhere in his work, some more obvious than others. Whatever the validity of these apparent signs, and whatever their real use is in the first place, there are more than a few moments in this film:
Ron: “Mick discovered for himself that he had to make his own decisions, that he had to be a man.”
Cary: “And you want me to be a man.”
Ron: “Only in that one way.”
This “essay film” from Rappaport is but one insightful feature Criterion has assembled for this DVD/Blu-ray set. Also included is a 1982 interview with Sirk, a portion of a 1979 documentary on the director, and an interview with actor William Reynolds, who appeared in three Sirk films including this one. An essay by Laura Mulvey and an excerpt from a 1971 essay on Sirk by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the director’s greatest acolytes, round out the package.
As evidenced by similar variations on its basic premise, such as Fassbinder’s own Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows powerfully retains and expresses universal and contemporary relevance when it comes to critiquing multifaceted prejudice and the harsh realities of conformity. With a script by Peg Fenwick (her sole writing credit), Sirk’s film is one of the great works from Hollywood in the 1950s, among those extraordinary films that carried with them a social commentary that could, when necessary, go unnoticed, but when brought to light, they revealed darker truths about contemporary American existence.