Now it's my turn to step to the plate and take a swing at one of the most feverishly scrutinized and creatively unpacked American films of its era, All That Heaven Allows. This classic specimen of prime 1950s melodrama, with its unique blend of mainstream commercial success, iconic performances and richly encoded audio-visual compositions have made All That Heaven Allows a popular and accessible platform for all forms of cultural and aesthetic analysis, and deservedly so. It's a film ripe with symbolism, impeccably crafted and just plain fun to watch, capable of yielding many shades of meaning that its commentators can then apply to whatever particular philosophical axe they care to grind.
The various takes I've seen in reading up on All That Heaven Allows cover a full range, from straightforward appreciation of the romantic chemistry between stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, to in-depth explorations of the devastating hatchet job that director Douglas Sirk laid on upper middle class mores. Or supposedly laid, I should say, since my own take on the film isn't quite as harsh on my ancestors who inhabited mid-50s Suburbia USA. Like many great works of art, All That Heaven Allows is capable of bearing the weight of different, even contradictory, interpretations, though I think this particular artifact is even more culpable to producing that kind of result due to the scene and era it depicts. This all-white, affluent, sterile-surfaced, highly privileged, sexually repressed and postcard-perfect milieu carries an abundance of material likely to provoke the ire of those who identify in some way with the marginalized, misunderstood and unfairly judged Cary Scott. She's the recently widowed protagonist caught in the crossfire of negative opinions and conflicting emotions as she works her way through a unexpected and perilous midlife love affair. To get a quick glimpse of the emotional claustrophobia that Cary has to live with, check out this clip from early in the film, where we meet her and children Ned and Kay (who happens to look a lot like my mom did in her high school pictures from around this time.):
The hazards she faces are due to the object of her affection - a younger man who also happens to be a hired hand, her gardener Ron Kirby. He's tall, handsome and virile, a prize physical specimen who "ought" to be more interested in women his own age, not respected society matrons like Cary. She's already past the child-rearing stage, and her social status would normally dictate that she either remain a dignified widow or take up with a suitably old-enough gentleman who has the financial means and comfortable familiarity with the country club set to allow her peers to feel at ease with the new arrangement. Here's the scene where she unsuccessfully tries to integrate her new man-friend into the closely guarded inner sanctum of Stoningham's elite. As you'll see, it doesn't go too well:
On top of these external pressures, Cary has to manage the stress that this shocking romance has stirred up with her son and daughter, both highly susceptible to the negative impact that a scandalous mother has on their own reputations. Somehow in the process of balancing these demands for conformity and meeting her motherly obligations, Cary must reckon with the surge of emotions stirring inside her - feelings of love for a gorgeous man who clearly desires her and offers the promise of excitement, fulfillment and a life of adventure, offset by fears that the pursuit of this new relationship might ultimately require her to give up all that she's held dear over the course of her adult life.
Her attraction to Ron goes beyond the merely physical, though I'm sure he grabs her in ways that she never quite thought she'd be grabbed again. He's also a reflective, unconventional thinker, a disciple of Thoreau, at one with nature, bold and unambiguous in his rejection of the preening gossips and impotent lushes that surround Cary, to his own self true. Though he can't compete materially with the well-to-do single businessmen or retirees who'd gladly take Cary for a wife, he's not exactly poor, since he inherited his own piece of property, a picturesque tree farm complete with an old stone mill that he's decided to remodel as a lover's bungalow at Cary's offhand suggestion.
Cary's dilemma is one that I believe a lot of women felt at the time and continue to wrestle with today, though of course in All That Heaven Allows, the conflict has been refined, inflated and buffed up to a high glossy sheen. Over the course of two decades or so of raising a family, what mother hasn't been forced to concede her individual desires for the sake of her family and keeping up appearances? With her husband conveniently out of the way, her financial concerns apparently well-managed and planned for, and thirty years or more of existence still ahead, Cary has both the perfect opportunity and the vexing dilemma of deciding how to fill that empty space in her life. The prospect of putting ourselves in her position and having to decide what we would do, given her choices, raises wonderfully intriguing ethical questions:
... is the urgent impulse to delve into a forbidden love that could fade over time worth the long-term risk of losing my familiar (but stale) comforts and important relationships?
... is the attraction I feel to a raw, earthy alternative to my usual way of life really a genuine calling to march to the beat of a different drummer, or am I just curious to dabble in something a little different for awhile before returning to the safety of home base?
... must the terms of commitment laid out to me by this beckoning lover consist of yet another concession on my end for the sake of a strong-willed person unwilling to compromise his demands?
... and if I turn my back on all of that, for the sake of fitting in, being reasonable, not taking absurd risks and understanding the needs of my children and friends, will I be able to find a sense of genuine satisfaction when I return to conventionality?
And if those questions fail to engage us, All That Heaven Allows is at least an enjoyable exercise in soapy, Technicolor escapism! It makes for a fascinating companion piece to Magnificent Obsession, Sirk's previous film that made Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman such a bankable screen couple. In the earlier film, it was Wyman's character who suffered physical debilitation, while in All That Heaven Allows, Hudson is the one whose bedside is attended for the lovers' inevitable reunion. Both films feature meddlesome adult children who imperil their mother's lovelife (only to yield their approval when they see what a swell guy he really is) and wizened old mentors who come along late in the proceedings to shed a little light when confusion threatens to obscure the way forward. Thankfully, All That Heaven Allows is not so weighed down by the untenable "secret giving" mumbo-jumbo that dragged Magnificent Obsession toward absurdity, though its too-easy resolution casually disregards the formidable conflicts in favor of a crowd-pleasing finale.
Douglas Sirk demonstrates in scene after scene, frame after frame, a mastery of details and precise execution in the realization of his vision. The meticulous construction and decoration of sets, his use of mirrors, frames-within-frames, flowers, colors, lighting, positioning of actors, all that is routinely and justly celebrated in review after review of All That Heaven Allows. In writing about this film and his other classic melodramas, much is made of how skillfully he salvaged his second-rate material, imbuing deeper shades of meaning and insight than lesser directors would have even bothered to attempt, let alone pull off. Sirk himself seems to have been a willing proponent in advancing these arguments, as evidenced by the half-hour interview filmed late in his life that constitutes the main supplement on the DVD. It was a smart move on his part, ensuring that his reputation would rise above the level of a studio hack who just worked with the scripts that were given to him without much concern for art.
But as I said at the beginning, discussions of All That Heaven Allows have gone well beyond the basic elements of how well-constructed it is as a movie. Now, an adequate handling of its themes has to address its function as social critique and revelatory mirror of the culture of its times. Despite its satirical edge and pointed jabs, I don't regard All That Heaven Allows as the harsh evisceration of vapid white bread America that some of this film's proponents seem like they want it to be. As a European observer, Sirk may have had a mildly subversive agenda, but he wasn't hostile to his host culture. In my view, the "heaven" the title refers to is the near-paradise (or a Paradise Lost) that we see depicted on film - beautiful colors, idyllic settings (whether in the village or in the countryside), with most everyone living in ease, comfort, privilege. I don't think that Sirk despises the uptight, respectable citizens of Stoningham - how could he, really? These are not bad people, just a bit overstuffed and befuddled by the abundance of ease and semi-conscious hypocrisy in which they exist.
Sirk was chased out of Europe by the Nazis - he knows real evil from experience, and here he just captures people who are misguided and stuck. He cares for them, even the backbiters and drunkards among them, for he knows how close they really are to a state of contentment, if they'd only allow themselves to wake up and realize what is already within their grasp -even those characters who are just bit players in the larger drama. But of course, our focus in on the lead couple, especially Cary, the aging suburbanite mother who has to find her new purpose now that her husband is departed, her children are nearly independent, and true love beckons. The message I get from All That Heaven Allows, happy/sappy ending and all, is that the society that imposes such suffocating limitations on its occasional misfits needs not to be overthrown or subverted, but sensitively nudged to broaden and expand its capacity to include those who don't fit in so neatly.
Next: Lola Montes